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How a small-town Niagara boy became a renowned lacrosse legend

Mike French is thankful for the support he has received throughout his career; 'There was no guidebook back in the 1970s. I just decided to take a chance, and it paid off'

Villanova, Pennsylvania, an upscale suburb of Philadelphia where iconic lacrosse player Mike French resides with his wife Liz, is a long way from the bucolic village of St. David’s, Ontario, where he grew up.

French achieved distinction for his athletic skills in the U.S., oblivious to the historical irony that American troops had burned his hometown to the ground during the War of 1812. (The British, enraged by the destruction of Newark, Queenston, and St. David’s, retaliated by setting Washington D.C. ablaze in August of 1814.)

Now 70 years old, he retired a decade ago as a partner with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in Philly, where he led their Hospitality and Gaming Advisory Practice. These days he dabbles in a number of business interests, including part ownership of the Albany FireWolves of the National Lacrosse League (NLL).

French has been involved with the NLL — first as a player, and later as a coach, general manager, owner, and NLL board member — since its inception in 1987, when it was known as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (MILL). During his 27-year tenure with the Philadelphia Wings, he led the franchise to six championships.

His accolades as a lacrosse player are the stuff of legends.

One of the first Canadian lacrosse players to be actively recruited by US colleges and universities in the 1970s, French attended Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, where he captained the Big Red to an undefeated season and the NCAA Division I national championship in 1976, in an overtime win versus the also undefeated University of Maryland. During his tenure, Cornell won the Ivy League title three times, under the tutelage of veteran coach Ritchie Moran. French finished his career with the Big Red as a three-time All American, Ivy League and National Collegiate Player of the Year, and Cornell’s all-time leading scorer.

As a member of the Canadian National Team, he participated in the World Games in 1974 (Melbourne, Australia), 1978 (Stockport, England), and 1982 (Baltimore, United States). In 1978, he captained Team Canada to a stunning overtime upset over the heavily favored American team, and was named the Best and Fairest Player in that tournament.

French is a member of the Cornell University Athletic Hall of Fame, the American and Canadian Lacrosse Halls of Fame, and the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame.

He’s also received a tribute closer to home, with inclusion on the Wall of Fame in the Virgil Arena in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s an honour dear to his heart, since his photo hangs alongside his former lacrosse teammates Ted Greves (who played on the National Team with French in 1978, and also had a stint at quarterback with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the CFL) and Willi Plett (who went on to play over 800 games in the NHL).

Family and friends are important to French. He still returns regularly to his roots in Niagara to reconnect and play a round of golf with old chums from his youth.

Most recently, he was back to celebrate his mom’s 95th birthday. At home in Villanova, he lives across the street from his younger brother Paul, who was a stellar attackman for the University of Virginia Cavaliers back in the 1980s, played on the Canadian National Lacrosse Team, and had his own business success in real estate south of the border. French’s daughter Sarah has left the nest, and has made a career move to Seattle.

“I learned the game in small-town Niagara, playing box lacrosse for the Supertest Warriors, for the local community,” said French. “I really loved playing basketball at Niagara District Secondary School as a teenager, and also was active in hockey until it became too expensive for my family to afford. I was the oldest of five children, and money was tight.”

His attendance at Cornell was something of a fluke, said French.

“I was in Grade 13, and my parents wanted me to go to work at General Motors, because my uncle Len said he could get me a job on the night shift,” said French. “My parents hadn’t graduated from high school, and their approach was that GM provided decent work, a predictable income, and a pension, and I’d be crazy to turn it down.”

But French had received recruitment letters from four or five American universities, mostly due to glowing recommendations from Ned Harkness, who had been a hockey and lacrosse coach with Cornell, and Jim Bishop, the prolific coach of the Oshawa Green Gaels Junior A Lacrosse Team.

“Coach Moran called me up and invited me to visit the campus, which I did, not even knowing that Cornell was an Ivy League school. I was totally naïve,” said French. “A few of the coaches and alumni took me out for supper the first night, and I had a Porterhouse steak. It was the first time I had ever had steak with a bone in it. Back home, it was only ‘minute steak’ that we ate. The next night, we went to a seafood restaurant, and I had lobster for the first time. I had only ever had fish and chips.”

It was a memorable weekend for French, who met all of the Big Red lacrosse players, none of whom were Canadian.

“The hockey team had some Canadians, but I didn’t know any of them,” said French. “Anyway, I decided that this was the route that I wanted to go. I told Coach Moran that my family couldn’t afford the cost of an Ivy League education, so I ended up getting a full scholarship, which included a part-time job on campus, washing pots and dishes in one of the dining halls.”

