Toronto,ON- Everyone knows about the NCAA and the constant impact that their players have on the National Lacrosse League, but little attention is given to the Canadian collegiate players who also make their mark on the world’s premier box lacrosse competition. Although the 2019-20 NLL season was cut short, there were still stellar performances by Canadian university players, and we’re here to highlight some of them.
This season saw eight NLL players who have also suited up for the Guelph Gryphons, and it was two of those players who finished atop the scoring charts for those who had played in Canadian schools.
CURTIS KNIGHT: GUELPH GRYPHONS/ROCHESTER KNIGHTHAWKS
Curtis Knight spent his entire career in Canada up until this season when he joined the expansion Rochester Knighthawks for their first year of NLL action. Prior to this year, Knight had spent time in Edmonton and Saskatchewan as part of the relocated Rush organization and had become accustomed to a dedicated fanbase in both cities. Although the move to the expansion team could have thrown him off, an already established lacrosse fanbase in Rochester helped him settle into his new surroundings in no time.
Through 12 games with the new-look Knighthawks, Knight scored 46 points. Of those points, the most notable portion came right at the end, where he scored 6+ in his final three games. 46 points matched the number of points he scored as a rookie back in 2013. Although his total and case for a career-high were cut short by the pandemic, the Oshawa native single handily provided the Knighthawks with a few wins this season, one of which included a hat-trick in a narrow 4-3 victory over Calgary.
The former Minto Cup MVP spent four-years with the Gryphons before turning pro but is back at the University of Guelph where he is pursuing a graduate degree in sports business and is set to graduate next spring.
MIKE BURKE: GUELPH GRYPHONS/HALIFAX THUNDERBIRDS
Knight was not the lone former Gryphon to find success this season, and he was not even the only one with connections to Rochester to do so. The Halifax Thunderbirds, who relocated from Rochester prior to the 2019-20 season boasted a Gryphon of their own: Mike Burke.
Burke left Rochester alongside the rest of the team for Halifax, where he traded in his blue and silver for the purple and orange of the Thunderbirds. After coming off a career-high season in 2018-19, where he scored 42 points in Rochester, the fifth-year pro could have very well broken his record had this season been played out. By the time play was suspended, he had 31 points in 10 games and was scoring at the highest points-per-game rate of his career. The forward’s highest-scoring performance of the season came against Buffalo in the third game of the year, where he scored two goals along with six assists in a 15-10 barnburner win over the Bandits. However, if one was to look for his goal of the year, they would have to look to the December game against his former Guelph teammate Knight and Rochester. I’ve attached the goal he scored in that game here, but if we look at the video, there are a whole bunch of subtle skills shown by the former All-Canadian.
ABOVE CLIP: Burke, the player on the far side of the screen does well the see the Rochester defence, who has set up in a straight line in an attempt to push the original ball carrier to the edge of the field. He notices that the ball could be played back, and widens his approach to the goal, creating more space between him and his nearest defender. Once the ball is played back to Ryan Benesch, Burke is in a prime open position to receive a pass by the far side post. When he gets the ball, his position, combined with a quick-release doesn’t allow netminder Steve Fryer to move his weight from one foot to the other, giving Burke the time he needs to put the ball in the back of the net. As Pat Gregoir said on the broadcast, “It’s the perfect tic-tac-toe play,” but the former Gryphon also put on a clinic in how to read a defence.
Both Knight and Burke come from a Guelph program that won the CUFLA Baggataway Cup twice in their tenure, and both players were named All-Canadians. Since their departure from the program, the Gryphons have yet to win another championship.
Other than those two Guelph boys, there were other shining CUFLA performances throughout the NLL.
Western, who won the Baggataway Cup back in Novemeber not only got to celebrate their championship but got to see their own Reid Reindodt score 18 points for his home province Toronto Rock, as well as Matt Spanger who scored seven points for the Buffalo Bandits. Other notable performances included CUFLA MVP Nick Chaykowksi, who was an everyday contributor to the New England Blackwolves, and Scott Dominey who provided numerous highlight-reel moments in Toronto.
The players mentioned only represent a small portion of the over 25 CUFLA players who hit an NLL floor this season, but each player who did showed that Canadian university lacrosse can produce high-end talent, much like it’s much larger American cousin, the NCAA. Although the 2019-20 NLL season was cut short due to COVID-19, and we will not be able to see a CUFLA player hoist the NLL Championship or inaugural Alterna Cup, Canadian players made their mark and will continue to do so in future seasons of NLL action.