Buffalo Bandits assistant coach Rusty Kruger has a similar story to many Canadian kids, growing up playing ice hockey in the winter and transitioning to box lacrosse in the summer. A product of the Orangeville Northmen, Kruger won three Minto Cups, awarded to the top junior men’s lacrosse team in Canada, in 1993, 1995 and 1996. That included an MVP award during the 1995 final. Kruger turned his passion for Canada’s national summer sport into a lengthy career in the National Lacrosse League.
Drafted sixth overall by the Philadelphia Wings in 1997, the Orangeville, Ontario native went on to play 13 seasons with seven different clubs, winning NLL Championships in 2005 (Toronto) and 2008 (Buffalo). Kruger had a knack for finding the score sheet, notching 242 points (125+117) in 115 games.
To go along with his two NLL titles, Kruger owns two Mann Cup championships, awarded to the top senior men’s box lacrosse team in Canada, with the Brampton Excelsiors in 2002 and 2008.
After coaching Orangeville to two more Minto Cups in 2008 and 2009, Kruger set his sights on an NLL job. He found a home with his former team in Buffalo, spending six seasons as an eastern scout and assistant coach before stepping behind the bench for the 2018-19 season as the team’s offensive coach.
We caught up with Kruger to chat about the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (UCBLL), what the league means to him as a coach, and how box lacrosse growing in the United States will help the NLL take off.
With the expansion of the NLL season-to-season, how important is it for Americans to become involved in box lacrosse and why?
Kruger: With the NLL continuing to expand, it will become more dependent on American-born players. Right now, it features mostly the best Canadian and Native American-born players. A lot of Americans don’t play in the NLL because of their inexperience with the indoor game. It’s vital for the long-term growth of the NLL that more American players become involved to bring new and talented players to the league and get American fans to engage more by supporting their players.
How and why is the National Collegiate Box Series valuable to NLL teams to use as a scouting tool for American-born players?
Kruger: The National Collegiate Box Series is a great tool for NLL teams as it provides an opportunity for scouts to watch them play box lacrosse. When scouting field lacrosse players, you have to consider if their talents on the field can translate into the indoor game. This tool helps give a good look at these players.
What are your thoughts on the Bandits and Knighthawks partnering to bring the Upstate Box Lacrosse League to the WNY area?
Kruger: This is a great idea, to bring more awareness to the box lacrosse game across WNY. It will provide players with a box lacrosse experience. It also provides a wider depth of coaching and skill development for these players to learn the indoor game.
What do you think the advantages are to field players to play box lacrosse in the summer?
Kruger: I think there are many advantages. One of the largest is that you don’t have as much time and space to react on an indoor floor. This helps players skill development in areas like shooting accuracy with smaller nets and emphasizes their quicker decision-making ability in plays. The game is also more physical than field lacrosse, which helps players become more resilient.
As an assistant coach and scout, what do you look for in players who have a background in field lacrosse, and how you hope that translates indoors?
Kruger: Offensively, I look for players who are athletic and can create their own shot, have good vision, make good decisions, and make the players around them better. On the defensive side, it is important to be athletic, and size is also a factor. I also look for players that have good footwork, good body positioning, and communicate well. Most importantly, I look for players with a high compete level, great work ethic, and players who put the team first.
What has the growth of box lacrosse meant to you as an Assistant Coach in the NLL?
Kruger: On a personal note, the growth of box lacrosse means a lot to me, as lacrosse has been a big part of my life since childhood. On a professional note, the growth means more interest in the game and the need to continue to bring youth into lacrosse so we can have the depth of players that the league requires. I want to see this momentum continue and for lacrosse to become a major professional sport.
What advice would you give to college-aged players who may be learning the game of box lacrosse for the first time?
Kruger: My advice for players is to realize the benefits of diversifying their game by playing box as well as field. Box lacrosse brings a whole new skill set to players, which will ultimately help their field game and provide them an opportunity in the box league. It’s not an easy transition, but one that is worth sticking it out for. Both games are fun, and players have to love what they play to be successful in the end.