April 8, 2011

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Stevens on National Lacrosse League: Watson Vows to Go Out a Winner

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Notebook: Playoff Spots on Line


In what he has called his final season, 41-year-old Toronto Rock goaltender is a legitimate candidate for National Lacrosse League MVP. The Rock will honor Watson in a pre-game ceremony Friday.

© Rich Barnes

Toronto Rock goaltender Bob Watson is about to lay claim to the National Lacrosse League record for most career saves, but that is not what is on his mind.

Watson is 40 saves shy of breaking Pat O'Toole's record, and if he doesn't get it against the visiting Buffalo Bandits on Friday night, he'll surely get it when his team completes its 16-game schedule the following Saturday in Edmonton.

"I haven't concerned myself with it," he said. "It'll be nice to accomplish that, but the two points Friday are more important. It's a big game. Buffalo is a tough team, so we have to be prepared to bring our best if we want to get home field advantage throughout the playoffs."

Watson, who turned 41 on Wednesday, said this is his last winter of pro lacrosse, and he wants a sixth pro title so bad, he can taste it. He wants to go out a winner.

It all started way back when.

Watson played junior lacrosse in Kitchener, Ontario, and he tried out with the Buffalo Bandits in 1995. They didn't have room for him, but coach Les Bartley did him a favor and set him up with a team in Baltimore. Watson played there in 1996, but players weren't paid much and he decided it wasn't worth his while to continue the commute, so he opted not to play in 1997.

Bartley was hired by a new ownership group that put a team in Hamilton's Copps Coliseum in 1998 and called it the Ontario Raiders, and he recruited Watson, who lived in nearby Guelph. Watson and many others would benefit from Bartley's coaching in the ensuing years.

"Huge," Watson replies when asked to express the impact Bartley had on his development. "Les was vital to it all. He knew the ropes of the sport. Being a young guy, it took me a while to figure it all out, and his smarts were a great help to me. He certainly earned my respect. He was one of my favorite coaches."

The team moved to Toronto and was renamed the Rock in 1999. Home was the hockey shrine that was Maple Leaf Gardens.

Toronto was undefeated at home during its 12-game 1999 schedule and, after an epic Watson performance in a 13-2 semifinal drubbing of Philadelphia, it was Watson versus Pat O'Toole and the Rochester Knighthawks in the championship game.

"Playing against guys like Pat was a true test of your abilities," Watson said. "Patty was a great goalie. He had an impressive resume and he'll be in the hall of fame. We knew we had to bring our best game to beat them."

The Rock won 13-10 and Colin Doyle was MVP.

Toronto went 9-3 again in 2000 and, after a 14-10 semifinal win over Philadelphia, there was another Watson-O'Toole showdown to decide the championship on May 6.

Kaleb Toth planted the ball in the extreme top corner of the Rochester net over O'Toole's right shoulder with one second remaining to give the Rock a 14-13 victory. Fans in the capacity Gardens crowd that night still call it the most thrilling conclusion to a lacrosse game they've witnessed. Dan Stroup was game MVP.

It was the last pro sports event in the Gardens. The NHL's Leafs had already moved into the new Air Canada Centre, and the Rock joined them in 2001.

Two games were added to the schedule for 2001, and Bartley's Boys went 11-3 to finish first overall a third straight year. Watson was named NLL goalie of the year. Toronto looked ready to snatch a third consecutive title. After eking past Washington 10-9, Toronto was at home against Philadelphia in the final. It was Watson at one end and Dallas Eliuk at the other.

"He was a goalie I really admired watching ," Watson said. "It was always special playing against him. He showed just how good he was on that night."

The Tony Resch-coached Wings produced a determined defensive effort and got winning goaltending from Eliuk, who was named MVP in a 9-8 upset.

The 2002 schedule expanded to 16 games and Toronto, with Blaine Manning rookie of the year and Pat Coyle defenseman of the year,  was 11-5 and undefeated at home. But the Albany Attack, 14-2, was first overall in what was then a 13-team league and got home floor for the final.

Watson's goaltending helped the Rock to a 13-12 win, and Doyle was named MVP.

''Rob Blasdell was in goal for the Attack," Watson recalled. ''I grew up playing against Robbie, a quality goalie and a quality man. I had a lot of respect for the guys I played against. I'd played against many of them in junior, so we knew each other well."

