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Professional lacrosse coming to Marlborough arena

Posted by Your Town  October 13, 2012 05:11 PM

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The New England Sports Center in Marlborough is usually filled with hockey chatter, hanging Bruins jerseys, Team USA banners, and signs promoting Canadian beer.

For anyone with a pair of sharp skates, this has been a second home.

But Jason Wellemeyer and Tyler Low, co-owners of PrimeTime Lacrosse, a company founded in Natick that serves youth lacrosse players, see a different vision.

There’s a $60,000 transportable turf rolled onto the ice surface of Rink 1 and some of the nation’s best lacrosse players competing on top.

There’s merchandise representing the Boston Rockhoppers – one of four teams making up the North American Lacrosse League, a new professional indoor league beginning with the 2013 season – being sold around the complex.

And there are 1,800 people – lacrosse-lovers mixed in with some hockey fans that Wellemeyer and Low expect will convert – packed around the center rink and pressed against the glass from the floor above.

On Friday afternoon, that vision became a reality, when Low announced at the New England Sports Center that the Rockhoppers will make their debut in January.

“It creates a very unique venue where it’s going to be loud and exciting,” said Low at an introductory press conference Friday afternoon at NESC, with Wellemeyer, general manager Anthony Fitti, coach Jack Piatelli and a handful of player candidates as they showcased team merchandise.

“It was about finding an area that people would really get excited about this happening, and people would show this excitement through ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandise sales.

“For us, it fit hand in hand with our goal of growing the game. Solely with the foot traffic through hockey, we’ve already seen people getting excited about the Rockhoppers who may have never even considered playing lacrosse.”

The league, which was founded in 2011 but realigned after disagreement among ownership groups, particularly about when the season would be played, hosted some exhibition games last winter and is scheduled to begin its first real season in January.

With three other teams from Kentucky, Rhode Island and Baltimore, the Rockhoppers will play a 12-game schedule with six home games at NESC, all played on Saturdays, kickoff off Jan. 12, 2013.

Even though the Rockhoppers – a mascot that represents a rebellious, angry penguin swinging a lacrosse stick – will be from Boston, Wellemeyer and Low thought Marlborough would be better a fit for their home base.

And while the Kentucky Stickhorses will play in a venue, Freedom Hall, that supports upward of 17,000 fans, New England Sports Center should provide a different atmosphere with a more intimate setting and affordable ticket prices (student tickets are $11, general admission is $15.50 and premium seating – the section above the rink in enclosed glass – will be $21.50).

“I think it should draw a decent crowd,” said Jon Hayes, a Waltham native who played with the Boston Cannons during the summer and hopes to recover from foot surgery in time for the Rockhoppers season.

Hayes, like many others on the roster, played hockey at the NESC when he was younger.

“It’s going to be a blast,” he said. “The intimate setting with the crowd being on top of the glass – it has the potential to be a big home-field advantage.”

The league’s constitution includes a rule that requires each team’s 23-man roster to include at least 18 American-born players, a requirement that fights against the pull of box-lacrosse players from Canada.

“I would be surprised if we have too many players from outside the [New England] area,” Low said.

The players may not make the salaries they made during the outdoor Major League Lacrosse season (most players also have full-time jobs during the week), but Wellemeyer and Low expect to offer them additional compensation through coaching opportunities.

And for guys like Hayes and Mike Stone, a Wellesley native who really found his groove toward the tail end of the Cannons’ season, it affords the chance to play at a higher level year-round.

“I’ve just been trying to stay in shape playing in men’s leagues,” Stone said. “I felt for a while that I can be playing and contributing in a similar way to how I played [with the Cannons] this year and it was nice to get that opportunity. Now I’m looking forward to indoor. It’s a whole different game.”

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@yahoo.com

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