Toronto Star

Powless aiming higher after stunning hat trick

Star no longer under radar following Lou Marsh buzz, eyes bigger role in NLL


Colin Doyle knew Johnny Powless was a special lacrosse player the first time they ran on the same floor.

It was two years ago, when a 19year-old Powless was called up midseason to join Doyle, then 35 and among the best players of his generation, on a stacked Six Nations Chiefs team.

On one of their first shifts together, Powless set a high pick for Doyle, who drove the middle of the floor while the rookie — whom teammates affectiona­tely dubbed “Pup” — spun off a defender and headed for the net.

“Johnny put himself in the only position where I could get him a pass, caught it on the run and stuck it in the net,” Doyle said, laughing at the memory from the Major Series Lacrosse senior summer league. It might not have looked like much from the stands, Doyle added, “but it was one of those things you’d expect to have to work on with a guy for years. That stuck with me.”

Doyle — the longtime Toronto Rock captain, who will miss this season while recovering from shoulder surgery — has watched plenty of budding lacrosse stars come and go in his nearly two-decade career. Powless, he says, is a cut above.

“Obviously he’s a good-size kid, he has tremendous hands and he knows how to use his body,” he said. “But what sets him above everybody else is his lacrosse mind and his ability to understand the game.”

Though well-known within lacrosse circles, Powless was introduced to most Canadians just this month when he was named to a starstudde­d shortlist for the Lou Marsh Award, joining two-time Olympic gold medallist Kaillie Humphries, tennis stars Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, and L.A. Kings defenceman Drew Doughty. Humphries won the award — which is given annually to Canada’s top athlete as voted by a panel of sports journalist­s — but Powless’s nomination alone surprised most observers, including the man himself.

He says he found out when someone mentioned him on Twitter, but he thought it was a joke. “I had no idea about the award, but I clicked the link and saw it was these bigname tennis and hockey players so I figured somebody was messing with me, so I left it.”

As the Twitter mentions piled up, Powless Googled “Lou Marsh” and saw his name alongside the others. “It’s really an honour just to be mentioned with those athletes,” he said. “I was just shocked and surprised.”

Powless, who turns 22 in March, earned his place among the country’s best by putting together an almost unheard-of hat trick in a single calendar year. He won his third straight National Lacrosse League championsh­ip with the Rochester Knighthawk­s, then won the junior national title with the Six Nations Arrows — earning MVP honours in the process — before joining the Six Nations Chiefs, with whom he went on to win the Mann Cup, the senior national title.

“I was just really lucky to be part of three good teams,” he told the Star recently by telephone. “It’s kind of funny looking back because when the season is going on, you don’t really think about it too much and now I look back and think, ‘Oh, I did a lot.’ ”

Powless grew up surrounded by lacrosse. He was born and raised — and still lives — in Six Nations, an Iroquois reserve near Brantford where the sport is deeply entrenched in the community’s culture.

“Everyone plays here,” says Quinn Powless, Johnny’s cousin and teammate on the Six Nations junior team. “As soon as you’re born there’s a lacrosse stick in your crib with you.”

Johnny’s mother, Laurie, taught him how to scoop a lacrosse ball soon after he learned to walk. His father, Joe — who had a short profession­al career himself — tutored his son in the finer points of the game, showing him head fakes and spin moves while he was still a toddler. He also instilled in him a relentless work ethic. “When I was about 4, my dad would make me go outside and practise a lot,” Powless recalls. “If he showed me a move I’d have to do it over and over and over until I got it done right. I think that made a big difference.”

Powless’s teammates and coaches struggle at first to describe what makes him a great player. They praise his instincts, his anticipati­on and his competitiv­eness, before eventually landing on his “lacrosse IQ.”

“He just sees the game on a different level than probably 90 per cent of the other players,” said Duane Jacobs, the general manager and assistant coach of the Chiefs. “He sees the game two plays ahead. It’s something you can’t teach. He just has it, to go along with the talent he has.”

“Growing up he’s always had that instinct,” says Quinn Powless, who figures he’s played alongside his cousin since they’ve been out of diapers. “He’s one of those players that makes the whole team better.”

What impressed Doyle most about Powless was his ability to fit into whatever team he joined this season: he was a star on the junior team, but just “a piece of the puzzle” on the senior squad.

“That’s not something you see a lot,” Doyle said. “That ability to find ways to contribute to winning teams, there hasn’t been a lot of younger kids — or even older players — who can do that.”

But after three NLL championsh­ip seasons with Rochester, Powless says he felt stuck. He wanted a bigger role — a chance to carry the ball more often rather than simply serve as a complement­ary player — but was told he wasn’t going to get it.

“They told me these were the guys who carry the ball and you just set picks. I told them I needed to grow as a player and I want to learn.”

Powless asked to be traded this offseason and Rochester complied, sending him and Joel McCready — plus the ninth and 23rd picks in the 2014 draft — to the Vancouver Stealth for the second and 11th selections and Vancouver’s first-round picks in 2015 and 2017.

Powless, who spends his days between games working for a conservati­on-focused landscape business and greenhouse on Six Nations, says he doesn’t expect to repeat his remarkable 2014 season, but he’s looking forward to new challenges.

“I think this year I’m going to learn alot: I’m going to grow as a player and become better, too.”

“What sets him above everybody else is his lacrosse mind and his ability to understand the game.” COLIN DOYLE ON JOHNNY POWLESS (PHOTO) OF THE VANCOUVER STEALTH

The National Lacrosse League season starts Jan. 2. The Toronto Rock open Jan. 3 against Powless’s old team in Rochester.

 ?? ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR ?? Lacrosse sensation Johnny Powless recalls being “shocked and surprised” to find he was up for Canadian athlete of the year after winning junior, senior and NLL titles in one calendar year.
ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR Lacrosse sensation Johnny Powless recalls being “shocked and surprised” to find he was up for Canadian athlete of the year after winning junior, senior and NLL titles in one calendar year.

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