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It is not often that a city has a team win a major pro championship, then threaten to move before the champagne puddles dry out on the locker-room rug. But that is what happened to Rochester, N.Y. last week when the fast, feisty Griffins defeated the Philadelphia Wings 14-12 in the sixth and deciding game of the National Lacrosse League's first championship playoffs and then continued to make plans to skip town.
As befits an event of such epic magnitude, the final game ended with the fans at Rochester's War Memorial Arena bellowing, "We're No. 1, we're No. 1." It was an ironic cheer for a club whose ticket office number might as well have been unlisted for both the playoffs and the regular season. For the series clincher a typically undersized crowd of 2,525 filed into the decrepit War Memorial, their number increased by 50 Philly fanatics who had driven six hours to watch the contest.
Because this remarkable Rochester team attracted such unremarkable attention, it is more than likely that the Griffs very soon will pack up their sticks, gloves and the Nations Trophy symbolic of their recent conquest and move to Pittsburgh. While the NLL season therefore may have ended in the wrong town, there is no doubt that it was finished off by the right team in an exciting best-of-seven playoff that, for all who witnessed it, leaves the World Series with a tough act to follow.
Box lacrosse is hockey at room temperature. It is thus bereft of such time-consuming ploys as icing the puck but it is as thoroughly dominated by Canadians as hockey is. The box game combines the best features of outdoor field lacrosse with elements of basketball, hockey, soccer and thermonuclear holocaust.
If a single season is sufficient test, this blend has a future in the glutted market of professional sports, at least in Philadelphia. The Wings averaged 8,719 for their 20 regular-season home games and drew 24,256 more to the Spectrum for three playoff dates against Rochester. While finishing first with a 27-13 record during the NLL's regular season, Philadelphia was blessed with palpable indications of rabid fan support, such as bed-sheet banners, posters impugning the virility of various rivals and honest-to-goodness all-American groupies.
Wings' crowds were dominated by teen-agers and pre-adolescents who, lacking the bread required to sit in awe of the hockey Flyers, transferred their affections to the lacrosse team. Sadly for the new NLL champions, that was hardly the case in Rochester, where absentee ownership, inept promotion and an ill-conceived attempt to scare up crowds by threatening to move the franchise added up to empty seats.
Fan support is only one of many contrasts between the series finalists. The Griffins, the most exciting NLL team, employ a free-wheeling, fast-break offense. The Wings are slower and more disciplined, with patterns and picks designed to exploit their deadly shooting. In the goal Philadelphia's 5'11", 197-pound Wayne Piatt rarely ranges far from the net, while Rochester's Merv Marshall not only roams into the corners to save his defensemen the work of clearing loose balls, but also advances over the center line in short-handed situations to assist in killing penalties.
An even bigger difference between the two clubs is their coaches, who have about as much in common as David Niven and Alice Cooper. Philadelphia's Bobby Allan, a soft-spoken, balding high school vice-principal in Peterborough, Ontario, the hometown of 12 of his Wings, is a polite, cool-headed man who is much respected in lacrosse circles. Allan seldom loses his temper over referees' decisions and refused to criticize any of his players for the Wings' defeat in the playoffs.
Behind the Rochester bench, perhaps providing his team with the edge it needed in this series, was Morley Kells. A brash, dapper, 38-year-old combination of George Allen, Norm Van Brocklin and Sammy Glick, Kells is variously feared, reviled and admired by his peers, who all seemed to agree: "He'll do anything to win." Kells is a man with limited tolerance for error. During one playoff leading to the Nations Trophy series, he suspended a player while a game was in progress for repeating a mistake.
Kells is most often criticized for "Gamesmanship"—bending, if not fracturing, the rules and, well, doing anything to win. When someone broke into the Wings' locker room preceding the fourth game in Rochester and stole 13 pairs of the visitors' shoes along with some gloves, sticks and other gear, several lacrosse people facetiously suggested that Kells was probably at the bottom of the whole thing. A similar complaint was heard during the decisive game when the air conditioning was not working.