Speedin’ Stevie Toll is currently playing in his fifteenth season in the NLL. Toll has seen it all, through five teams, five NLL Championships, and one Transition Player of the Year award. It was thought that he retired after the 2011 season, though that was never made official, and it was assumed that his involvement in the Canadian Lacrosse League (as Director of Operations of both the Durham Turfdogs and the Oshawa Machine) was the reason. But a little over halfway through the 2012 season, Toll decided he couldn’t stay away any longer, and signed with the Edmonton Rush.
It has been argued by some that Toll deserves to be in the NLL Hall of Fame, but we’ll have to wait until his real retirement to see if that happens.
I recently had the honour of talking to Steve about Edmonton’s upcoming playoff game, his return to the NLL, memories of his time with the Toronto Rock, and his involvement with CLax and the NALL. Many thanks to Steve for taking the time to talk with me.
Graeme Perrow: Let’s start with the upcoming NLL playoffs. Edmonton hasn’t had much success against the Roughnecks over the years, but you will be playing them in the first round of the playoffs. Will the history between the teams come into play at all?
Steve Toll: It’ll come into play a little bit, their confidence maybe. But every year’s a new year, and obviously there’s a lot of different guys on the team so I think we’ve just got to go with a positive attitude and stick to the game plan. Really, the big thing about going into Calgary, they’re such a good team, is not letting them go on the three or four-goal runs runs that they can go on in a hurry. If we can contain those, we should be in good shape.
GP: The Rush defense is one of the strongest in the league, but the offense has struggled this year. Calgary’s defense is also very strong – do you plan on making any changes to the offensive strategies against the Roughnecks?
ST: It’s just trying to get better looks. Like you said, their defense is very good and their goaltending is playing very good right now too. To score in this league, you have to get quality looks, goalies aren’t going to let in bad goals very often. Our offense is doing whatever it takes to get a good shot away, not just throwing it at the net hoping it will go in and being happy with that. You gotta make it a quality shot.
GP: You are playing the Rock this weekend, but the game means nothing to your playoff position. Is it more difficult to get pumped up for a so-called “meaningless” game?
ST: I think we want to go out on a positive note for us. It means a lot to Toronto, I do believe that they could still finish first. We really don’t want to go into Calgary losing our last two games, so that’s one thing, and someone said that they’re one of the only teams we’ve played this year that we haven’t beaten, so hopefully we can deny them. Plus we could meet them down the road in the playoffs hopefully, and we’d rather not be going into Toronto if we ever do get that far.
GP: A few questions about your NLL career. When you retired after the 2011 season, did you have any plans of coming back to the NLL as a player?
ST: I never really announced my retirement. A lot of other people said it, but I never officially retired. The league sends you retirement papers when they hear things like that, and if you’re gonna retire you sign them, but I always felt that I had a little more to give, and we’ll see what happens.
GP: When did you first entertain the idea of returning to the floor?
ST: I actually thought about it from the start of the year that I was going to come back. Actually, Edmonton had approached me at the start but at that time I thought I was going back to Colorado so I actually told Edmonton no. Then Colorado made some trades for some D guys, and said they were going in a different direction, which is understandable. I know Derek Keenan very well and we kinda talked about it, and I said I think I can help out in a couple of different ways, and it kind of went from there.
GP: Shawn Williams is a friend of yours – was he involved in the decision?
ST: No, it wasn’t really Willy, it was more Derek Keenan.
GP: Is this season your swan song in the NLL, or could you see yourself coming back again in 2013?
ST: I’m not sure. At times I’ve felt like it would probably be my final season because I wanted to go out on my terms, and thanks to Edmonton I can go out on those terms. But it’s weird, you get that feeling where you want to go back for more, like when we played that game in Colorado [GP: Edmonton beat Colorado 14-11 last weekend; Toll scored 3 goals], it just felt good, seeing that I could still play the game. Obviously I’m not the player I used to be, but we’ve got 7 O guys and 11 D guys, so on most teams I like to think I’m the best 11th D guy you could have around, because I can do the penalty kill, and bring some leadership and all that too. We’ll have to see though, my kids are getting older, it would have to be a family decision.
GP: The game has changed over the course of your career. What rule changes have had the most impact in that time? What strategies did you use in the past that aren’t as effective anymore, and are there new strategies that you’re using now that you wouldn’t have ten years ago?
ST: I can’t think of any drastic rule changes. I think a big difference from my point of view is going from 15 to 18 guys dressed for a game. Back when we had 15 guys, we had role players, all the guys did something really well. Nowadays, if the league is 15 guys, I’m not playing right now, plain and simple. That’s one rule – if there’s 9 teams in the league and 15 guys on a team, I’m not playing. That’s one rule that’s helped my career!
