The National Game in 1911

BCLA bylaws and rulebook from 1911
British Columbia lacrosse rulebook from 1911

Like all other sports, lacrosse has evolved its fair share over the years.

Obviously in Canada, the indoor box variant which was born in 1931 has become the primary form of the game, but the modern outdoor field game has also seen its share of rule changes since the glory days of 1911 – let alone since William George Beers (1843-1900) codified the first set of playing rules in 1869 in his book Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada.

The biggest changes to the field game occurred in the decade prior to the professional heyday. The alterations that took place in the game between 1900 and 1910 were more drastic in nature than what has followed since 1910. Once the pro game became established, there were just two major changes that later came along: reduction of teams and playing field.

By the mid-1930s, the rules of the field game had evolved to a state where they were not much different than the modern game today, except in terms of equipment and how the midfielders line up on face-offs. South of the border, the American game had begun to diverge with the adoption of offsides*. However by this point, the outdoor version had all but passed on in Canada and remained dormant until the late 1960s.

WHY 1911?

So, just how different was the 1911 lacrosse game – and why even use that year for comparison?

FIRST REASON… At least here on the Pacific Coast, 1911 was the all-time highpoint of popularly of the game in Vancouver and New Westminster. There was a high level of support and interest across the spectrum, from the diehard lacrosse fan through to the casual sports-enthusiast, which still continues to elude the modern lacrosse game in the Lower Mainland to this very day.

It was truly the national game for local spectators – as organised ice hockey would not make its debut on the local sporting scene until the 1911-12 winter that followed when the Denman Arena was built. Vancouver’s mild winter weather resulted in a lack of natural ice which had prevented hockey from taking root.

To get a firm idea of the game’s popularity, compare the population in Vancouver (123,902) and New Westminster (55,679) in 1911 with the attendance records at the great lacrosse matches that same year – and then compare those numbers with modern population numbers in those two cities.

Minto Cup game at Queens Park between New Westminster and Montréal AAA on July 23, 1910. Attendance at this game was around 7,000.
Minto Cup game at Queens Park between New Westminster and Montréal AAA on July 23, 1910. Attendance at this game was around 7,000.

Games in New Westminster would draw anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 while at Recreation Park in downtown Vancouver, there were matches at times that went into the 11,000 to 15,000 range. On September 16, 1911, it was reported 14,009 people paid and as many as 15,000 were on hand to watch the playoff game between Vancouver Lacrosse Club and New Westminster Salombellies. In modern terms, this level of popularity would be equivalent to the Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League drawing a crowd in the range of 73,000 to 299,500 fans to a single game, on a regular basis!

SECOND REASON… It is a useful and handy coincidence that at least one official rule-book for the British Columbia Lacrosse Association professional league from 1911 does still exist, in excellent condition and in the possession of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, which can be used for rules comparison. In 1911, the British Columbia Lacrosse Association was the name of the professional league and organisation – and no relation to the modern provincial body of the same name.

THIRD AND FINAL REASON… The five seasons in lacrosse from 1909 through 1913 seasons were by far the most photographed of the sport on the Pacific Coast until the advent of digital photography. Action images from those games have been preserved well into the modern era – compared to some decades such as the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, where very few action images still remain available or in existence in archives. There are more action photos from 1911 and 1912 alone than there are from the 1930s and 1940s and it is often easier to locate an action photograph of a New Westminster or Vancouver player from 1911 or 1912 than one who played in 1952 – or 1972 or 1992, for that matter.

Some of these old photographs – specifically wide-angle or long-distance shots of games in progress – can be examined for clues about how the game was played on the field in lieu of film footage. It is known for a fact that at least one game in Vancouver was filmed in 1920 by three movie cameras – but that footage is believed to be long-lost or has yet to turn up anywhere.


One of the most obvious changes in the game is the lacrosse stick itself – which of course in 1911 was made of wood and natural materials such as string, leather and cat-gut for the mesh.

