Jeff Dowling Prime Candidate for Return to NLL
Lately, there seems to be a growing misconception amongst lacrosse pundits that in order to be considered for a coaching position in the National Lacrosse League (NLL) it’s a prerequisite to have had a Hall of Fame playing career.
Which is odd given that the NLL Coach of the Year award is named after Les Bartley, and Les never played a single game in the NLL or Major Indoor Lacrosse League (MILL), let alone having a hall of fame playing career.
While playing at an elite level, whether it be Pro, Senior A, or Junior A does give future coaches an advanced understanding of the game and perspective into the nuances of the NLL game, it’s certainly not necessary to be a “Hall of Famer”.
Jeff Dowling fits that description. It's not that Dowling wasn't a good player. He definitely was, having won multiple championships at various levels in both box and field. It's just that Dowling didn't have a playing career in the NLL. Although, he did play for the Buffalo Renegades of the short-lived all-Canadian version of the National Lacrosse League in the summer of 1991. An "overall good experience" Dowling said even though the team won just one game in the league's lone season.
Like most, Dowling got hooked on the game at an early age, but for him it happened despite having to play for a different town every year from the age of 13 through 16, mostly because there were not enough of players in each centre. From his hometown of Streetsville, to Malton, to Erindale, and eventually to Mississauga where he would finish minor and establish himself in both Junior B and Junior A, Dowling persevered.
[Pictured: Jeff Dowling, front row far left, with the 1991 Buffalo Renegades of the all-Canadian National Lacrosse League.]
“Lacrosse was my passion, so it didn't matter that I had to go to all those places because we didn't have enough players for a team,” Dowling says.
Maybe the best part about landing in Mississauga was that Dowling got to play with John Tavares - for the first time. The team went to Nationals that year and made it to the finals, where they lost to a Seaspray team that featured Gary and PaulGait and Grant and GregPepper .
Mississauga would also be where Dowling got his first taste of coaching, with a pee-wee team in the mid-80's, while he was still playing.
The group in Mississauga stayed pretty stable from 1984-87. Tavares and Dowling starred on a Junior B team that went to three straight national championship, winning the 1986 Founders Cups in Halifax. After spending his final year of junior playing A in Mississauga, Dowling moved on to Senior B with the Fergus Thistles and kept winning championships - something that became a bit of a habit throughout his career.
There were some interesting times in Fergus. For a while in the '90s, Ontario didn't have enough teams to run separate Senior A and Senior B leagues. So, the three teams from each league played an interlocking schedule, then held separate playoffs. While the Thistles may have been a Sr B team, they were loaded with Sr A talent, players like Bob Hamley, Ross Cowie, Ed Comeau, and Barry Powless. The powerhouse won a pair of Presidents Cups in 1990 and 1992 during Dowling's time there from 1989 to 1994.
Dowling spent the final years of his senior career with the Brampton Excelsiors of Major Series Lacrosse (MSL) - getting to play with Tavares again. There was even the opportunity to play in the Commonwealth Games when lacrosse was added to the event for the 1994 Games in Victoria, BC.
Dowling also played field game once he started as a university student with the Brock Badgers. He was there for the beginning of the golden age of Brock lacrosse, losing a pair of championship games before the program become virtually unbeatable in Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association (CUFLA) competition. Dowling also played for about a decade with the Hamilton Lakers in Ontario's senior men's field league.
Coaching wouldn't become his priority until 2000 when Dowling started coaching the Burlington Chiefs of the Ontario Junior A Lacrosse League (OJLL) until 2003. He then moved closer to home with the Hamilton Minor Lacrosse Association in 2005, eventually making the move up to the Junior B team in 2017.
While coaching Junior A in Burlington, Dowling got involved with the expansion Ottawa Rebel in 2002 as their Director of Player Development and Head Scout. That same year, he jumped behind the mic as the colour commentator for Buffalo Bandits game broadcasts on WNSA Radio.
The next decade in the NLL mirrored Dowling's minor lacrosse days moving from one city to the next. This time around it was because of an expansion boom, certainly not a lack of players.
[Photo: 2008 NLL Champions Cup winners the Buffalo Bandits.]
Dowling moved from lacrosse operations and media to the bench running both offences and defences for a number of NLL teams from 2003 to 2009 including the Columbus Landsharks, Anaheim Storm, Calgary Roughnecks, back to the front office with the New York Titans as Assistant General Manager, another stint with Calgary, Buffalo Bandits, and San Jose Stealth.
Dowling's stint in the NLL was highlighted by two Champions Cups. His first was with the Calgary Roughnecks in 2004 as an Assistant Coach/Defensive-Coordinator and his second with the Buffalo Bandits in 2008 as an Assistant Coach/Video-Coordinator.
Nestled nicely in those ten years was Dowling's first run in international box lacrosse winning a Gold Medal at the 2007 FIL World Indoor Lacrosse Championship in Halifax as part of Team Canada's coaching staff.
His next foray into professional lacrosse would be of the semi-pro variety. The Ontario-based Canadian Lacrosse League (CLax) came calling in the winter of 2013.
League founder Paul St. John brought CLax onto the scene with rules intended to create a new style of play, which was inspired by the old style of play. Players were forced to enter the floor from the bench door furthest from their goalie and leave the floor using the door closest to the goalie. The idea was that artificial transition would be eliminated from the game and players would need to be proficient at offence and defence. While most teams and coaches tried to finagle ways to get offensive players playing offence and defensive players playing defence, Dowling embraced the throwback style.