One rule I do hate is the scoring from behind the net. That bothers me.
GP: How has your game changed as your career has progressed?
ST: I think I’ve just matured as a player, and realized what I can and can’t do, and the things I can still do I try to do exceptionally well. Obviously I’ve been known to do the penalty kill and can pick off passes and start the fast break, so I think I can still do that. Anyone who plays the game knows their role and obviously I can’t take off up the floor like I used to, taking five breakaway passes a game from Jim Veltman like I used to. I can still run the floor, maybe not as fast, but just try to help out any way possible.
GP: It’s been a couple of years since you wore a Rock jersey, I guess it would be seven or eight years now?
ST: Yeah, I got traded in the summer of 2004 or 2005. [GP: It was July of 2004.]
GP: You saw a lot of success with the Rock. Was there one moment or event that stood out as your favourite memory of your time with the Rock?
ST: I would have to say probably the win in Rochester. I remember the pre-game speech by Les Bartley saying how we’d never won in that building but the best line I’ve ever heard him say was “We’ve never won in this building, but we’ve never had to win in this building.” That line sticks out in my mind so much. We played there during the season, but we didn’t have to win during the season. We’ve been here a lot and we didn’t have to win but now we need to win. I think that would probably be one of my best memories of being there. Plus I got two short-handed goals in the first quarter. That helps a little.
GP: Who are some of the first- or second-year players in the NLL today that you think could be stars for many years to come?
ST: Well, I’m playing with one in Kyle Rubisch. I mean, he’s already a star, and in my mind he is the best defensive player in the league. That kid has it all. He’s like a younger version of Brodie Merrill. He definitely has all the tools, I mean he can do whatever you ask, he can score, he can do it all.
Offensively, hmmm. Well, he’s still young in some ways, but little Evy [GP: Shawn Evans] has been around forever too, but he’s not that old, you know what I mean? I liked what I saw of Johnny Powless who I watched in a few games. I like Keogh as well, and obviously the big Crowley kid in Philadelphia. They have a lot of potential. A lot of potential.
GP: Have you played much field lacrosse, or are you strictly an indoor guy?
ST: Nope, the only time I ever played field lacrosse was ’98, ’02, and ’06 for Team Canada. Those are my only field lacrosse memories. Too much running in field lacrosse.
GP: There was talk at one point that you were going to play in the NALL before their legal troubles began. Is that possibility still out there for next year?
ST: I’m not sure, I just read one article saying they’re coming back with a new name…
GP: The PLL – Professional Lacrosse League.
ST: Yeah. I’m still actually in touch with Jacksonville but Paul Stewart has a different role now, he’s actually gone to the league side of things. I’m not sure if I’ll be playing or maybe even coaching in the league. To me, it’s just guys wanting a place to play lacrosse, and that’s what I’m all about. That’s one of the reasons I joined CLax. Paul St. John and Jim Veltman invented a spot for 120 kids to play lacrosse. When I was that young, I’d have loved that opportunity too, so for me to give back is an easy decision, and it’s the same with this league. Yeah, most of them are going to be American, but I want the NLL to grow and grow, and these guys are going to be moving on to the NLL. Whatever helps the game, and as long as the family agrees, I’m in.
GP: A few questions about the Canadian Lacrosse League. How did you first get involved with CLax?
ST: It’s funny, they actually talked to Shawn Williams initially about coming on but obviously he was already playing so he mentioned it to me, and I met with Jim and Paul St. John and it kinda went from there. Obviously those guys did a tremendous amount of work and to me, yeah the league might have lost a little bit of money, but it was successful in a lot of ways. For the Championship game they had over a thousand people, and our last game in Oshawa we had over seven hundred people. It was an easy decision, I mean there were two teams here in Oshawa for guys that would just be sitting around partying all winter long, and now they’re playing lacrosse and staying in shape. It’s good for the game.
GP: How difficult was it to be so closely involved with lacrosse but not playing? Did you ever consider putting the equipment on and getting out there on the floor?
ST: It was actually, and I did actually! Paul and I had talked right around the time that Edmonton called, and I was even thinking about it. I’m not saying it might have helped or drew a few more people in, but I tell ya, that’s when I knew that I either had to come back there or go to the NLL because watching those games, I still had the itch. I saw the guys making mistakes, I wished I could be out there helping ’em. It definitely gave me the itch to get out there and play again.
GP: Will you be back in the same position with the Turfdogs and Machine next year?
