A good doctor may be the best defense against illness, but who knew that a good doctor could also be the best defense against opposing lacrosse teams?
Jeff McLaren has led the Quebec Senior Lacrosse League (QSLL)‘s Vermont Voyageurs (7-4-1) defensive corps against some of box (indoor) lacrosse’s best for several years, while also pursuing a career in medicine. McLaren is a fourth year medical student at the University of Vermont’s Medical School.
"My parents always said that my grades were better when I played sports," said the 28-year-old McLaren after getting off a rotation one week night. "I’ve just kept that going through medical school."
The Essex, VT native has played in six of the Voyageurs’ 12 games this season, and while he won’t always find himself on the box score, his presence is felt by his teammates.
"Jeff is such a positive influence on and off the floor," said Voyageurs head coach and McLaren’s longtime friend Jeff Culkin. "When he’s able to be with us, he’s a boost to the team."
McLaren joined up with the Voyageurs in 2008, when Culkin decided to bring high level summer box lacrosse to the Green Mountain State. In 2009, the team accepted an invite to join the QSLL, a senior "B" semi-professional summer league with teams in Quebec or on the Adirondack Region-Canadian border. Including a Burlington, VT based team was a logical progression for the league, giving them another opponent within a two to three hour drive.
Culkin and his Voyageurs had to immediately overcome a giant hurdle; the availability of competitive box lacrosse players. "Our opponents are very well funded, and are able to bring in a lot of big names," said Culkin. Opponents’ rosters are stacked with National Lacrosse League talent - well known names like Brodie Merrill, Josh Sanderson and the Thompson brothers have all appeared on QSLL rosters over the years.
In contrast, Culkin originally fielded a team made mostly up of native Vermonters, a state not necessarily known for its lacrosse talent. McLaren, coming off a strong two-sport career at Wesleyan University, was one of the first on the roster, and one of the few who has stuck around since that inaugural season. With time, the Voyageurs have become more of a destination summer box team for the growing number of elite New England lacrosse players.
"(The team) has changed a lot since it started," said McLaren. "The level of play has increased. There are new guys every year, but there are still some familiar faces, and a lot of them have become my good friends.
"That makes it important for me to continue playing, the friends I’ve made. You make the time for it when it is a chance to do what you love and support these good friends of mine."
McLaren’s defensive play is valued by those friends on the field. Just like one would want from a future doctor, he is very exact and preventative in his play - protecting his teammates without exposing them to dangerous situations.
"He’s physical without being reckless," explained Culkin. "He’s extremely physical on the field, but he’ll go entire seasons with just four or eight penalty minutes. "We tend to have him lock on to the opposing team’s best player. He’s also fast enough that he can press out and play defense all the way out to the blue line."
That speed and defensive ability wasn’t honed on the lacrosse field, but on the football field. Like one of his alma mater’s most famous alumni (New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick), McLaren played both lacrosse and football at Wesleyan, giving him good practice for the juggling act he’s perfected now.
McLaren isn’t the only Voyageur balancing his love of lacrosse with a full-time pursuit. Most professional lacrosse players, regardless of league, make their living outside of the sport. Like other QSLL teams, Culkin has arranged the Voyageurs schedule to be complimentary to a typical nine-to-five job.
The team gathers at their home turf (Essex Arena in Essex Junction, VT) Friday evenings at 8 p.m. for a strategy workout. There’s no time for conditioning -- players must take care of being in shape on their own time. "If you aren’t taking care of your fitness on your own, it becomes real apparent," said Culkin. "Those players usually self-select out quickly."
After Friday’s practice, the team plays games Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, then the roster quickly scatters back to their weekday routine.
Until this year, McLaren was able to balance his medical textbooks with the majority of the team’s May to July schedule. "My school has a pretty relaxed atmosphere. I went to class, and as long as I was getting my work done, I could arrange my time the way I want."
This season, McLaren’s schooling has become more of a challenge. Currently on a rotation at a hospital out of the state, McLaren won’t make it back for the Voyageurs’ last four regular season games. However, he will return to Vermont just in time for the QSLL playoffs.
Lucky for McLaren, the Voyageurs are in a good spot for securing a postseason berth. They are in first place heading into their last four games of the season, which include games this weekend against the second place Kahnawake Mohawks (6-5-1) and the TNLL’s first place Akwesane (St. Regis) Braves (9-2). If the Voyageurs make the playoffs and win the QSLL title, they will become the first American team to compete for the President’s Cup, which crowns the best team in all of senior "B" summer box lacrosse.
While his team battles for the chance to contend for lacrosse history, McLaren will focus on his medical career. But when he returns to Vermont, Culkin promises there will be a space on the turf for him.
"He leads with his words and his deeds," said Culkin. "He’s just one of those people you want to have around. He’s an amazing young man."