This is the de facto Canadian Division, dominated by the reigning NLL Champion Toronto Rock, with the Vancouver Ravens, Calgary Roughnecks and Ottawa Rebel as the supporting cast. All four teams have done some retooling in the off-season, most notably Ottawa, where new Head Coach Terry Sanderson and his brother, Assistant Coach and General Manager Lindsay, have bolstered their line-up with trades and dispersal and entry draft choices, in an serious effort to lift the Rebel to respectability.
The expansion Vancouver Ravens, who made the play-offs right out of the chute, and Calgary Roughnecks, who saw a promising start tail off out of the post-season, both hope to improve in their sophomore campaigns. Les Bartley will start the season with several Rock veterans hurting, most notably Kim Squire, but will start an American for the first time as Kevin Finneran joins the team after departing company with the Philadelphia wings.
The Vancouver Ravens won the last seven games of their first NLL season, a streak second only to the Albany Attack, en route to a 10 - 6 record (fourth overall) and a first-round play-off date in Rochester, where they lost 11 - 10 to the Knighthawks. Head Coach Paul Dal Monte's squad went 6 - 2 at home in General Motors Place, with an average attendance of 10,211, third best in the League, for an impressive professional debut by any standard.
Chris Gill's 53 goals were second only to League scoring champion Paul Gait, and goaltender (and oldest player in the NLL) Dwight Maetche, in his return to the pro ranks, likewise ranked second to Toronto's Bob Watson, with a goals-against average of 11.77. The Ravens wasted little time re-signing the two Second Team All Pro selections this fall. Newcomer Peter Morgan opted for lacrosse over university basketball, scoring 32 goals in 12 games, and garnering an All Rookie Team selection.
In the dispersal draft of Montreal Express players, the Ravens got veteran defender Bruce Alexander, while in the entry draft, Dal Monte, without a first-round selection, again leaned heavily toward his junior Burnaby squad, taking three Lakers in the remaining eight rounds.
With most of their veterans returning, the Ravens will not look radically different from last season. They split with the Rock and Roughnecks, swept Ottawa, and won six games outside the Northern Division. They will play five of their first eight games in GM Place, while the second half of the season sees them on the road for their last three contests, closing with back-to-back games in Albany and New Jersey.
They also have nine games against playoff teams from last season, including two each with the Knighthawks, Rock, Mammoth (Power) and Attack, in addition to their home opener against the Wings.
Vancouver special teams were both in the plus column, the power play ranking 4th in the League, the penalty killers 9th. The Ravens were 1-and-1 in 1-goal games.
Bruce Alexander can help on both special teams, and his big outside shot should add to the power-play. Chris Gill takes an awful lot of abuse with his style and inside game, and has to stay healthy. Dwight Maetche, while not quite ready yet for the "ageless" tag, should start every game. Rookie surprise Mike Law will be expected to produce for a full season, while Morgan will have to maintain last year's scoring pace.
The Vancouver Ravens have probably changed the least among the Northern Division teams chasing the Toronto Rock, while their schedule became tougher, certainly tougher than Calgary's or Ottawa's. They will be hard pressed to repeat last year's run into the playoffs, and hotly pursued by the Rebel and Roughnecks.
For the first time since their debut as the Ontario Raiders at the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario in 1998, the Rock opening-day roster will not show the name "Squire". While attacker Kim "Kimbo" Squire recovers from the after-effects of a bout of necrotizing fasciitis (and is unlikely to return in time for this season), the so-called 'flesh-eating disease', Rodd announced his retirement from the National Lacrosse League. Both have been an integral part of the Rock's championship tradition, Rodd for his two-way play, Kim for his offensive performance as half of the dynamic duo with "98 NLL Rookie of the Year Colin Doyle.
After losing the 2001 final to the Philadelphia Wings, the Rock made a determined run to another championship in 2002. Their 11 - 6 record topped the Northern Division, then they eliminated the Washington Power in double overtime at the Air Canada Centre, spoiling the Gaits' birthday and Paul's retirement, to advance to their fourth Champions Cup final against the regular-season leading Albany Attack.
At the Pepsi Arena, the Rock clinched their claim as the first dynasty of the National Lacrosse League with a come-from-behind, 13 - 12 heart-breaker for Attack fans, despite a 5-goal, 10-point performance by NLL single-season assist-record setter (68) Josh Sanderson.
The Rock also dominated the post-season awards, with Blaine Manning becoming the second NLL Rookie of the Year in franchise history, Pat Coyle being named Defensive Player of the Year, and Captain Jim Veltman taking the first NLL Sportmanship Award.
