Junior Leagues Lacrosse

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Nepean Knights’ junior A lacrosse expansion bid denied twice, but hope remains

By Martin Cleary

The Nepean Knights have been fighting for an expansion franchise in the Ontario Lacrosse Association Junior A League for the past two years.

The fight continues as their bid wasn’t successful in two separate rounds of campaigning this fall for an upgrade from the junior B league. But the league commissioner has offered Nepean hope that the gateway into the province’s top junior league for box lacrosse will be more fluid and modernized in the future.

Nepean Knights Lacrosse announced Monday its second attempt to become a member of the Ontario Junior A league was denied because it didn’t receive unanimous or near unanimous approval.

At a recent in-person meeting, nine of the 11 existing teams voted in favour of junior A lacrosse returning to Ottawa. But the other two teams cast negative votes, which defeated Nepean’s request for an expansion franchise.

The Ottawa Titans were part of the Ontario Junior A Lacrosse League for three seasons – 2005 through 2007 – before suspending operation in 2008.

In a statement earlier this week, Nepean Knights Lacrosse said Peterborough Lakers and Kitchener Kodiaks voted against the Nepean bid.

The league’s current policy requires 90 per cent of the existing teams to be in favour of accepting a new team into the league. That means a minimum of 10 of the 11 teams needed to make Nepean’s bid a reality.

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In early October, Nepean’s first submission for an expansion team also was rejected as it didn’t receive 90-per-cent approval.

“This is discouraging news to share with players, fans, coaches, families, supporters and others from Nepean and across the lacrosse community,” the Knights said in a media release.

“It is especially disappointing for Nepean, Eastern Ontario, Western Quebec and Indigenous players from the area who will continue to be denied the opportunity to play junior A at home.”

There are a number of Ottawa and area players competing in the Ontario Junior A Lacrosse League, but they must regularly travel throughout the province with teams in other cities.

Nepean appreciated the positive support of league commissioner Mark Grimes, deputy commissioner Bob Clevely, nine of the league’s teams and the referees’ association.

“Our proposal was solid with clear and sustainable financial and player resources,” the Nepean Knights Lacrosse November update message read. “Our Junior B team has been at the top of the league for years.

“The next logical and merited step should have been to create an opportunity for Nepean, Eastern Ontario, Western Quebec and Indigenous players from the area to compete at home in the highest-calibre junior lacrosse league in the province. But, unfortunately, two teams have veto power to stop this progressive step to grow the sport of lacrosse.”

The Nepean Knights were provincial and national junior B lacrosse champions in 2022. File photo

Grimes was disheartened by the final voting result earlier this month, but added the present policy for accepting new franchises must undergo a thorough study.

“As commissioner, I am very disappointed with the outcome,” he said in an email interview with High Achievers. “I wholeheartedly believe that Nepean deserves to be in the Ontario Junior Lacrosse League.”

Grimes believes the current policy “allows a small number of teams to obstruct the aspirations of a whole community – a community that, in my opinion, is just as deserving of the same opportunities that all OJLL teams were once given to be a part of this league.”

He’s hopeful the denial of Nepean’s expansion bid will encourage the 11 teams “to collaboratively re-evaluate and update our operational policies.”

“It’s clear that our policy paper, in its current state, is outdated and needs urgent revision,” Grimes insisted.

“Beyond that, I am keenly focused on how to ensure that this does not discourage other potential teams from seeking inclusion in the future. We should be a league that welcomes new talent and communities.”

Nepean came to the table with a strong bid package.

“Based on the success of our program and growth of lacrosse in Nepean and Eastern Ontario, our players deserved to play at the highest calibre and play at home,” Nepean Knights Lacrosse said in its October update message, after the failure of its first bid.

“Nepean players have been major contributors to two of the past three Minto Cup winning teams and for the first time in league history a Nepean player (Toronto Beaches’ Willem Firth) was the OJLL MVP in 2022.”

The Knights also won their initial Ontario Junior B championship and the Founders Cup national title in 2022. Award-winning goalkeeper Thomas Kiazyk was one of six Knights’ players on the Burlington Blaze roster, when they won the 2023 Minto Cup national junior A championship. Nepean’s Zach Thompson has been a full-time player on the Blaze for the past three seasons.

A number of graduating players have been selected by teams in the National Lacrosse League. Kiazyk was a second-round pick of the Saskatchewan Rush in the 2023 NLL Entry Draft.

“Our minor program is robust and successful, including at the A level. We have the talent here. While this decision is discouraging, we will continue to push to move to the Junior A (level) plus develop more strong players capable of playing lacrosse at the highest levels.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.

Martin can be reached by e-mail at martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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