However the old wood sticks used in 1911, which obviously differ from the modern plastic-metal stick used today, are also quite different in size and design compared to the modern style of wood stick still produced by the Mitchell Brothers of Cornwall Island or Alf Jacques of Onondaga.

Comparing a 1920s wood stick used by an outfield player with a modern wood stick
Comparing the pocket size of an old wood stick used by an outfield player in the 1920s with a modern wood stick.

The 1911 stick could be of any length but the head could not be more than one foot wide and the pocket had to be strung so it was flat when the ball wasn’t in it. Modern field lacrosse sticks only allow a width between 6 and 10 inches for runners, with most modern stick heads closer to the lesser amount. With the 1911 stick, one and only one string (comparable to the modern shooting string), was allowed to be strung across the head – but it could not be tied down. The string was actually more intended to be used as a means for preventing two sticks from hooking together during a game.

The sticks used in 1911 had a triangular head shape and appearance not much different than a modern wooden goalkeeper’s stick. The pockets on these old sticks are around twice as wide and twice as long in the throat compared to modern sticks used by runners. (The triangular or flat head design didn’t get phased out for the rounded, bishop’s crook form until the late 1930s). Lastly, the shaft on the 1911 stick was generally shorter than those used on modern sticks. Most surprisingly however is the fact that many of these old, larger woodsticks are actually lighter in weight (and thus not as strong) than modern woodsticks – which possibly explains how players in 1911 managed to do without the level of protective padding seen in the game today.

Obviously the passing game – or combination play as it was sometimes called – was still evolving but had nevertheless taken root by 1911. It is easy to imagine that while the players back then would have been skilled and quite comfortable with using the larger pocket-head on these sticks, play for picking up the loose balls on the ground would have been probably more chaotic and harder than it is today.

The next, most noticeable difference for the modern eye watching a 1911 game would be the size of the team – in terms of number of players – and dimensions of the playing field.

The 1911 lacrosse team used 12 men per team compared to 10 in the modern field game: 11 runners and 1 goalkeeper. While modern field lacrosse is played in a 3-3-3 line-up for outfield players, in 1911 the line-up would look something like 2-7-2 or 2-3-1-3-2. The two extra runners in the midfield helped make up for the fact that there were no substitutions allowed at all during the game, except for injury.

Capacity crowd at Recreation Park, October 1911
Capacity crowd at Recreation Park spills out on to the field for Minto Cup action, October 1911

Unlike field lacrosse today – which has four named positions in use (goalkeeper, defense, midfield, and attack) – the 1911 game mirrored such sports as baseball and rugby by having unique names for each and every position on the playing field: the goalkeeper, point, cover point, the three defensemen (first, second, third defense), centreman, the three home fielders (third, second, and first homes), outside home, and inside home – the last two who were strictly attackmen in the modern sense of the game. The defense and home positions roamed the midfield while the point and coverpoint were the deep defensive opposites of the outside and inside homes.

The two extra midfielders (i.e. third defense and third home) also made up for the the fact that the playing field was vastly larger – with 330 feet minimum the required distance between the two goals – although 375 feet was the preferred distance if possible. The modern field game is a lot more compact at 240 feet between goals on a field 330 feet in length. There doesn’t seem to be any regulations governing the width of the playing field in 1911, so play was likely focused more in the zone down the middle between the two goals rather than going out far on the wings.

At most playing fields such as Queens Park or Recreation Park, spectators were kept behind a short fence which marked the out-of-bounds. Where there was no fence, the crowd could be found standing right on the sidelines. And sometimes, during such capacity events as the 1911 Minto Cup clashes against the Toronto Tecumsehs, some fans decided the best place to watch was found by simply sitting or lying down on the edge of the playing field itself – happily enjoying the match from that vantage point in a much simpler time.

The fact that fans did occasionally enter the outer edges of the playing field to watch games probably also further indicates that action very rarely reached out along the far extremities of the playing surface, with little worry for spectators inadvertently getting in the way of the action to be a real concern or hazard for the players or officials.