He played on the junior varsity team his first year, which was required of all freshmen.

“It helped me because I had never played field lacrosse before, only box lacrosse,” said French. “I brought my wooden box stick with me, but the team had transitioned to plastic-headed sticks, which we jokingly called ‘Tupperware.’ I worked hard to get used to the new stick. I received some great mentoring from my Cornell teammates my freshman year. They were high school All-Americans from Maryland and Long Island. I was an anomaly, this new Canadian kid. I also joined a great fraternity at Cornell, where I enjoyed the best meals of my life.”

His freshman roommate was kicked out of Cornell for skipping classes, and French struggled with the rigours of the curriculum in his first year. He ended up being placed on academic probation.

“I decided to buckle down and work harder, and pulled up my academic average,” said French. “My freshman team went undefeated, and I was the leading scorer. Back home during the summer, I played Senior Lacrosse for the Owen Sound North Stars. Later I got picked up by the Brampton Excelsiors, coached by the late NHL referee John ‘Gus’ McCauley, and joined them in their quest for the Mann Cup [emblematic of Canadian Senior Lacrosse supremacy] replacing star player Gaylord Powless, who was hurt. I ended up playing in three Mann Cups, and lost them all,” he said with a laugh.

By comparison, during his time at Cornell, French never lost a game to another team in the Ivy League. He amassed 296 career points in three seasons on the varsity squad at Cornell, and still is ranked in the top 20 among all-time NCAA Division I scorers.

“It was the best decision I'd ever made to go to Cornell, but I didn't fully appreciate it at the time,” he said.

After he graduated with his bachelor’s degree, French hoped to take a masters at Cornell’s world-renowned school of hotel administration, which was both expensive and selective in admission. He had some experience working the front desk at a Holiday Inn, but his admission prospects seemed remote, and French expected that he would be fated to take a job in the hospitality industry back in Ontario.

French once again turned to his mentor, Ritchie Moran. The Big Red coach changed French’s life — again — by introducing him to connections in the extensive Cornell business network.

“Coach set me up with a gentleman who happened to be a wealthy and loyal Cornell alumnus and a lacrosse booster, who ended up helping me with tuition fees for the duration of my masters program. Years later, I tried to pay him back, but he wouldn't accept a cent. He said that I had done a lot for Cornell lacrosse, and he had been happy to assist me financially when I was in need. Just an incredibly generous man.”

French ended up returning to Canada upon completion of his masters, and found work in the management training program at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. But it was not the career stepping stone he had imagined.

“I had two Ivy League degrees, and they put me to work as a scheduler in the housekeeping department,” lamented French. “I told Coach Moran that it wasn’t working out, and asked his advice. Coach connected me with some Cornell alumni in Philly that were involved in a business consulting group, and were active in the gaming industry in Atlantic City. I interviewed with them and got a job, and my career just took off from there.”

French looks back on his life and appreciates his good fortune. He’s committed to bestowing the same sorts of opportunities on young Canadian athletes looking at U.S. college scholarships, and is actively helping a number of players looking to make the jump, or already in the U.S. college system.

“I know the ropes of the recruitment game, and I have a lot of contacts,” said French. “I can help these kids understand what the long game is about, their life after college lacrosse ends. I want them to go into this with their eyes open, to have the benefit of the wisdom that I possess now, which I didn’t have back in my college days. There was no guidebook back in the 1970s. I just decided to take a chance, and it paid off. I will do whatever I can to help these recruits, remembering all the incredible people at Cornell who helped me along the way.”

French is healthy at 70, and despite his decades in the lacrosse wars, has emerged relatively unscathed physically.

“I’ve had a knee replacement, and my elbow hurts sometimes when I’m swinging a golf club,” he said with a chuckle. “I love golf, but I’m not very good at it yet.”

Look for another lacrosse player named French to have some impact in the game in the not-too-distant future.

“My brother Paul’s son, Colin, scored 70 goals and won three state championships with Radnor High School in Pennsylvania,” said French. “He’s now at The Hill Academy in Caledon, Ontario, a prep school that focuses on developing hockey and lacrosse players. Colin is already committed to Lehigh University, a perennial power in the Patriot League. He's going to be a great college player.”

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Don Rickers

About the Author: Don Rickers

A life-long Niagara resident, Don Rickers worked for 35 years in university and private school education. He segued into journalism in his retirement with the Voice of Pelham, and now PelhamToday
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