The Rock have to be the pre-season favourites to make it five out of six Champions Cup wins, but there are some clouds on their horizon. Dan Stroup (37 regular-season goals last year, 12 on the power play) wanted a trade to his hometown Vancouver Ravens, but Head Coach and G.M. Les Bartley was unable to accommodate him. "Swoop", in the Rock top five all-time in games, goals, assists and points, as well as their leading playoff goal-scorer, is still sitting.
The loss of Kimbo could have exponential consequences. Case in point:- January 8, 2000, Squire had a 6-goal, 10-point night in Buffalo, leading the Rock over the Bandits in their season opener. Two weeks later, Squire went down with an ankle fracture early in a game against the Saints at Maple Leaf Gardens; he would miss half the schedule, and Colin Doyle would miss him even more, as "Popeye's" production fell off drastically during his line-mate's absence. Although Doyle had a career season in 2002, it remains to be seen whether he will step up his game in Kimbo's absence.
The Rock signed Todd Richard from the dispersal (18 goals in 9 games for Montreal), and three of their entry draft picks from the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) Junior A league, attackers Patrick Merrill (No. 1 overall) of the Orangeville Northmen and Mercyhurst College, Brian Croswell (1st round, 10th overall) from the Peterborough Lakers, and defender Scott Stapleford from the Whitby Warriors. They also signed attacker Aaron Wilson of the Kitchener-Waterloo Braves, a former Albany ('01 2nd round, 14th overall) draft pick.
The biggest move made by Bartley, however, was one of opportunity, when he signed Kevin Finneran, sending defender Drew Candy to the Philadelphia Wings in exchange. The 12-year veteran attacker became available when Wings management told "Finn" that he would have a diminished role this season, as they integrated several younger players into the offence. A three-time All Pro ('94, '96, '98), Finneran tallied 39 goals and 40 assists last season, 2nd on the team to Tom Marachek; he is also the Wings' all-time playoff point-getter and assist leader, and second to Gary Gait in goals.
Toronto still has arguably the best defence in the NLL, as well as the premier ball-stopper in Bob Watson, who announced his retirement from Canadian Major lacrosse this summer, following his Mann Cup-winning season with the Brampton Excelsiors. Notwithstanding their corps of veterans, and the addition of Finneran, the Rock actually got younger this year.
The Rock should have no trouble winning the Northern Division, even though they face every other play-off team from last year, twice. The road to the 2003 Champions Cup will still lead through the Air Canada Centre.
The Calgary Roughnecks scored a combined 33 goals in their first two NLL games; the problem was that the Montreal Express scored 55. The Roughies were at .500 by the halfway mark, including back-to-back 1-goal games, a win in New Jersey and a loss the next night in Rochester, all before New Year's Eve. They would go on to lose every remaining game, to end up in a tie with the Ottawa Rebel for last in the Northern Division.
Despite their 4 - 12 record, the Roughnecks finished a respectable fifth in regular season attendance, averaging 8,781 in the Pengrowth Saddle Dome, including a season high 14,086, third-best in the League.
Kaleb Toth, repatriated from the Toronto Rock, lead Calgary in scoring with 38 goals and 79 points, and fellow Albertan Ben Prepchuk added 40 goals. Veteran goaltender Derek Collins, acquired from Buffalo, would be benched after a rocky start and eventually released, replaced by rookie Matt King.
With the first selection in the dispersal draft, Calgary GM Brad Banister refused all trade overtures and took Express captain and scoring leader Tracy Kelusky, adding defender and League-best face-off specialist Brad MacArthur in the second round.
Veteran defender and unrestricted free agent Neil Doddridge was added to the mix, as well as Buffalo's Brad Dairon at forward, in trade for Chris Panos. From the entry draft, British Columbia products Andrew McBride and Jordan West-Pratt have made the roster.
Just last week (December 13), it was announced that Calgary had acquired former Express starting 'tender Curtis Palidwor, sending defender Jeff Frazer and their 2003 first-round entry draft pick to the Columbus Landsharks, who had taken Palidwor in the dispersal. With returnees like John Kilbride, Jason Wulder and Kyle Goundrey, the Roughnecks' offence looked to be in good shape, and veteran additions MacArthur and Doddridge, and especially Palidwor, will shore up a porous defence.
Prepchuk (40 goals) demanded a League maximum $18,000 US salary, while refusing management requests to move from Edmonton to Cowtown. Negotiations with Banister were stalled, with the Calgary G.M. saying that, "He's going to sit out or be traded", and all but acknowledging that Prepchuk would not be back in a Roughneck uniform. With Prepchuk holding out, Banister signed veteran right-handed attacker, power-play specialist and draw-man Craig Stevenson, who had 10 goals, 17 assists and 106 face-offs won in nine games last season for the Vancouver Ravens.