Protective padding was non-existent apart from gloves – and even then some players opted to go barehanded. In the later years, some players can be seen in some action photographs wearing padded caps with side flaps which gave some token protection to their heads. Facial protection was unheard of – even for goalkeepers, who fearlessly stared down attacking shooters barefaced and with no protection whatsoever, save for their sticks. In the 1920s, some goalkeepers started using rudimentary chest padding.

Goal nets were the familiar 6 ft x 6 ft size – but the goal crease was a 12 ft x 12 ft square box. The net was positioned so that there were 3 feet between the posts and the side of the crease and the goal line was 6 feet back from the front of the crease. Unlike the modern game, players were allowed to enter the goal crease as well as check the goalie – but only if the ball was also inside the goal crease at the same time.

Lacrosse action at Recreation Park
Lacrosse action downtown at Recreation Park in 1912. Bun Clark has just been scored on by Vancouver.

There were no off-sides or restraining lines drawn on the field as in the modern field game. However with the extra players and farther distance to cover, the game was more positional which managed to prevent a horde of 20 runners all clustered around one net.

Old wide-angle photographs showing the full field of play generally show what appears to be 6-on-6 play engaged in the action with the rest of the players hanging around the goal at the opposite end, with maybe one or two midfielders hovering around the middle of the field to provide some sort of transition. In close-quarters action around the goal, the game movement would probably not be too much different than in the modern game.

In fact, when you consider that box lacrosse originally had 6 (and not 5) runners until the 1950s, it’s fairly easy to see the development relation where box lacrosse evolved from field as a compacted, half-court variant of the field game.

When there was a stoppage in play due to the captain calling a foul with one of the rules or questioning the referee on a call, players had to remain standing on the field exactly where they were when the whistle was blown. They could not move again from their spot until play was resumed by the referee and the ball whistled in.

A faceoff occurred not only when a goal was scored, but also when there were penalties, fouls, and the ball going out of bounds.

Lacrosse was so popular, it appeared in local cigarette adverts.
Lacrosse was so popular, it appeared in local cigarette adverts.

Games were 4 x 20-minute quarters with 5, 10, and 5 minutes for breaks. Has it been mentioned yet to all the midfielders reading this, that there were no substitutions?

Penalties in 1911 were a minimum of 5 minutes and longer time at the discretion of the referee and referees could fine any player up to $10 ($205 in modern dollars) for insulting remarks or actions against any official. In later years, there would be 3-minute infractions.

However, when a player was thrown out of a game, the time remaining in the game was generally what was assessed for penalty minutes against that player. This explains why some players had unusually high penalty minutes in some games. Yes, the game was still rough compared to the modern day – but the penalties hurt the players just as much. A player given the boot in the first or second quarter would thus appear to be punished more in the game report than if he were sent off late in the game for the same infraction.

Lastly, referees were paid $25 per game – or $515 in modern currency.

The biggest changes implemented during the 1909-1924 professional era took place in 1919 which saw the reduction of two players (the third defense and third home players) as well as the reduction in the playing field size. That year, new rules were adopted that saw playing time go from four-quarters to three 20-minute periods – although a temporary measure as it was then changed back to four-quarters in 1922. There were also adjustments to the rules which restricted substitutions and dictated when and how-often player changes could be made.

In 1922, the substitutions rules were altered again, clarifying some earlier confusion. They were now only permitted for injuries or between periods. Starting in 1923, assists on goals were officially recorded for the first time.

* Offsides and the restraining lines for attackmen and defenders – now prevalent in the modern field game, but a glaring omission from the old professional and senior game – were introduced in the United States collegiate game in 1921 but would not appear in the Canadian field game until after its demise and later revival. Usage of the individual positional names would be dropped from the American field game in 1947 although their use in the women’s game would linger on. In regards to the number of players, the American game soldiered on with 12 players until 1932 when they went to the 10-man version.

(CLHOF X994.162; CVA Sp P92-2; CVA PAN P87; CVA #677-1009)

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