“Jimmy [Veltman] and Paul had those rules that they came up with. I thought they were unique and interesting,” Dowling says. “It took me back to my days, we didn't play O/D until my last few years playing.”
So Dowling built his Niagara LockMonsters roster to be able to play with three five-man lines and used their 16th runner to play a variety of roles.
Fresh off of his third President's Cup, his first as a Head Coach, with the St. Catharines Saints in the summer of 2013, Dowling was very familiar with players in the Niagara Region, which gave him a head-start building his team.
“For the most part, we picked players who could play both ways,” Dowling remembers. “Corey Fowler and Andrew Potter were fantastic on defence and they were our best players on offence. Every guy could play D if they needed to. Sure, they might get beat every now and then, but it's just about putting in effort.”
The key to success was communication - getting all the players to buy in and to bring the effort needed to play effectively at both ends of the floor. Dowling notes that when one extremely talented player was not buying in, the coaching staff sat him for a game and talked to him about what he would need to do if he wanted to play.
[Photo: 2014 CLax Creator's Cup winners the Niagara LockMonsters.]
"People couldn't believe that we sat Dylan Llord, one of our leading scorers,” Dowling recalls. But he and his staff were adamant that if players wanted to play, they had to play the right way. Llord got it, he bought in, and Dowling says he was a critical element to the LockMonsters winning the 2014 CLax Creator's Cup.
Eventually, Dowling was asked to take on a lead role in the CLax front office, where he became the Executive Vice President and Director of Lacrosse for the league's final two seasons.
Dowling currently serves as Head Coach for several teams including the Hamilton Bengals of the Ontario Junior B Lacrosse League (OJBLL), the Ireland Lacrosse Men's National Indoor Team, and with Canada for the CLL at the IIJL World Junior Lacrosse Championship. He is not, at the moment, a part of an NLL coaching staff.
Back on the international scene, which started back in 2011, Dowling has been with Team Ireland for the last three World Indoor Lacrosse Championships as well as the first ever European Box Lacrosse Championship, in Turku, Finland in 2017. Behind the bench for Ireland's first ever international win, Dowling has visions of the Irish earning a medal at the World Indoors or Euros and believes they're on the right path.
Dowling also serves as Head Coach for Canada at the IIJl World Junior Lacrosse Championship. He has been involved with the World Juniors since 2015, known then as the U19 World lacrosse Challenge, with Canada CLax who represented Canada Ontario and Canada East in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Dowling fond himself behind a unified Canadian bench when the World Juniors made the switch to one team per nation, with Canada winning Gold in 2018 in Saskatoon and most recently again in 2019 in Mississauga.
Dowling continues in the role for the CLL, currently preparing for a unique World Juniors coming out of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions, mandatory quarantines, and vaccination hesitancy have limited the number of Nations choosing to play, but Dowling will be defending World Junior Gold as the Head Coach of Canada East against Canada West - a rematch from the inaugural World Juniors where Canada West, led by Christian del Bianco, upset Dowling's Canada CLax team that featured a young Jeff Teat.
The 2021 IIJL World Junior Lacrosse Championship will be held next month in Winnipeg, MB from August 12-14 at Canada Life Centre - home of the National Hockey League (NHL) Winnipeg Jets. It will feature a Canada East versus Canada West in a super series for the Gold Medal. These games are shaping up to be the best series of games ever played at the World Juniors.
Dowling is also a natural candidate for a role in the Canadian Lacrosse League when it launches in the near future.
However, if Dowling does land an NLL gig it means he won't be on a CLL bench. The CLL will not use current NLL coaches, GMs, or executives to avoid conflicts of interest and -- more importantly -- to establish a development path that doesn't currently exists because of the huge overlap of current NLL coaches on junior benches. The CLL will not only be a development league for players and coaches, but also executives and officials who have professional lacrosse aspirations and just need some time and experience to get there.
Think of someone like Pete DeBoer, who showed his chops as an outstanding coach with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), or Paul Maurice, who began coaching with the Windsor Spitfires immediately following his junior playing career, both gaining substantial experience before moving up to the NHL.
[Photo: 2019 IIJL World Junior Lacrosse Championship God Medal winners Canada.]
Then again, there are plenty of coaches and executives who find they can have a perfectly satisfying career at the major junior level, and that's an aspiration the CLL will also serve to fulfill. To use hockey as a comparison again, look no further than Dale Hunter with the London Knights of the OHL who got a taste of coaching in the NHL with the Washington Capitals but preferred and returned to the Knights, where he and his brothers are owners.
Either way, Dowling thoroughly enjoys the coaching that he is doing but is always up for a challenge. He also knows that he has time on his side. While his work outside the game keeps him busy, Dowling is confident that given the right scenario he will be able to help a club.
“I'd like to get back into the NLL,” Dowling says. “I think I showed what I could do while I was there, got a couple of rings as well.”
Given his knowledge and acumen for evaluating players, not to mention coaching some of the best up-and-coming players in the world at World Juniors, a role as an Assistant General Manager would be a natural fit. That is how Dowling would see himself returning to the NLL as well.
“I'd like another shot to show what I can do,” Dowling concludes, “and how I can help a team win.”
There's no doubt Dowling would be a valuable asset to an NLL expansion team, or any team, looking to build a winning culture - he's done it so frequently throughout his career. Regardless of where or who he's doing it for, there will be plenty more wins and championships to follow.