Much like the Canadian flag itself, Zach Currier’s left shoulder is made up primarily of the color red.
Currier is wearing a Princeton men’s lacrosse sweatshirt, and he takes it off to show a series of welts, bruises, cuts and abrasions. He is literally wearing his passion for the game on his sleeve.
The different shades of red that make up his shoulder are the result of the endless skirmishes in which he finds himself during every lacrosse game in which he finds himself, literally play-by-play, minute-after-minute, for the full 60 minutes.
He is the definition of the player you love to hate – unless he’s yours, in which case you absolutely love him.
“We cherish the moments we have with Zach,” his head coach, Matt Madalon, says. Then he pauses, before he continues with this: “I know I would never, ever want to play against him.”
Like most Canadian players, Currier, a senior, grew up playing the indoor game, which is more physical, requires great stick skills – witness his over-the-shoulder shot with his back to the goal that in a blink was in the back of the net against Dartmouth - and doesn’t necessarily promote the need to develop an off-hand.
Currier is unapologetically left-handed. He often carries his stick in one hand, his left, choosing to shovel underhanded passes when he gets in trouble. That is, when he doesn’t choose to simply play through the trouble. He might have the best sense of balance of any player in lacrosse, and his ability to maintain possession against contact both on his feet and on the ground is extraordinary.
He currently leads all Division I midfielders in points (47) and assists (27, which means he has 20 goals). His 27 assists rank seventh among all players in the country, regardless of position. Though he is one of 13 players in program history with at least 50 goals and 50 assists in his career, he’s not what you think of when you think an offensive middie, since he almost never comes off the field. And because of everything else he does.
He faces off. He plays the face-off wings. He plays defense. He leads Princeton in caused turnovers. When he “rests,” he doesn’t do it on the sideline – he does it on attack when the ball is on the defensive end of the field.
“He comes out of games barely able to walk with the effort he gives,” Madalon says. “He can grind. He can play silky smooth. He plays everywhere on the field. He can score, but he doesn’t have to score. He can take over a game, or he can back away and let others take over. Find me another guy in Division I who is like him.”
I can’t. I have been covering Princeton men’s lacrosse for nearly 30 years, and I’ve been the official scorer for the last 12 NCAA championships. I watch as much lacrosse on television as I can.
I have never seen a player who does what Currier does, how Currier does it. His ability to impact every piece of a game is extraordinary. He makes every little play that needs to be made.
What’s most incredible, though, is his singular talent in one area. Nobody – nobody – can pick up a ground ball like Zach Currier.
Currier has 96 ground balls for the season and 268 for his career, third-best in program history. He trails only Greg Waller (333) and James Mitchell (284), who were dominant face-off men, the kinds of players who usually rack up ground balls.
Waller and Mitchell took the overwhelming majority of the face-offs when they played. Currier has taken fewer than 40% (actually 39.2%) of Princeton’s face-offs this season and prior to this year had never taken more than 32% of the team’s face-offs in a season.
No, what Currier does isn’t to win a face-off and get the ground ball. What Currier does is stick his nose into the pile, wherever and whenever there is a pile, and more often than not come away with the ball.
No other Princeton player has reached double figures in ground balls in a game since 2010. Currier has done it seven times in his career.
His skill gets Princeton’s offense, which has spent all of the season in the top three nationally in goals per game, so many additional possessions. It also means Currier spends much of his day getting physically mauled by his opponents.
“You have to be willing to put yourself out there and take a beating,” Madalon said. “You have to be okay with that. Not too many people are.”
Riley Thompson, a fellow Canadian, has played with Currier first at Culver Military Academy in Indiana and now at Princeton. This is what he has to say about Currier’s ground ball skills: “I'd like to say Currier's ground ball skills come from playing box lacrosse back in Canada, but I think his skills come from out of this world.”
Madalon’s take starts in the same place.
“I attribute it to playing the indoor game growing up,” the coach says. “The ball never leaves the playing surface. The opportunities to put yourself in ground ball scenarios come up way more often than when it goes out of bounds in the outdoor game. Tom Schreiber [former Princeton All-America who is playing his first season in the indoor National Lacrosse League] said he knows why Canadians are so good at ground balls. I asked him what he’s going to take back to the outdoor game after playing indoors, and he said it’s the ability to pick up loose balls.”
As for me, I go along with Thompson’s “out-of-this-world” theory.
Currier came to talk to me for this story after sitting in an ice bath, which is what he does to ward off the beatings he takes. He showed me his shoulder, and of course, my first reaction was to take a picture of it and put in on the team’s Instagram page.
The picture was unidentified. The first comment was this: “I’m guessing this is Spike.”
Currier is nicknamed Spike. Every member of the program calls him that. Currier said that Bear Altemus, a fellow senior, gave him that nickname.
