Lacrosse Examination: Researcher gets the inside scoop

When writer Barbara Adamski pitched an idea for a story about the New Westminster Salmonbellies and the city’s passionate support for the 124-year-old lacrosse team to a magazine a few years ago, she didn’t expect it would lead to pursuing a Master’s degree on the history of the sport.

The New Westminster Salmonbellies in 1902.

The self-described “lacrosse mom,” who enjoys the rough-and-tumble game from the safety of the stands rather than from on the floor, said she made the decision after coming across a veritable mountain of misinformation about one of Canada’s official national sports while researching the article.

Take, for example, the common misconception that lacrosse is the official national sport instead of hockey, a quirk of Canadian history that can be traced to a Montreal dentist and lacrosse enthusiast named William George Beers, who apparently wanted this to be the case so badly it eventually became accepted as fact.

Beers wrote an early book about the game entitled Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada, published shortly after Confederation, and it turns out that most people were simply willing to simply take his word on it.

“Beers was a huge advocate for the game and really wanted it to be the national sport,” said Adamski. “He was saying it was the official national sport, but that was never on the record. So there’s a whole controversy about that. It only became the official summer sport after somebody was researching it and realized ‘hey, it’s not even on the books.'”

In fact, it was only in 1994 that Kamloops MP Nelson Riis introduced a private member’s bill nominating the more obvious and widely embraced candidate – hockey – to be the national sport that the issue even came up in Parliament. A compromise was eventually reached by naming hockey the official winter sport and lacrosse the summer counterpart, even though box (indoor) lacrosse has largely usurped field lacrosse in popularity.

Adamski eventually found so many “all over the map” discrepancies about the game that she turned her research into a Master of Arts thesis in Integrated Studies, which, among other things, also debunked the widely accepted story of how the game got its name.

Jean de Brébeuf, a French Jesuit missionary, is credited with christening the sport after supposedly noting a similarity between the stick used by players, with its distinctive wooden shaft and twisted bark webbing, and a Shepherd’s crook, a crosier carried by bishops. The problem with this is that there is nothing to actually confirm he ever actually made said observation, which led her to getting in touch with researchers at both Library and Archives Canada and The Canadian Encyclopedia.

“I said ‘I don’t mean to be antagonistic or anything but I really need to know what’s going on here,” she said. “We began corresponding through email and ended up talking quite a bit over the phone. It got to the point where the two of us actually went to original copies of Brébeuf’s diaries from the 1600s. I printed them out from Canadiana.org and they’re all in the original French. I’m talking to them on the phone and we’re going through it all and we realize that he doesn’t actually say that. … It’s just become part of the mythology around lacrosse.”

Instead, “crosse” is simply a French word for stick. “It might not be in Quebecois, but in France French, a hockey stick would be a ‘crosse de hockey.’ It’s very basic.”

Jean de Brébeuf

Her research was often complicated by supposed experts on the subject turning out to be anything but. The CBC digital archives, for example, also perpetuate the myth, while the Canadian Lacrosse Association claim on a “Did You Know?” section on their website that “the earliest European record of Lacrosse dates back to 1863, when the French missionary Jean de Brébeuf wrote of seeing Native people playing a game with sticks and a ball. He called it ‘la crosse’ because the sticks reminded him of the Bishop’s crozier.”

Yet another problem with this statement is, by 1863, it would have been over two hundred years since Brébeuf had been tortured to death by Iroquois – a group who, it should be noted, already had a perfectly good word of their own for the violent game, Tewaarathon, meaning “little brother of war.”

For many First Nation tribes, lacrosse was often played to resolve conflicts as well as serve as training for war. Legends tell of as many as 1,000 players per side playing lacrosse on fields ranging from one to 15 miles in length. Games sometimes lasted for days. Balls were generally made out of wood, deerskin, clay or stone.

“An Indian Ball-Play” by artist George Catlin, circa 1846-1850.


Adamski added that her research into lacrosse’s origins, which also delved into a possible Viking connection via Newfoundland, is far from the final say on the matter.

“I don’t think there is any true authority on the subject,” she said. “I think the more you delve into it, the more you realize it’s just a big can of worms.”

(This story was first published Feb. 23, 2011. © Copyright (c) New West Record)

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