Memories of my first season as an NLL fan

I grew up in southern Ontario. Other than a year and a half in Ottawa and a four month work term in Redmond, Washington, I have lived my entire life within a two-hour drive of Toronto. That area is home to about 60% of NLL players. But unlike them, my first exposure* to the sport of lacrosse came when I was twenty-one. My university roommate Steve bought himself a lacrosse stick. He didn’t know anyone else who had one, so he played a lot of wall ball. The extent of my lacrosse experience at that time consisted of tossing a ball straight up a few times, not much further than a foot or two. I usually caught it.

After that semester, lacrosse left my mind once again and stayed out until almost ten years later. On April 1, 2000, I went with some friends to a Wings/Bandits game in Buffalo. That’s the day I fell in love with lacrosse. I immediately became a Rock season ticket holder and in December of that year, I went to my first ever Toronto Rock game, a 17-7 win over the Ottawa Rebel. Here are some of my memories and impressions about the team and the league from that year.

* Interesting aside: I went to high school in the Toronto suburb of Pickering: Dunbarton High School, class of ’87. Another student there was a guy named Greg Van Sickle. He was a year behind me so we had no classes together but I knew his name because he was on the rugby team. Our school didn’t have a football team, so the rugby team was where all the cool jocks were. I was neither a jock nor cool (I was in the bridge club – no joke) which is why I seriously doubt Greg knew my name. In 2007, a guy from Pickering named Greg Van Sickle was hired as the offensive coach of the Toronto Rock. I assume it’s the same guy. Update: Glenn Clark has confirmed that is it indeed the same guy. Clark and Van Sickle grew up together, though Clark went to Pickering High.

The players

Jim Veltman was the captain of the team. He was a defenseman who played some offense here and there and I was told he was very good. I didn’t know the word “transition” at the time and being new to the sport, I wouldn’t have known good defense if it cross-checked me in the chest so it took me a couple of years to realize how good. However I did recognize the fact that he almost magically intercepted passes out of mid-air more than anyone else. To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone pick off passes like Veltman did. There were three reasons for this: (1) he had great reflexes, (2) his arms are about eight feet long, and (3) his lacrosse IQ was off the charts. He knew where everyone was on the floor so he knew where the next pass was likely to go, even before the player with the ball made that decision.

One guy whose skill I did recognize quickly was Kim Squire. I thought of him as the Tie Domi of the team, if Tie Domi could score. He had a fiery temper, played with a lot of passion, was exciting to watch, and clearly had some great stick skills. Actually, all of the offensive guys were very skilled: Dan Stroup was great when in close and his crease dives were legendary, Chris Gill I thought of as less flashy than Stroup but more of a shooter, Kaleb Toth could score from anywhere, and the scoring leader was a guy by the name of Colin Doyle.

Bob Watson

I wasn’t a huge fan of Doyle’s in the beginning. He had skill, no question, but I thought he was a bit of a hothead. At the time I thought he wanted to fight all the time but the coaching staff wouldn’t let him – he was too good offensively to have him waste five minutes in the penalty box every game. Looking back he probably didn’t want to fight as often as I thought he did but like Kimbo, Doyle played with passion. Later in his career he learned when to keep that passion under control and when to let it loose but at this point, he was still pretty young.

The back end was a bunch of very large men, with two sort-of exceptions. You had Terry Bullen, Dan Ladouceur, Craig Gelsvik, and Chris Langdale, who were all huge: each was probably 6’3″ or more (Laddy is 6’6″). Veltman was also 6’2″ or 6’3″, and I never thought of Glenn Clark as being all that big but he was a solid 6’2″ / 220. The exceptions I mentioned were Pat Coyle and Steve Toll. Each is “only” 6 feet, which is still a couple of inches taller than me but when surrounded by the other guys I mentioned, they looked relatively diminutive. While “Speedin’ Stevie” Toll was a good defender, he was more known for racing up the floor in transition. Bob Watson and Jim Veltman got a great many of their assists passing up to a breaking Toll. I would love to see a race between Steve Toll from 2001, Jesse Gamble from two or three years ago, and Joey Cupido now.

In goal, we had the amazing Whipper Watson and a very capable backup in Anthony Cosmo. I didn’t realize until many years later that Cosmo was a rookie that year. Watson had an outstanding year in 2001, being named Goalie of the Year and putting up an incredible 8.90 GAA, which was a single season NLL record until Aaron Bold put up 8.73 in 2014.

The season

The Rock came into the 2001 season having played in two NLL seasons and having won the NLL Championship in both of them. They had only lost one home game in the previous two seasons combined. Needless to say, my expectations were high, and the Rock didn’t disappoint. Their first two home games were wins, including a 7-4 win against the Josh Sanderson-led Albany Attack which remains to this day the lowest-scoring NLL game in history. On January 26, they lost their only home game of the regular season. The 16-13 loss to the Washington Power was also the only home game of the season in which the team allowed more than 11 goals. In fact, the team allowed single-digit goals in seven of the nine games they played at home that year.

