YORKTON - Sport has always been something that transcends borders and opens opportunities around the world for participants.
It’s something Brad MacArthur can certainly relate to.
MacArthur is from Wallaceburg, ON. and has been a rather good lacrosse player.
In 1998 he was drafted fifth overall in the National Lacrosse League, and played more than 90 regular season games over seven seasons, and appeared in a couple of championship games along the way. Add in a Mann Cup and coaching in the Founders Cup and it was a pretty nice career.
But then the story gets far more interesting.
“I was travelling to the Czech Republic with an alumni team,” he explained in a recent interview. It was 2013.
The Czech Republic is something of a European hotbed for box lacrosse and the event MacArthur was heading to also happened to include a team of enthusiastic ‘newbies’ to the sport from Israel. The team was coached by Scott Neiss who MacArthur said was more an administrator than coach, but he did have a vision of introducing lacrosse to Israel.
MacArthur met with Neiss over breakfast, a meeting that went on for three or four hours, ending with an offer to become the head coach of a new lacrosse program in Israel.
MacArthur said he had always thought about coaching but added “at the time it wasn’t at the front of my mind.”
But the opportunity to be involved in the growth of lacrosse in a different country, starting a program from the ground up, and travelling internationally to do it, all intrigued MacArthur.
Back home in Canada there were some concerns about what Israel would be like, concerns fostered by the representation of “mainstream media,” but with some research, he took the plunge and said yes.
MacArthur has been head coach of both national indoor and field teams ever since.
It has been an experience like none he had experienced.
“It’s a special group of players,” he said, adding it has been special watching the program take steps, some forward, others where they have slide back a little.
With teams stocked with Jewish American and Canadian players, Israel has made its first forays onto the biggest stages for the sport.
For example, it was a huge step to participate in the Men’s World Field Lacrosse Championship for the first time in 2014, finishing a rather surprising seventh among 38 countries.
In 2018, Israel hosted the event, the largest-ever with 44 teams.
“It was the largest lacrosse tournament ever in a non-English speaking country,” said MacArthur, adding the language situation was its own barrier. While many in Israel speak English it is not an often used one.
The Israel team again finished seventh.
In one game the team lost on home soil MacArthur said it was easy to see his team was dejected from the loss.
“I told them look at the stands,” he said, adding there were a couple of thousand watching. “See what you guys have built.”
On the box side Israel finished fourth in 2015 at the championships the Onondaga Nation, south of Syracuse, New York.
In 2019, in Langley, B.C. Israel slipped to fifth.
“We got to the bronze medal game in 2015 . . . We took a step back in Langley,” said MacArthur, adding in a couple of the games, “we didn’t play that well.”
While MacArthur knows the program has a long way to go to be regularly competitive with teams from Canada, the United States and Iroquois, they still want to be knocking on the door.
“We want to get into medal games,” he said, adding that will be “a process”.
Talking about some of the greats of the game such as Mark Matthews of the Saskatchewan Rush, MacArthur noted, “we don’t have one of them.” But rather they have a hardworking group dedicated to the sport in Israel.
“It’s just a group of people forging ahead to build something.”
While medals on the big stage are coveted, or at least a chance at a medal, there is also the process of simply growing lacrosse as a sport in Israel, noted MacArthur.
“We’re trying to develop young players,” he said, adding they look forward to the day “in country” players begin to populate national teams.
But it will not be overnight. MacArthur said you only need to look at junior hockey on an international level to see how long it has taken countries such as Germany and Denmark to gain a foothold at the top level.
At present lacrosse in Israel is just taking root.
“We have pockets of it in different corners,” said MacArthur, adding in a place such as Netanya, the city which hosted the World Championships, you might see youth carrying lacrosse sticks, but it’s far from general across the country yet.
But National team members are asked to live in-country where possible and are then expected to help teach and coach the game, so it is getting better.
“I think we’re doing the right things in the grassroots area, but we’ve had to build it kind of from the ground up,” said MacArthur, adding it is very gratifying “seeing little kids playing with lacrosse sticks.”