The stars were indeed shining brightly in Verona on Sunday afternoon. But they just weren't hitting anybody or playing much defense. The National Lacrosse League's all-star game was held at the Oneida Indian Nation-owned Event Center at Turning Stone Resort Casino.
In the contest, which primarily featured players showcasing their offensive skills, the East Division stars downed their West Division counterparts 30-26. The league's showcase match featured four Native players, including Brett Bucktooth, a member of the winning East side who is from the local Oneida Indian Nation.
"I am very proud the all-star game is at the Oneida Indian Nation casino," said Bucktooth, a 27-year-old who is in his fifth season in the league as a member of the Buffalo Bandits. "Not only is lacrosse coming back to its roots but it's also showing Native businesses are considered a success."
Bucktooth was joined on the East all-stars by two other Native players, Sid Smith and Cody Jamieson, who both play for the Rochester Knighthawks. The pair are also both from Six Nations in Ontario.
Meanwhile, Jeff Shattler, an Ojibwe who suits up for the Calgary Roughnecks, was a member of the West Division all-stars. For Shattler, this was his third NLL all-star game. But for the other three Native players, they were all taking part for the first time.
Bucktooth found out he would participate in the game via a text message from his younger brother a couple of weeks earlier.
"I was surprised and shocked," he said of his all-star selection.
Some of the biggest cheers on Sunday though were for Bucktooth. He proved he belonged in the contest by scoring six points, including three goals. At times, Bucktooth admitted he's surprised he's even in the NLL, on the same floor as the world's best box lacrosse players.
"I'm still in awe playing with these guys," he said. "I just take it day by day. To be an all-star though is just a huge, huge honor for me."
Jamieson also had a productive all-star game appearance. He netted four goals and chipped in with an assist. Smith, who is noted for his stellar defensive play, was held pointless. And Shattler, who opened the scoring for the West, also earned an assist later in the match.
Sunday's match was played in front of about 2,000 fans. Capacity at the facility was just over 2,600. Some of the all-star participants had to hustle to Verona after playing league games on Saturday night. That included Smith and Jamieson, who played in Rochester and then had to drive through a snowstorm before arriving in Verona in the early hours of Sunday morning. Smith though wasn't complaining.
"It's a great honor to be here," he said. "I'm just taking it all in. It's a new experience for me." As for John Tavares, a 42-year-old who is still considered one of the league's premier players, he was taking part in his ninth NLL all-star match.
"I think it means a lot to lacrosse that the game is played on a reservation," said Tavares, adding since he grew up near Toronto he fondly remembers games he would play in front of lacrosse-mad fans in Six Nations.
Though he too was once again pleased to be chosen a league all-star, Tavares said he's not a fan of the game's format. He doesn't like the fact all participants in the game earn the same amount of money, $500 each.
"I'm a competitive guy," he said.
So, he'd prefer to see a game where there was actually something on the line, suggesting perhaps members of the winning squad should receive $1,000 each while the losers get nothing.
"Or maybe just give $100 more to the winners," he said. "Or even a lollipop. Something would be good. Anything."
The all-star match included a halftime ceremony which recognized members of the Iroquois Nationals squad. Club members were involved in a well-documented passport snafu this past summer, which prevented them from participating at the world championships in England.
NLL commissioner George Daniel said team officials approached the league and inquired whether they could be honored during the all-star match.
"I said absolutely," Daniel said, adding the league was a big supporter of the team during last year's stretch over its travel concerns and that he himself had written a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trying to help the club's cause.