Gretzky & Tavares Headline NHLers With Lacrosse Backgrounds

In recent years, Carolina Hurricanes’ winger Andrei Svechnikov has popularized “The Michigan Goal”, also dubbed a “lacrosse-style goal.” However, the NHL boasts numerous connections to lacrosse outside of the Michigan Goal.

Whether it is an NHL player being related to a pro-lacrosse player or playing high-level lacrosse themselves, a plethora of current and former NHL players are connected to lacrosse.

Adam Oates

A little-known fact about Hockey Hall of Famer Adam Oates is that he played a season of professional box lacrosse. In one season in Major Series Lacrosse (the MSL is Ontario’s Senior A indoor lacrosse league) he posted 93 points in 16 games. Prior to this, he played five seasons of Junior A box lacrosse. With the Etobicoke Eclipse, he was a three-time OLA (Ontario Lacrosse Association) Jr. MVP and posted 582 points during his Jr. career. In 1981, he set OLA Jr. single-game records in assists (19) and points (29).

Brandon Montour

Florida Panthers’ defenseman Brandon Montour is known for his physical and defensive play in the NHL, whereas he was known for his offensive talent in lacrosse. He played Jr. A box lacrosse in the OLA for the Six Nations Arrows.

He even played Jr. A after being drafted by the Anaheim Ducks. Throughout three seasons with the Arrows, Montour played in 32 regular season games and 34 playoff games, posting a combined total of 123 points. In 2014, he won a Minto Cup with the Arrows; Canada’s Jr. A box lacrosse championship.

John Tavares

John Tavares is one of the best hockey players on the planet. However, he isn’t the only athletic member of his family, as his uncle (also named John Tavares) is one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time. The younger Tavares played lacrosse as a kid and was a ball boy for the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League (NLL).

“My uncle is the best to ever play the sport… He’s a remarkable athlete who had a huge impact on me growing up. I’ve always been a huge fan of his and wanted to be like him.”

(From ‘Lacrosse Star Who Is a Math Teacher First’, The New York Times, 4/24/13).

The older Tavares led Buffalo to four NLL championships. He’s the league’s all-time leader in games played (306), goals (815), assists (934), and points (1,749). He is a three-time NLL MVP and set a record 185-game point streak, which stretched over a decade. In the Canadian Lacrosse Association (CLA) Sr. A box league, he won seven Mann Cup championships. This is the CLA’s national title; a team from the MSL and the Western Lacrosse Association (the WLA is based in British Columbia) compete for the trophy.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Tavares won Mann Cups in 1992 and 1993 with the Brampton Excelsiors of the MSL. From 1994 through 1996 he three-peated with the Six Nations Chiefs. In 2003, he won with the Victoria Shamrocks (WLA) and in 2012 he nabbed his final one with the Peterborough Lakers (OLA).  

Wayne Gretzky

“The Great One” is a former lacrosse player. Wayne Gretzky played minor lacrosse and has encouraged hockey players to play box lacrosse in the summer. Due to his love of the sport, he recently became involved in the NLL, as a co-owner of an expansion team in Las Vegas that is set to begin playing in 2022.

The Ritchie Brothers

Brett and Nick Ritchie both played lacrosse. However, Brett had a more successful career. Nick stopped playing lacrosse when he was 15-years-old, however Brett was a top lacrosse prospect and played for the Orangeville Northmen Jr. A team. Brett played on teams with current pro-lacrosse players Dillon Ward and Jeremy Noble. Both players spoke about Brett Ritchie’s talent at lacrosse.

“There is no doubt in my mind he would be one of the top end players in the National Lacrosse League if he chose to continue to play.” – Noble

“I mean, he was dominant… My rookie year in Junior A, he was a call-up for us when he was in minor midget, he was 14 going up against 16- to 21-year-olds. Brett was always big, and very strong. He could get anywhere he wanted on the floor, and had the touch to put the ball in the back of the net. There’s no doubt that if he didn’t go the hockey route, which obviously worked out for him, he would be one of the best lacrosse players in the game.” – Ward

(From ‘Bruins forward Brett Ritchie brings lacrosse background to ice’, Boston Herald, 8/21/19).

Brett Ritchie is known for his hard-nosed, physical style of hockey and has credited the intensity of lacrosse as helping develop his hockey-playing style.

The Shanahan Family

Hockey Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan has a lacrosse background, as does his brother Shaun, who skated in 40 NHL games. The Shanahans played minor lacrosse with their brothers Brian and Danny. Brendan even played Jr. box lacrosse with Etobicoke. Brian was the most successful lacrosse player of the brothers. He is a five-time Mann Cup champion, winning the trophy with Brampton and Six Nations (he was Tavares’ teammate for all five victories). Currently, he is an analyst for the National Lacrosse League (NLL). His daughter Brenna Shanahan plays field lacrosse in the NCAA for the University of Louisville.

Joe Nieuwendyk

Joe Nieuwendyk achieved tons of success in his hockey career, including nabbing a Calder Trophy, winning the Stanley Cup three times, and earning one Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. His NHL career was so spectacular that he was named to the NHL’s 100 greatest players list and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. This isn’t the only sports Hall of Fame his name has been cemented in, as he was a member of the back-to-back Minto Cup winning, Whitby Warriors who were inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Nieuwendyk was a star player for Whitby and was named the Minto Cup MVP in 1984. A further testament to his lacrosse skill is that the OLA’s Jr. A rookie of the year award is named “The Joe Nieuwendyk Trophy” in his honor. He credits his lacrosse skills as helping him in his NHL career:

“I always said that they helped me tremendously early in my career, thanks to just the physicality of the sport and the hand-eye coordination… I expected and wanted to score goals in lacrosse, and I think it helped me in hockey by just standing in front of the net and tipping pucks. There was a lot of that early in my career with Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, who were phenomenal at taking those point shots.”

NHL

Gary Roberts

Gary Roberts is also in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame as a member of the 1985 Warriors. He was drafted by the Calgary Roughnecks of the NLL. Roberts never played for the Roughnecks (he was 38-years-old when he was drafted second to last overall in the 2004 NLL Entry Draft). At the time of his selection, he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and said:

“At 8 a.m. this morning, some guy comes up to me and asks me for a picture and then says: ‘Hey, I hear you’re going to play lacrosse.’ And I said: ‘What?’ He said: ‘Didn’t you hear, this morning, you were drafted to the Calgary Roughnecks?…That’s how I found out — standing at [a Toronto-area] Home Depot, buying cleaning supplies for my new condo, where I was moving in today.”

From (‘NLL draft choice Roberts won’t give up his day job’, The Globe and Mail), 10/24/04.

Conclusion

The number of connections between lacrosse and the NHL are too vast to list. Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Famers such as Bucko McDonald, Newsy Lalonde (who led all NHL scorers in 1918-19 and 1920-21), Lionel Conacher and Jack Bionda all played in the NHL. Overall, the NHL has many more connections to lacrosse than just ‘the Michigan’.

References: Point Streak, NHL, Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and QuantHockey


Sign up for our 'DAILY BEST Newsletter' for the latest & greatest hockey news & analysis.