By Steven Wizniuk
When I saw the first airplane rising over the North Elba fields with the mountains and Olympic ski jumps in the background, I finally felt why Lake Placid is such a special place for the lacrosse community.
Amongst the beauty of the Adirondack Mountains the Lake Placid Summit Classic has brought people together for friendship, competition, and a connection that is so unique in this sport for 32 years. Driving up to Lake Placid for the first time reminded me of the first game I ever played at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena on the Six Nations Reservation. It’s one of those places where the sport is elevated to a different level. It gives you the chills the first time you’re there.
My older brother was the first person to play lacrosse in my family and I followed suit like little brothers do. There isn’t much of a history between my own family and lacrosse, but being at Lake Placid I felt like a true member of the lacrosse family. Being welcomed with open arms by George Leveille, the Summit Lacrosse Ventures staff, and others who have been at every Lake Placid tournament immediately makes you comfortable in such a legendary place.
Kevin Leveille described it as a bubble that we are all in for that week. A lacrosse sanctuary away from the troubles of the outside world. It was an incredible feeling to come to the fields everyday with a fresh slate of lacrosse games to watch and new people to meet everywhere I turned.
As I helped with Rhino Lacrosse for the Scholastic Tournament, I got to see the legacy of lacrosse here first hand. We had an incredible coaching staff with names like Jon Hess, Liam Banks, Brett Bucktooth, Mike Witek, and Matt Harris who all were able to coach their sons’ teams. Being able to see the moment where Brett Bucktooth Jr. passes to Liam Banks Jr. for a goal just like their fathers did at Syracuse years ago is something I’ll never forget.
On another field Joey Spallina, the future #22 at Syracuse, was dismantling defenses and putting on a show similar to how another #22 drew crowds at his first Lake Placid experience back in the 1990s. That #22 now watched from the sidelines as he coached his Casey Powell World Lacrosse Foundation team before he would return to the fields for the adult tournament.
“I had the opportunity to bring some teams up here this year from different parts of the country and I had them all grab a piece of grass,” said Casey Powell. “They pick it up and I tell them ‘Fellas I don’t know if you understand, but the best lacrosse players of all time have played in this canyon in Lake Placid.’”
It seemed like everywhere I looked there was a lacrosse legend.
In one walk down the fields you could rub shoulders with Gary Gait and Dave Pietramala in their Syracuse gear, Dom Starsia, Lars Tiffany, John Tillman, Shawn Nadalen, John Grant Jr., and of course Ryan and Casey Powell.
Lake Placid is where former teammates meet again after years apart and are able to introduce their kids to their teammates’ kids as the next chapter of lacrosse is written. Between quarters all of the kids run out to take shots on the nets and then scramble back to their lawn chairs when the whistle blows. It’s also where the community comes together to remember those who will never return to the tournament again.
Hearing of John Zulberti’s death was a complete shock. To be in the place where I’d read about him dominating every summer didn’t seem real. I never met him and I only knew him from the grainy highlights of his dip and dunks and the orange Converse racing around the Dome and at Bryd Stadium. You could see how much he gave to the game and to his friends by the outreach on social media. On the first night of the adult tournament, we gathered to remember Z and how much he meant to the sport and to Lake Placid. Hearing those who knew him talk about Z was a special moment. Those gathered there ended the memorial with a powerful “Z!” chant that echoed through the mountains.
“John wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the game of lacrosse,” said Casey Powell at the memorial. “He was perfect for us here at Lake Placid.”
To win a Lake Placid Championship is a big big deal. You can see it as you watch the games of the 50+ to 65+ players who are still diving for ground balls and giving it all they have left in the tank. They’re yelling at the refs just like the kids do and they have smiles on their faces just like they did when they first picked up a stick.
On any given field you will be able to catch a good game. It doesn’t matter what the score is because everyone out there is playing hard and having a good time being back on the field with friends old and new. The best lacrosse in the world isn’t played in an NFL stadium with corporate sponsors everywhere. I watched some of the best lacrosse I’ve ever seen on grass fields lined with families cheering on their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives.
Placid is a place where players across many classes from schools like Syracuse, Princeton, Cornell, and others can all play together to form extremely talented teams. The only time the 3 Powell brothers played together on the same team was in the backyard, for Team USA in 2006, and at Lake Placid for many Burning and Burnt Orange teams.
I can’t even imagine how good the games were here before the start of the MLL.
The Legends of Lake Placid Ceremony showcases the legacy of the people who make this tournament what it is. Players, builders, and referees are honored for their contributions to the tournament. A few of the award winners have unfortunately passed away so their families accept the awards in their place. The speeches are emotional, but filled with great memories and laughs. The ceremony is also an opportunity to pay it forward and give back to charities like City Lax, Harlem Lacrosse, the Headstrong Foundation, the Casey Powell World Lacrosse Foundation, and the Iroquois Lacrosse Development Program.
Especially after a tough year of loss in the lacrosse community, at the Legends Ceremony George Leveille explained that “when we lose people their spirit lives on. I might not have seen them today, but they’re still here. They’re so much a part of Lake Placid that their spirit will never leave.”
Many of the Legends talked about how Lake Placid is a place of healing and this year you could see it in real time with someone like Casey Vock in a place that he loves so much after his tragic accident in May. It was amazing to see everyone offering their support and telling him how happy they were to see him healthy.
The only piece that was missing from my Placid experience was the Men’s and Women’s Open 18+ Divisions made up of the college and post college players. They had to play in Albany this year because of limited space due to construction in town and Covid regulations. Having the wilder group of players around would definitely elevate the play on the field and the excitement around town. Hopefully next year everyone can be back together again.
The worries of getting the sport to the Olympics or on major sports networks disappear at Lake Placid. Everyone is here because they fell in love with playing lacrosse or were welcomed into this community through family and friends. The tailgates in the parking lot and laughs of friends reunited by the game are what it’s all about. I have never felt so connected to lacrosse than I did standing on those fields.
One of the days the Rhino Lacrosse coaching staff was all together, Brett Bucktooth said something about shooting on a net that will stick with everybody who was there. He said “The corners haven’t moved for 1,000 years. I’ve stood here and the corners never moved.” We are lucky to play this ancient game and no matter what Lake Placid looks like 10 or 100 years from now, the memories and love of lacrosse will linger in these mountains forever.
The late Paul Lamparski was honored as a Lake Placid Legend this year and his wife and daughter accepted the award in his honor. His wife Lee and George Leveille both shared quotes from Paul’s book called Paul’s Wild Ride that beautifully sum up how it feels to play lacrosse and to be up at Lake Placid:
“Lacrosse is not a thing, not a game, not an event. It is a state of mind. A state of mind that lifts you from an existential place to a transcendental world of exhilarating possibilities. Pay attention to the changes in self when you play. Some changes are subtle and other changes can be explosively transforming, but all changes are positive and beneficial.”
“Lacrosse is a unique environment and community. Talent and skill varies among the players, but we make the conscious choice to keep judgement out of the game. Settle into the lacrosse vibe and play the game to the best of your ability then share a few beers afterward among both teammates and opponents. A simple recipe that yields exceptional benefits and camaraderie.”