Toronto was back on the championship path.

The Rock went 11-5 in 2003 but Rochester was first overall. Toronto advanced to the championship game for the fifth year in a row and it would be played in Blue Cross Arena. It was the third Watson-O'Toole championship game showdown in five years. Toronto won 8-6 and Watson was game MVP.

"Pat battled hard in all three of those championship games," Watson said. "Things could have gone the other way. Win or lose, he was always right there to shake your hand."

In the autumn of 2003, Bartley revealed he was fighting colon cancer and was stepping down as GM-head coach of the Rock. Assistant coaches Ed Comeau and Derek Keenan were named interim coach and interim GM, respectively, but after a 2-4 start they were fired and Terry Sanderson was brought in. The Rock went 8-2 the rest of the way, captain Jim Veltman was named league MVP and another championship seemed probable, but Toronto was blown out 19-10 by Buffalo in the division final. Bandits goalie Steve Dietrich frustrated Rock shooters to get his team to the final in Calgary, where the Roughnecks won their first title.

"Steve and I were teammates in junior in Kitchener," Watson recalled. "We were friends who respected each other's abilities."

Dietrich is Toronto's goaltending coach this season.

On Oct. 2, 2004, the lacrosse world was shaken with the announcement that the 2005 season was cancelled, but a spark relit collective bargaining talks and the season was resurrected.

Toronto was first overall, 12-4, beat visiting Rochester 12-10 in the division final, and on May 14 there were 19,432 on their feet in Air Canada Centre cheering a 19-13 Rock victory over the Arizona Sting and goaltender Mike Miron. Toronto had won its fifth championship in seven years.

"We were an explosive team with three guys -- Doyle, Manning and Josh Sanderson -- with over 100 points," Watson recalls. "We just overpowered Arizona.

"The momentum we generated from our fans was overwhelming. There was a sea of white towels. I'll never forget it."

Bartley died the day after that game.

A first-round playoff loss in Rochester in 2006, when Colorado won the championship, led to the firing of Terry Sanderson. Mike Kloepfer was director of lacrosse operations and former Rock defenseman Glenn Clark was head coach now, and Doyle was traded away. But there was another first-round ouster in Rochester in 2007, when Rochester took the title.

In 2008, Toronto went 7-9 and missed the playoffs despite Watson being so good he was named goalie of the year. Buffalo won the championship and Veltman retired.

In 2009, the Rock got off to a 1-2 start and Clark was fired. Jamie Batley was named head coach, but the losing continued. Toronto finished last in the East at 6-10. Calgary won the championship.

"We went through some tough years," Watson said. "We rode the wave of success for a long time that hitting bottom was a tough pill to swallow."

Enter new owner Jamie Dawick, who brought Terry Sanderson back as GM and hired as head coach Troy Cordingley, who'd coached the Roughnecks to the title with Sanderson. Rock fans were elated when Doyle was reacquired. Defensemen Sandy Chapman and Phil Sanderson from the 2005 lineup were also brought back.

In 2010, Toronto finished second in the East at 9-7, eliminated Buffalo and Orlando to get to the championship game in Everett, Washington. The Stealth, trailing 10-8 entering the fourth quarter, rallied to win 15-11.

"You learn from your experiences," Watson said. "We managed to get through that low period and rebound last year and that was pretty gratifying, which is why I wanted to come back this year. We were close last year and hopefully we can get it done this year."

Now, with another vet from the 2005 squad, Pat Merrill, back on the roster and with young guns Stephen Leblanc and Garrett Billings starring up front with Doyle , Watson is full of praise for today's Rock lineup.

"Every team has its unique characteristics," he said. "This team has a real good mix of young talented players and veterans, and we all get along. That's a key. We're a happy family."

Watson's save percentage is a league-best .799, and he's a strong candidate for league MVP. A pre-game ceremony Friday will honor Watson, who hopes for a big crowd -- not for himself, but for Dawick.

"Our owner certainly deserves that," he said. "He stepped in and has done a great job of bringing us back to respectability."

Just how good has Bob Watson been?

He's been in five championship lineups beginning with that first one in 1999, and no other goalie since then has won the Champion's Cup more than once.


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