Sunday, August 29, 2004

NLL to expand number of teams in 2004/05 season

NLL to expand membership, then schedule

NEIL STEVENS
CANADIAN PRESS

National Lacrosse League teams will play an expanded number of exhibition games if there is no NHL hockey this autumn. Home floors of 10 of the 11 NLL teams are in NHL arenas and the majority of NLL teams are owned or operated by NHL entities. The NLL will retain its 16-game schedule that runs from December to May but, pending a new collective bargaining agreement with its players' association, teams will be allowed to increase the number of exhibition games they play, says NLL commissioner Jim Jennings. Jennings was in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday for the announcement of a new team to be owned by Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the NHL's Minnesota Wild. MSE purchased the dormant Montreal franchise which was owned by the group headed by Brad Watters of Toronto that also owns the NLL's Toronto Rock. The CBA between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association expires Sept. 15 and there is widespread speculation owners will lock players out and a lengthy delay will ensue before NHL games return. In this context, Jennings was asked if his league's teams plan on seizing the opportunity to stage more exhibition games. "Yes," he replied. "If hockey does not start on time, some teams are looking at doing exhibition (lacrosse) games in their buildings." NLL games are played on green turf carpeting laid over hockey ice. Most of the players are Canadian. The yet-to-be-named Minnesota team, which will play out of the Xcel Energy Center where the Wild play hockey, will be stocked through an expansion draft to be scheduled at a later date — each existing team can protect 14 players and lose a maximum of one player — as well as through the annual September entry draft, in which Minnesota will have the No. 1 pick, and the signing of free agents. "We are thrilled to bring professional lacrosse to the Xcel Energy Center," said MSE chairman Bob Naegele Jr. "Minnesota has one of the fastest-growing lacrosse communities (in the United States) and we believe fans will truly enjoy this powerful, high-scoring and fast-paced sport." The NLL put teams in San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix last year.

All are linked to NHL clubs. "It has become the ideal model for success both on and off the floor," Jennings said during a news conference. "Our league average attendance exceeded 10,000 fans per game last season and continues to grow." Naegele said the possibility of a delayed or cancelled NHL season never entered into MSE discussions to bring pro lacrosse into the Xcel Energy Center. "It never crossed our minds," he said. "We began considering this three years ago. "We were always looking for new opportunities to expand our sports interests and this was in the mix. As we observed the growth of the sport in Minnesota and the possible fan base, we went ahead." The huge success of the NLL team in Denver, which draws 18,000 spectators a game, encouraged MSE to go ahead, he said. Asked if MSE would ask the NLL to expand the regular season should the NHL not start up as scheduled, he said: "That's way beyond my scope of thought at this time." The Calgary Roughnecks are defending NLL champions. They are in the West Division with Vancouver, Colorado, San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix. Minnesota will join the East Division with Toronto, Buffalo, Rochester and Philadelphia. All NLL teams with the exception of Rochester play in NHL rinks. The NLL had as many as 13 teams three years ago. While there was conjecture a 12th team would be added for next season, Jennings said there will be no further additions.

The long-term goal remains 16 teams. Minnesota's team is expected to name a GM and coach within three weeks and choose a nickname in about a month. "It's a new and exciting market," said Jennings. Said Naegele: "We'd had the opportunity in the past to start with hockey from scratch and we loved it. We'll do the same with lacrosse." For the first time, the NLL has teams in all North American time zones. Jennings predicted a long-term CBA would soon be in place. Brian Bellows, who played lacrosse growing up in St. Catharines, Ont., before beginning an NHLcareer in Minnesota in 1982, was a special guest at the news conference.

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