Buffalo Bandits forward Josh Byrne will achieve a lifelong dream on Friday. The young phenom will represent his home country of Canada and compete at the highest international level of the outdoor style of lacrosse, the 2018 World Lacrosse Championship, in Netanya, Israel.
He – along with his 22 teammates – nearly didn't get the opportunity. Up until three weeks ago, it was uncertain if Canada, the defending gold medalists, would field a team at all.
"It was kind of an uneasy feeling there for a while," Byrne said. "For the longest time there, honestly most of us were like, 'I don't think we're really going to go.' "
Holding up the Canadians' chances at defending their title was a dispute between the Canadian Lacrosse Organization and the National Lacrosse Team Players' Association.
According to Inside Lacrosse, the players were focused on three major issues: that the CLA not make unilateral changes to the National Team Policy and Guidelines, that the CLA begin the process of regaining the charitable organization status it lost because of a funding program deemed inappropriate by the Canada Revenue Agency and that the CLA improve insurance coverage for players taking part in national team activities.
The situation looked dire just over a month from the tournament's launch, especially once the CLA began contacting substitute players to gauge their interest.
None of the negotiating players buckled, and neither did those asked to serve as scabs. After weeks of disputes, a tentative agreement was put in place on June 12. It was officially signed four days later. In the end, Canada sent its best players to the World Lacrosse Championship, which kicks off Thursday and runs to July 21.
"It's been a very exciting feeling knowing we're finally actually going," Byrne said on Friday before boarding a plane from Toronto to Israel. "I'm glad it's behind us."
Byrne said he wasn't directly involved in the process but was aware of advancements in the negotiations.
"We stuck behind our leaders," Byrne said. "They did a very good job communicating to us what was really going on, what was best for Canada lacrosse in the future and for the organization as a whole, not just the men's team but the women's team and the U-19 team."
He'll get a chance to suit up for a strong Canadian squad coached by Randy Mearns, who left Canisius College last summer after 19 years as the Golden Griffins' head coach to help launch a program at St. Bonaventure. The group has high expectations, as 10 players return from the 2014 team that defeated the U.S., 8-5, in the final.
The unexpected death of Dave Huntley, a stalwart of Canadian lacrosse, has provided additional motivation.
"You're going there with one thing in mind, and that's to win a championship," Byrne said. "I think everyone is on the same page."
There are 46 teams competing in the tournament but only three have a realistic shot at gold — the U.S., Canada and the Iroquois Nationals.
The Iroquois boast six participants with local ties. Former Bandit forward Brett Bucktooth is an assistant coach for the Iroquois, while midfielders Zed Williams, Frank Brown and Ron John and defensemen Liam Anderson and Johnson Jimerson all traveled to Israel as players.
Williams, The Buffalo News' 2013 Borrelli Award selection, graduated from Silver Creek as the nation's all-time career leader in goals and points. He's playing professional lacrosse outdoors for the Boston Cannons and indoors with the Georgia Swarm. Brown, his former teammate at Silver Creek, plays indoors with the Rochester Knighthawks.
John, a Lake Shore graduate, is entering his junior year at the University at Albany. The defensive midfielder had three goals and three assists in 12 games last season.
Anderson, who lives in Lewiston and is a citizen of the Tuscarora Nation, was selected as the 2017 recipient of the prestigious Tewaaraton Native American Scholarship. He played high school lacrosse at IMG Academy. Jimerson is a 2009 graduate of Gowanda.
Fourteen games will be aired on ESPN2 and ESPNU, with an additional 160 on ESPN's subscription service, ESPN+. The U.S. and Iroquois kick off pool play with a star-studded matchup Thursday at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN2. Canada debuts on television on Saturday against Scotland at 11 a.m. on ESPNU. The rematch of last tournament's gold medal game comes at noon on Sunday on ESPN2.
The championship, which will air on ESPN2, is on July 21.