The Rock made the playoffs with a league-leading 10-4 record (tied with the Knighthawks). They dispatched the Washington Power 10-9 in the semifinals to make it to their third straight NLL finals, a feat previously achieved only by the Wings and Bandits. But neither the Wings nor the Bandits had ever won the title in three straight years, so the Rock were hoping to make history. Alas, Dallas Eliuk and the Wings had other ideas.

Eliuk won this battle of legendary goaltenders as the Wings defeated the Rock 9-8. The win gave the Wings their sixth title and the Rock their first-ever playoff loss. I still remember my thoughts when the Rock scored late in the game: “We’re within one! We just need one goal to tie it! We can still do it!” Then I looked at the scoreboard to see how much time was left in which to score that goal: 1.3 seconds. It didn’t happen.

For me, the night was disappointing for multiple reasons. Not only did the Rock win titles every year until I started watching, but as the Wings were celebrating on the floor, angry Rock fans started throwing drinks and garbage at them. The PA announcer had to make an announcement asking them to stop, saying something like “Let’s show the world that Toronto is better than this.” This classless display added an embarrassing black mark onto an already disappointing evening.

A few years later, I would win a book called “Lacrosse: North America’s Game” from Inside Lacrosse in an online contest. The book contained a bunch of pictures including this one of Dave Stilley hoisting the Champions Cup at that game. You can see me in the background of that picture. Note my majestic beard.

The experience

Every player on the Rock had a nickname, which was used by the PA guy when announcing the player, goals scored, assists, even penalties. Some of the nicknames stuck and are still used today, like Jim “Scoop” Veltman and Bob “Whipper” Watson. I’m sure the team asked the players if they already had nicknames they wanted used, but if a player didn’t already have one, the team made one up. Apparently Colin Doyle hated the nickname “Popeye”. (In case you’re unfamiliar, the nickname came from Gene Hackman’s character in The French Connection, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle.) Others included Dan “Big Dog” Ladouceur, Terry “Bully” Bullen, Kim “Kid Rock” Squire though most people called him Kimbo, Dan “Swoop” Stroup, Craig “The Axe” Gelsvik, Chris “Big Red” Langdale, Glenn “The Professor” Clark, Chris “The Thrill” Gill, Ken “Mojo” Millin, Ryan “Rhino” O’Connor, Rodd “Moose” Squire, and Anthony “Coz” Cosmo. I honestly don’t remember Kaleb Toth’s nickname. I asked my followers on Twitter a couple of years ago if they could remember and we came up with “The Kid” but it still doesn’t sound right to me. Update: RockStar from the IL Indoor message board reminded me that Toth’s nickname was “Teeter”.

Veltman, Stroup, & Doyle, a few years later

In the crowd, one of the most recognizable fans was Rockhead, who sat behind the net at one end of the arena. He had his face painted and would frequently stand up and get cheers going and start the wave and such. I haven’t seen him at a Rock game in at least a decade – at least, not in makeup. Without the makeup, I wouldn’t know him if he cross-checked me in the chest.

Another fixture were the red wig guys, a group of five guys who wore red afro wigs and Rock jerseys with names like “Smashed”, “Tanked”, and “Detox” on the back. They sit about 10 rows behind us. They made it on the Jumbotron at least once per game at which point they’d stand and do a robot dance. They’re still there but they don’t make it on the Jumbotron quite as often anymore.

Of course, there were lots of kids who would whip their shirts off and swing them around their heads once they got on screen. Those kids show up at every sporting event.

The group of people in the row directly in front of us has been there as long as we have, though I’ve never talked to them about anything other than the game we’re watching. One must be a friend of Bruce Barker, since he has Rock jersey with “Barker” on the back. They had a baby with them that first season, an adorable little girl. That little girl has come to most games since then and is now seventeen or eighteen years old. I don’t even know her name but I’ve watched her grow up at lacrosse games. <Wipes away tear>

“Twenty years now, where’d they go? Twenty years. I don’t know.
I sit and I wonder sometimes where they’ve gone.” — Bob Seger

It hasn’t quite been twenty years but it’s close and I didn’t want to wait until 2021 to post this article. None of the players on that Rock team are still playing. In fact, the only player in the league who was active in both the 2001 and 2018 seasons was Brandon Miller. From that Rock team, there are three current NLL head coaches (Gill, Coyle, and Clark) and four more who are or have been assistant coaches (Stroup, Bullen, Veltman, and Ladouceur). The head coach and GM, Les Bartley, has been gone thirteen years but has the Coach of the Year award named after him. The assistant coaches, Ed Comeau and Derek Keenan, are also head coaches in the NLL and have won the last four NLL championships (and the last two Les Bartley awards) between them.

I listened to an interview with a Rock player sometime last season, though I don’t remember who. He said that it was a dream to be playing for the Rock, since he grew up coming to Rock games with his family. Given the size of the lacrosse community in southern Ontario, I realized that it’s not all that unlikely that at least one of those shirt-swinging kids I used to see on the Jumbotron is now a player in the NLL.


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