ST: Yeah, we just gotta get things finalized. It’s hard when one guy owns all six teams when he’d like to just worry about his two teams. It’s a process, and it’s an uphill battle for those boys, they’re willing to keep fighting and fighting. Find a guy with some deep pockets, maybe willing to lose a couple in the first couple of years and make it at the end, that’s what you gotta hope for. I hope it succeeds, and I hope the NLL jumps on board too. I don’t understand, it should be an automatic AHL-type affiliate. Automatic, in my opinion. Have a couple of NLL teams have a couple of affiliates and you can send guys there. Why have guys sitting in Denver to be on a practice roster practicing once a week and not playing a game. It makes no sense. Zero.
GP: That kinda what I assumed CLax was going to turn into. It hasn’t happened yet, though it’s only been a year, but it seemed to me to be the most obvious route to go.
ST: I agree with you 100%. But now it’s down to “You should be paying us” “Well, you should be paying us”. Why don’t we just talk about the situation, do what’s best for the guys, and worry about the money situation later. It could be an affiliate where you could move guys, send them down, call them back up. I think it’d be ideal for both leagues.
GP: The season is barely over, but do you know of any major changes planned for the next season, either in in your teams or with the league as a whole?
ST: No, from what I’ve heard from a lot of the General Managers, we all like the rules. Everyone seems to be a big fan of that front door rule, which I was a fan of too. That game was fast at times. It was funny because the very first game I went to, they pulled their goalie and they shot too early, then tried to get their goalie out the back door and it ended up being a penalty shot because you’ve got to go out the front door. They weren’t used to it yet, so he went out the wrong door. I was a big fan of that rule for sure.
GP: I was just about to ask about that rule. So do you think it did have the desired effect, forcing players to play at both ends rather than having your strict offensive guys and your strict defensive guys?
ST: Yeah, but the part I worry about is that the NLL is obviously not going to adopt that rule and you’re making those players do that. But if you have a two-way guy in CLax, and maybe he’s always been on offense but now he’s playing defense, well you know what? If he’s just working on offense the whole time he’d be getting better, but now he’s playing defense and when he goes to the NLL he’s still not going to be playing defense against Colin Doyle. So realistically, why not just go offense / defense? But there were some guys that you could get off the floor, but you had to make sure they were off the floor. It was hard, but it could be done, but just the one door definitely made it tough.
GP: OK, a few quick ones before I let you go. Toughest goalie to score on?
ST: Toughest goalie for me personally was Patty O’Toole. I liked shooting on smaller goalies. Like, even though Eliuk was real good, and Disher and all those guys. I just liked smaller goalies. I don’t know why. Probably because I didn’t shoot hard.
GP: Toughest forward to defend against?
ST: Definitely John Grant Jr. because he’s big, strong, and he could bulldoze ya, he could dodge ya, he could roll around ya, and if you came to double him, he’s throw a backhand reverse pass to the guy next to you anyway. I never got to cover those guys anyway. I’d always go on the floor, and they’d say “Toll, we all have matchups, you’ve got the fifth guy”. I never really had a guy anyways cause I was in the middle getting ready to cheat and weave anyway so I never really watched anybody.
GP: You were getting ready for the breakaway in the other direction.
ST: Yeah, I was already gone.
GP: Favourite arena to play in as a visitor?
ST: Definitely Denver. Well, you know what? I initially came right away with Denver but then I’m thinking of some of those Buffalo Bandits fans. But I’d have to say Denver was my favourite.
GP: I’ve never seen a game in Denver, but I’ve been to Buffalo a few times and they can be pretty darn loud in Buffalo.
ST: They can be really loud there, yeah. Both places are excellent. But I tell ya, there’s just something about Denver. You gotta go to Denver. It’s just the city there, everything. It’s one of the most beautiful places – if I had to pick a place to live, that’s where I would live. That’s the spot.
GP: Teammate you learned the most from as a young player?
ST: Playing in the NLL, definitely it would be Jim Veltman. He did so many things on the floor, off the floor, he was a pure team leader. It’s little things, like a little story: we lost a game in Philadelphia, I think it was in overtime, and then we flew back again at 10:30 in the morning. Obviously the boys were all sad that we lost, and still a little hung over, and all of a sudden the flight attendant comes out with like 30 beers and she goes “These are from the captain, get your heads up”. Just little things like that that no other guys would do. Just getting the boys back on track, like “Don’t worry about it, boys, it’s a loss. No big deal.”
GP: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks a lot for doing this, Steve, I really appreciate it.
ST: Hey, no problem, anytime!