Dan Dawson can remember a time when playing lacrosse was nothing more than a boyhood pastime in Oakville, Ontario, just outside Toronto.
He never imagined his favorite game would turn into a career, and he certainly didn’t figure to be playing Canada’s second favorite sport deep in the Sonoran Desert.
"I didn’t even know there was pro lacrosse," he said.
Now, at 23, Dawson is the leading scorer of the Arizona Sting, and his star is rising even faster than that of the rapidly growing National Lacrosse League.
With half of the Sting’s second season in the Valley complete, Dawson ranks second in the league with 28 goals — surpassing his total of 26 last season — through just eight games.
Perhaps more importantly, Dawson is bringing a face to a team fighting for an identity in a loaded sports market.
"It’s really nice to have a fellow that is in the upper echelon of players in this league," Sting coach Bob Hamley said. "In the past, this franchise really hasn’t had a go-to guy or a superstar, and I think Dan is becoming that type of player where we can rely on him heavily. That’s what we’ve done this year."
Dawson presented his case to be recognized as one of the next great players in the sport Saturday, scoring three goals for the Western Conference in an 11-10 loss to the East in the NLL All-Star game. The event was the first-ever NLL game to be televised on a major network, airing on NBC.
Following the game, the league put on a skills competition for fans. Dawson literally ran away with the agility competition title.
At 6-foot-5, Dawson is three inches taller than anyone else on the Sting. With quicker feet than most players six inches shorter than him, Dawson combines speed with a reach advantage second to none in the NLL.
Hamley insists the physical ingredients have been there since Dawson was drafted out of Junior A lacrosse in Canada two years ago, when the franchise was located in Columbus, Ohio. The youngster just needed some encouragement.
"Last year I was more of a playmaker, but this year my coach and my teammates expect me to go to the net a lot more," Dawson said. "I’m playing with a lot of confidence right now."
On pace to double his goal total of a year ago and receive consideration for league most valuable player, Dawson is in position to receive a lucrative contract, by NLL standards, after his current deal expires at the end of the season.
Although the Sting players who live in Arizona during the season — about half the team commutes to the Valley from Canada before each game — have their room and board paid for, the average annual salary in the league is only around $15,000.
"We know we are the pioneers of this game," Dawson said. "Ten years from now maybe guys will live off lacrosse, but for now, we’re just trying to promote the sport and get it on the map. I’d love to make a life down here in the desert and really do this full time. Hopefully, we’re close to getting to that stage."