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.
When a timer's decision at the War Memorial Arena proved costly to Rochester in the fourth game, one angry Griffin, Dave Wilfong, had to be physically restrained from hitting the official. Kells defended his player's outburst. "He should have gone after the guy belligerently," Kells said. "Davie Wilfong's played half his life trying to get on a winner and he shouldn't be messed up by a lousy timekeeper."
"Yeah," said a bystander. "But does that mean he should attack the guy?"
"In the NHL they call that 'color,' " Kells said. "Here they call it attacking."
Before the series moved back to the emptiness of War Memorial for the final game, Kells also got into a beef with his bosses over television. Accusing Philadelphia's Channel 29 of interrupting the last period of game four eight times with 30-second commercials, Kells fired off a stiff telegram to Wings Owner Ed Tepper. It read: NO TV PERMUTED FOR SATURDAY GAME.
A few hours later Tepper got another wire, this one from Tad and Tom Potter, the Griffin owners. It read: DISREGARD ANY REQUEST FOR CANCELLATION OF TELEVISION BROADCAST.... WE CONSIDER THIS A NECESSARY AND IMPORTANT USE OF PUBLIC EXPOSURE FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE ENTIRE NATIONAL LACROSSE LEAGUE.
That trivial setback hardly kept Kells from hammering away at Philly from all angles. At the start of the series he suggested that the Wings undoubtedly were weary from their labors against the Maryland Arrows, who took them through two overtime games before losing in the semifinal. And after the Griffs jumped off to a 2-1 lead in games, it seemed he might be right.
Playing in Rochester before 1,786, the Wings forgot their fatigue long enough in the fourth game to gain an 11-10 victory and even the series at 2-2. But thereafter Kells' analysis of Philly's problems proved a precise prediction of what occurred. Missing loose balls, sluggishly bobbling passes and failing to fall back on defense in time to halt Rochester breakaways, the Wings lost 13-9 at home before 10,179 fans.
"We think Philly is tired," Kells said. "No matter how well they play they can't stay with us after the 15-minute mark. We've got the runners and they're getting worn out chasing us. They don't look like they have the zip they had earlier in the year. Back then if you made a mistake against them, the ball was in the net before you knew it."
"If I could pinpoint our trouble I'd be a magician," Allan said of his erratic Wings after the fifth game. "The low point tonight was when we had the man advantage and they kept the ball away from us through the whole penalty."
Kells could thank Marshall for that. Coming from the crease to the attacking zone, Marshall and his mates played keep-away until their team was at full strength.
Neither side looked tired when the series returned to Rochester for game six. If anything, the Wings played with more zest than the Griffins, taking a 6-2 lead after 14½ minutes before Rochester closed to 6-4 at the end of the first period. The teams combined for six goals during a 2:27 span of the second period, and in the third the Griffs edged to a 13-11 lead that set the stage for Kells' most devious gambit—or the worst officiating call—of the series.
With 4:35 left to play in the final period, Wing John Grant's second goal cut the Rochester lead to one, and 29 seconds later the Griffs lost Rick Bisson on a roughing penalty. Philadelphia was on the verge of bouncing back into a tie game—and perhaps a tied series that would have meant the home-floor advantage for the Wings in the seventh game.
Among its numerous peculiarities the War Memorial includes bench areas that were built, says Kells, "by some idiot." There is only a single gate through the boards in front of each bench, instead of the usual two. Changing lines invariably results in a jam-up of players entering and leaving the floor. When Rochester's Len Powers happened to mingle with the traffic at the Philly gate during those critical moments of game six, the Wings became snarled up, got caught with too many men on the floor, drew a bench penalty and lost their man advantage.
"In this arena and in this game, that was the most ridiculous call of the year," said a Philly player. For the Wings it was even worse than that. At 2:06 Bisson swooped out of the box at the conclusion of his penalty, stole the ball and fired a quick pass to Brian Bowman, who beat Piatt on a drive to seal the championship for Rochester.
Few though they were, the Rochester fans were ecstatic. They mobbed Marshall in a communal check against the board as he tried to escape to the cramped, steamy basement locker room that Rochester's minor league hockey team had forced the Griffins to use. The place turned even more humid than usual as a shower of champagne doused everyone. It was the kind of celebration Rochester probably will not see again.