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Ottawa’s NLL history…and future

Canadian Tire Centre - NLL Canadian Tire Centre - NLL

Professional box lacrosse is returning to Ottawa, Ontario, for the start of the 2024-25 National Lacrosse League season.

In February, GF Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group of the New York Riptide, and Senators Sports & Entertainment, the ownership group of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, announced they would be relocating the Riptide to Canada’s capital city and would rebrand as the Ottawa Black Bears at the end of the 2023-24 season. The move will make Ottawa the hometown of an NLL team for the first time since the Ottawa Rebel played their last game in the city in 2003.

When the Rebel first joined the NLL in 2001, they played out of the Corel Centre (now known as the Canadian Tire Centre). The Black Bears will play in the same arena again, which they will share with the Senators.

As the Rebel were just starting out, Bruce Alexander, one of the original members of the team, recalls that there was plenty of excitement around town about pro box lacrosse coming to Ottawa—more than 12,000 fans showed up to the franchise’s inaugural game.

“There was a lot of buzz around it, and everyone was excited,” Alexander said. “That Ottawa team, I mean, it was the first shot in the NLL for a lot of guys – that’s like a dream for all of these guys.”

After two years at the Corel Centre, the Rebel moved closer to downtown Ottawa to the Ottawa Civic Centre (now TD Place Arena) for their final season. The moved seemed to benefit the team as the Rebel boasted more home wins in 2003 than either of the previous two seasons.

That season, Canadians were feeling proud about their national summer sport, having so much professional lacrosse representation throughout the winter months. Canada even had their own division in the NLL: the North Division was made up of the Toronto Rock, Calgary Roughnecks, Vancouver Ravens and the Rebel.

Brad Self, who was a rookie with the Rebel during in 2003, remembers feeling the love from the fan base in his lone year with the team.

“From what I can remember, it was pretty well-supported as a fan base,” Self, now the general manager of the Colorado Mammoth, said. “Being in a Canadian city, it always feels like there’s more awareness around the sport. My time there was short but I really remember enjoying that team and that city. Honestly, I wish it had stayed, then.”

Bruce Codd, who was one of Self’s Rebel teammates in 2003 and is now an assistant coach with the Rock, spoke highly of the team’s home base. Many members of that 2003 squad were from Ontario, making the journey to home games a breeze.

“It was one of those things where a lot of us would travel by bus from the Toronto area up to Peterborough and then go that way,” Codd said. “That part of it was nice, to all be on the bus together.”

With the NLL returning to Ottawa, the buzz for professional lacrosse is back. Since the Rebel’s last season 21 years ago, the game has grown in the region. An increasing number of lacrosse talents are now being produced in the National Capital Region. Current veteran players such as Callum Crawford and Kyle Buchanan have helped pave the way for the next generation of lacrosse players to blossom and thrive.

From the Ottawa Titans, who were an Ontario Lacrosse Association Jr. A team from 2005 to 2007; to the steadying improvements of the Jr. B Nepean Knights over the last decade, including their Founder’s Cup win in 2022; to the increased number of players from Ottawa-based programs being drafted to the NLL (eight players from the Ottawa Capitals, a youth program co-founded by Callum Crawford, were drafted in the 2022 NLL Entry Draft), lacrosse is really taking off in the region.

Buffalo Bandits rookie Cam Wyers is one of the newest Ottawa products to join and thrive in the NLL. For him, seeing players from his city make it in the pros was a tremendous inspiration. It proved to all Ottawa youth that you can make it to the biggest professional box lacrosse stage after playing in Ottawa-based programs.

“The biggest thing is that it’s going to be great for all of the minor and youth programs in Ottawa,” Wyers said. “They’re going to get to see lacrosse up there at the next level. That’s how I got started; I saw the [Toronto] Rock on TV, and then I wanted to go play.”

Buchanan, who grew up in the Nepean area in the 1990s and 2000s, shared similar sentiments about the increased visibility of lacrosse. The hope is that having a team based in Ottawa will help further the growing lacrosse in the area.

“A lot of youth are seeing opportunity out there, whether it’s [from] social media or different leagues popping up,” Buchanan said. “They’re seeing guys in their position from Ottawa leave home and explore opportunities in the game, whether it’s moving to Toronto for Jr. A or moving to the [United States] for school. I think there’s more visibility that way and more visibility of other major leagues as well.”

Led by NLL superstar Jeff Teat, the Black Bears are ready to make a statement in their first season in their new hometown. As the NLL’s sixth Canadian franchise, the Black Bears plan on reshaping the lacrosse landscape in the country and making Ottawa one of the nation’s largest lacrosse hotbeds.