Why, I asked Altemus, as he stretched on the field prior to the game at Dartmouth.
Altemus then told the story about how he and Currier were roommates and Altemus had his arm in a sling after a shoulder injury. Currier wanted to play video games, and Altemus didn’t. To get Altemus to see it his way, Currier started throwing small objects from Altemus’ dresser at him.
As Altemus swatted them away one by one, with only one free hand, he finally yelled out that Currier was like an annoying dog, named Spike. The nickname stuck.
Altemus thought about it for a second, and then he said that Currier plays the same way, like an annoying dog.
The last comment under that picture on Instagram came from his older brother Josh, who played at Virginia Wesleyan and who is currently in the NLL. It said this: “Whose arm is this? It looks pretty small, do you not have a gym at Princeton?”
Zach Currier is listed at 6-0, 180 pounds. There is nothing small about his arms. This is more about how brothers talk to each other than anything else. It also gives you a sense as to where Currier’s competitiveness originated.
The Curriers are from Peterborough, a huge box lacrosse town in the Canadian province of Ontario, a little closer to Toronto than it is to Ottawa. Zach began his athletic career playing hockey when he was just three years old and then box lacrosse in in-house leagues.
His first competitive team came when he was 8, and the coach was a man named Joey Hiltz. He’s the one I wanted to talk to, because I wanted to ask him about what Currier was like when he first started to play. I envisioned “he was the toughest kid on the playground from Day 1.” I was very surprised by the answer I got.
“He didn’t want to get hit,” Hiltz said. “He was a great natural athlete. I knew his dad my whole life. He grew up on the next street from me. Then one day I’m at the rink watching this little kid in an in-house league hockey game. He’s getting the goalie down and putting pucks in the top corner. It’s like something you’ve never seen before. Next thing I know, I have him at tryouts for lacrosse. Like I said, he wasn’t the guy to take the rough hit and bounce right back at the time. He’d get hit. He’d go down. He’d come out. I didn’t think he’d make it through our first season. That’s how much he didn’t like to get hit.”
What changed, I asked him.
“His toughness comes from the fact that he doesn’t want to lose,” Hiltz says. “When he started out, everything was easy. He was the fastest. He was the best athlete. Then when we brought him in, they were beating him up and knocking him down and pushing him to the floor. His competitive nature and will to get better just took over. He did not like to lose. He never quit. He never stopped. He just wanted to be better than everybody. His body filled out. He had to be first to the ball. He wanted the ball all the time. Instead of sitting back and not getting hit, he wanted the ball, and he fought for the ball. I put it all on the fact that he did not like to lose.”
For all of his fire on the field, Currier is pretty quiet off of it. He is what used to be known as the strong, silent type. He’s the one who rides into town in the old Westerns, cleans up all the bad guys and rides off again. A long time ago, he would have been played by Clint Eastwood in the movies, or by Humphrey Bogart an even longer time ago. Today? Bradley Cooper maybe?
Currier talks with confidence and conviction, but without bravado. He’s not a rah-rah guy. As he sits in my office and talks about himself, he does so slowly, thoughtfully. He’s not Spike the dog at this moment. He is Zach, the Princeton student.
He tells me something I didn’t realize about him – he’s a structural engineer in the civil and environmental engineering department. He talks about his hometown. He talks about his future, and how he’d love to play professionally. He figures to be near the top – or at the very top – of the list for the NLL draft, and he should also have a shot at playing in Major League Lacrosse, the outdoor professional league. His future also includes the chance of playing with the Canadian national team.
As he speaks, I keep contrasting the moment, where he is seated in a chair, calmly answering questions, with the fury that surrounds him on the lacrosse field. He is non-stop motion at all times when he plays; he is still in a way that I didn’t think was possible as he answers my questions.
“Peterborough is a lacrosse town,” he says. “John Grant Jr. [one of the greatest indoor and outdoor players ever] is from Peterborough. There is the Peterborough Senior A team, and I grew up going to their games every Thursday night. Everyone wanted to be as good as they were. For my second year of playing lacrosse, we had a month of field lax after two months of box. In Peterborough, field lacrosse is just box lacrosse with a couple of extra people and long poles. Box is so physical, and you can’t just turn that off when you play outdoors.”
Currier went to high school in Peterborough for two years before Kyle Trolley, another Peterborough native who played at Notre Dame, told him about Culver, the lacrosse powerhouse in Indiana that has been a pipeline for numerous Canadians to get to Division I lacrosse, including current Tigers Currier, Thompson and Dawson McKenzie (it’s also the alma mater of current Princeton men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson).
Currier repeated his sophomore year at Culver, adjusted to the American outdoor game and became a high school All-America.
“The biggest thing at Culver was the time management,” he says. “When I first got there, it might have been a little shocking. From the military aspect, it’s one week of learning and the rest is wear a uniform and keep your room clean. It was different, but it was also comforting. There were people there from all over, all over the U.S. and all over the world.”
