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When lacrosse was king: New exhibit looks at the sport's history in Port Coquitlam

Port Coquitlam has produced many notable lacrosse players who've excelled at the university, junior and senior levels of the box and field games.

There was a time when Port Coquitlam's biggest rival in lacrosse was itself.

Occasionally, games between the north and south side of town got so heated brawls broke out before the opening face-off in the shared clubhouse that served as a dressing room at the old outdoor lacrosse box at Rowland Park.

That's one of dozens of stories shared in a new exhibition about the city's lacrosse history, PoCo LAX, that opens at the PoCo Heritage Museum and Archives on Saturday, Sept. 23.

"It's a sport close to the heart of the city," said museum manager, Alex Code, who did much of the research for the display by reading old newspaper clippings, archival records and game programs, filing through scrapbooks and interviewing some of the people responsible for building lacrosse in Port Coquitlam.

In fact, Rowland Park is named after Doug Rowland, who participated in the city's first lacrosse games, played on his family's farm.

Until the 1930s, most lacrosse in Port Coquitlam was played outdoors against teams from Hammond, New Westminster and the Katzie First Nation, which, Code said, regularly stomped the locals.

The city’s first box lacrosse facility was constructed by volunteers in 1934 at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Mary Hill Road, sparking a boom in the confined version of the sport until the onset of WWII.

After the war, there were three box organizations in PoCo, representing the north, south and west sides of the city and before long it became apparent that whichever team had Mike "Pearly" Gates on its roster would dominate.

Gates was Port Coquitlam's first homegrown lacrosse star, despite his wiry stature, said Code.

In a game known for its body contact Gates would bend to the hits but never break, then rip a shot past unsuspecting goalies with aplomb.

Gates went on to lead the New Westminster Jr. Salmonbellies to three league and two Western Canadian championships, as well as one Minto Cup national title — in 1960. The next year with the Sr. Salmonbellies, he was the Western Lacrosse Association's rookie of the year and in 1962 he led the team to a Mann Cup victory.

In 1965, Gates joined the Coquitlam Adanacs for seven seasons and from May 4, 1967, to July 5, 1969, he scored at least a point in 93 consecutive games, a record that still stands.

When Gates' playing career was cut short by a badly broken leg sustained while playing soccer, he took up coaching and served as president of the Port Coquitlam Minor Lacrosse Association before getting elected to city council for more than 20 years. He was inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1977.

Another prominent player in Port Coquitlam's lacrosse history is Michelle Bowyer, who will be a featured speaker at the opening of PoCo LAX at 1 p.m..

Inducted into the sport’s hall of fame in 2020 as only its third female member, Bowyer was a charter player of Port Coquitlam's first girls box lacrosse team in 1972, when she was 15 years old.

And while their games may have not had the rough and tough physical component as the boys, they still got up to some notable moments, said Code. Like the time a PoCo team didn’t show up for a game in the city's old sports arena so their Richmond opponents decided to steal the flags hanging from the rafters.

As well, Code added, several local players have gone on to make their mark at college programs in the United States along with top senior and professional leagues.

"People get to know a community through its sports," Code said.

An opening reception for PoCo LAX will be held Saturday, Sept. 23 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Registration is required. The exhibit continues for a year.