I remember it like it was twelve years ago.
Young lacrosse star Kaleb Toth, who scored the last-second goal to give the Toronto Rock the 2000 NLL Championship, was traded to the brand-new Calgary Roughnecks for a player with no NLL experience and a draft pick. As a Rock fan, was I outraged? Did I feel ripped off? Not really. First off, I knew that Toth was an Alberta boy and being the first home-town player for this brand new team was likely a huge deal for him as well as for the Roughnecks. Secondly, the player we got back was the second overall pick in the previous draft, a strong forward named Blaine Manning. A second overall pick plus a first rounder should be enough of a return for Toth, shouldn’t it? Still, we’ve all seen first round draft picks that just didn’t work out; would Manning turn into one of those?
Obviously he didn’t, and the rest is history. Manning scored 71 points (21+50) in his first season plus another 12 (4+8) in the playoffs (including the double-overtime winner in the semi-finals against the Washington Power) as the Rock won their third Championship. He was named Rookie of the Week five times, Rookie of the Month for March, and finally Rookie of the Year. Toth, for his part, racked up 79 points in his first of eight straight 50+ point seasons, became the face of the Roughnecks for a decade, and on his retirement became the first inductee into the “Forever A Roughneck” program. If there was ever a trade that worked out better for both teams, I’m not sure what it was.
Manning scored 60+ points in ten straight seasons, and 70+ in all but one of those. His best season was 2005 when he scored 105 points, tied with John Grant for second in the league after Colin Doyle’s 111. Josh Sanderson was third with 102, making 2005 the only season in NLL history that three teammates scored over 100 points. At their prime, Doyle, Manning, and Sanderson formed what might be the most potent top three on any team in NLL history.
Manning was not just a strong scorer who could pick corners as well as anyone. He could shoot from outside, could drive to the net through as many defenders as necessary and liked to dive through the crease as well. But there are two specific things about Manning’s play that I will remember: first, he would frequently switch hands. If there was no room to shoot right-handed or he was on the wrong side of the net, he’d flip his stick around and shoot as a lefty. I honestly don’t know how effective this was and I assume it was less accurate than his right-handed shot, but he scored numerous goals this way, catching the goalie off-guard, and I’ve rarely seen other players do it. Second, he was almost untouchable on the penalty kill. If you needed to kill some time on the shot clock, give the ball to Manning and he’d simply hold it for 20-30 seconds, regardless of the number of people pounding (or sometimes piling) on him. Mark Steenhuis is also very skilled at this but for many years, Manning was the best.
Manning played in every Rock game for ten full seasons – 2002 to 2011 – but two games into the 2012 season, his consecutive game streak was halted at 162 (177 including playoff games) when he broke his collarbone. That streak was good for third place all-time after Doyle and Steve Toll, though all three have since been eclipsed by Shawn Williams. He returned in April, having missed ten games, but only recorded 9 points in his 6 games that year. Last season Manning was given a different role and was more of a “grinder”, the guy that gets in the defender’s way and thereby gives better looks to guys like Doyle, Billings, and Leblanc. But there were times where he tried to be the Manning of old and wasn’t able to. The frustration on his face was obvious, which is why this announcement was surprising to me but not shocking. Evidently the toll on his body over the last couple of years was too much, and he decided that this was the end for his playing days.
Over the years of his career (2002-2013), only eight people have more points than Blaine Manning. Only one player (Bob Watson) has played more games in a Rock uniform, though Doyle will pass him this coming season. He is second in Rock history after Doyle in goals, assists, and points (both regular season and playoffs), and second after Jim Veltman in loose balls. He led the team in scoring twice and won four Championships with the Rock. Manning is certainly one of the greats in Rock and league history and should get serious consideration for the NLL Hall of Fame once he is eligible. He is one of my all-time favourite players and I wish him well in the next phase of his lacrosse career.