His freshman year at Princeton was slowed by injuries, but he erupted onto the national scene early in his sophomore year with his mind-blowing all-around effort in a 16-15 win over Johns Hopkins. For the day, he would have two goals and three assists while winning 6 of 8 face-offs (including the one to start the overtime) and picking up eight ground balls.
For the first time in his career, he showed just how great an all-around game he could play. It was eye-opening, earning him Ivy League and Division I Player of the Week honors.
By the end of the season, he was a second-team All-Ivy League selection. A year ago, he was a first-team All-Ivy and honorable mention All-America honoree. This year, he added another Ivy and national Player of the Week performance in a win over Hopkins. He is clearly headed for first-team All-America recognition.
“I’d like to think people would say that I try to win,” he says. “I’m doing everything I can to help my team win. I like the fact that I can score a goal, but it’s more important to pick up the ball. We can’t score the goal without the ball. I pride myself on my hard work rather than my scoring ability.”
Ah yes, the ground balls. He starts in the same place that Madalon did.
“In box, when the shot goes wide, it’s always on the ground,” he says. “It’s going to be loose until someone picks it up. I also grew up playing hockey. The puck is also always on the ground. You’re always playing with your stick to the ground. If someone else is going for the ground ball, I’ll lift his stick. That’s what you do in hockey. It’s also stickhandling, moving the ball where you want it.”
I accept his answer, to a point. After all, if that is the case, wouldn’t all Canadian box players play like he does?
“I don’t really think about it,” he says. “I just want the ball. I just want to scoop it up.”
Again, I go back to Thompson, who confirms what has already been said.
“He is not the biggest guy in the weight room or fastest guy on the field, which goes to show how much of a gamer he is, putting it all on the line when it counts the most, in games,” Thompson says. “He was the same way at Culver, and the same way in box. He is one of those players that can be a pest on the other team and you hate playing against, but a guy you love to have on your own team.”
And that’s who Zach Currier is. He’s competitive. He plays with total intensity, at all times. He never backs down. He never gives up on a play. His focus is singular – he wants the ball, because you need the ball before you can do anything else.
He is Spike the annoying dog.
“It’s just who he is,” Madalon says. “It’s just his gut and his grittiness. He’s a guy I will take on my team 10 of 10 times, no questions asked. I love that he’s on our team, and I love that he’s on our sideline.”
Even though he’s hardly ever on the sideline.
I spoke to Joey Hiltz for a half hour about Currier. He emailed shortly after that to tell me this:
“Just a couple of other things. I coached Zach when he played U19 Team Ontario when we won gold at Canadian Nationals. I was able to use him as a drawman, on the wing as both LSM and midfielder. I think the one thing that really helped him was going to Culver and having that every day discipline installed into his game. He comes from a great family too.”
And this too:
“Just to say I was able to coach him is a privilege to me.”
I haven’t coached him, but I have watched him play for four years. I’ve seen so many great players here, but there has always been something different about Currier.
It’s really hard to put my finger on it. Part of it is the strong, silent thing. Part of it is the toughness thing. Part of it is that whenever he is near the ball, there’s no telling what is going to happen next.
And maybe it’s just how he never turns the motor off. If you watch him play, you have no idea if Princeton is winning or losing, if the season is going well or poorly, if the game is a blowout or close. He only knows one way to play, only has one gear.
It’s why he’s so good at picking up ground balls. He doesn’t know how not to go after the ball, no matter what the situation.
“He goes after it harder than anyone,” Madalon says.
If one moment can chronicle what Currier can do, it came to start the second half at Dartmouth. Princeton was a heavy favorite in the game, but the first half did not go well. The normally efficient Tiger offense produced just three goals on 25 shots, and Dartmouth led 5-3.
Princeton is playing to return to the Ivy League tournament and the NCAA tournament, and a loss in this game would have probably derailed both. Dartmouth had great success in the first half picking up timer-on situations and scoring anyway, which is as frustrating as anything can be to a team.
On the radio, I said that the first goal of the second half would be huge. A 6-3 edge for Dartmouth would be a huge confidence boost for a team that is always tough at home and would get the Tigers to start wondering if this was not their day.
Currier lost the face-off but came back without breaking stride and checked it away from the Dartmouth player who had it. Then he scooped it up, going full speed. Then he sprinted towards the goal, pausing to pass it in the middle to a wide-open Michael Sowers. Bang. Just like that, in 11 seconds, it was 5-4. Princeton tied it 30 seconds later. The final was 16-6 Princeton.
That’s Currier in a nutshell. That’s the impact he has on the game.
He is one of kind.
If you’re a Princeton fan, you already knew that, and you already love him for it.
If you’re not a Princeton fan, well, maybe you hate him a little less, now that you know him better.