Then, on December 18, Banister sent Prepchuk back to New York, along with 2002 3rd-round draft pick J.D. Smithson, in exchange for draw-man Rob Kirkby (143 face-offs won) and the Saints' 2003 1st-round entry draft selection. Prepchuk was the Saints' 2001 first-rounder (3rd overall), while Kirkby broke into the NLL that same season with the Buffalo Bandits.
The Saddle Dome
Just weeks before the opening of last season, the Roughnecks announced the dismissal of original partner and General Manager Kevin Melnyk, amidst rumors of lacrosse resumé padding. That was followed by the blockbuster trade that sent first draft pick Blaine Manning to Toronto for Toth.
Manning went on to be the Rookie of the Year, and win a Champions Cup, but the Roughnecks never fully recovered from the disruption. Now they've traded away their top goal-scorer, and although Prepchuk has been dogged with something of a prima donna reputation, his offensive value is undeniable. Kelusky is the type of player who makes everyone around him better, and a proven young leader, but Head Coach Chris Hall must guard against a loss of focus this pre-season.
Their schedule outside the Division is dominated by non-playoff teams, including two games each with New York, Columbus and Buffalo, but the Roughies need to more than hold their own in the Great White North. The tone for their entire season may very well be set in their opener at the Ottawa Civic Centre on December 28.
The Ottawa Rebel won their home opener last November 17, 16 - 11 over the Vancouver Ravens, raising the hopes of their fans that the arrival of General Manager Johnny Mouradian and Head Coach Marty Cooper and his staff heralded a reversal of fortunes after their 1 - 13 first season at the Corel Centre. They went on to lose the next eight games, jettisoning Mouradian, Cooper and company (and even Director of Communications Greg Hotte) halfway through this streak of misery, and bringing in Lindsay Sanderson from Orangeville, Ontario by way of the Montreal Express.
The Rebel won three and lost four under Sanderson, en route to a 4 - 12 record. The team also changed venues, apparently with the blessing of ownership partner, Ottawa Senators / Corel Centre boss Rod Bryden, moving to the downtown Ottawa Civic Centre for their final two home games. Average attendance fell from 8,000 plus to 5,937, the slide at the gate arrested but not quite reversed by the move to the smaller (10,174 capacity) but transit-accessible, city-owned arena, which is regularly filled by the Ottawa 67's Major Junior hockey club.
No sooner had the NLL wrapped, then Rebel owner Brad Watters was busy launching the first season of his new football team, the Ottawa Renegades of the Canadian Football League. He did, however, find time to move Terry Sanderson from the hibernating Express to the Head Coach's position in Ottawa, shifting younger brother Lindsay to General Manager and Assistant Coach. Sanderson frères undertook an overhaul that saw the trading of, among others, leading scorers Mike Benedict Jr. and Chris Konopliff, and ultimately landed the Rebel six dispersal picks. Former Express defenders Bruce Codd (newly appointed Rebel Captain), Matthew Giles, Eric Pacey and Shawn Zettel, an original Rebel taken by Montreal in last year's expansion draft, will be wearing the new Rebel colors and logo (red, black and white, harmonizing with the Renegades) this season.
There are only seven holdovers from last winter, attackers Steven Evans, Dan Marohl and Ryan Painter, whose 45 goals led the Rebel as well as NLL rookies, and won him All Rookie honors, defenders Jamie Roy and Kyle Laverty, and goaltenders Matt Disher and Andrew Leyshon. Sanderson wheeling and dealing brought attackers Jason Clark, 2002 6th-round draftee Kevin Dostie, Kevin Howard, Brandon Sanderson, Brad Self and Marc (now Jean-Marc in bilingual Ottawa) Landriault, plus defenders Scott Self, John Veltman, 2002 3rd-round draft choice Brennan Day, and veteran face-off specialist Steve Fannell, as well as middie Kevin Lunnie. First-round entry-draft choice Peter Veltman, who plays junior for Lindsay Sanderson's Orangeville Northmen, will miss the NLL season because of surgery required to repair an ACL torn last July.
Ottawa's power play ranked 2nd only to Washington in the League last year, and their penalty killers 7th, but their 12.6 goals per game put them 10th, and their 15.3 goals-against, 11th. It is at even strength that the Rebel struggled.
Painter lead the NLL with 19 of his 45 goals on the power play, but he also displayed disturbing tendencies to puke up the ball going on-on-one, and take bad penalties (a team-leading 64 minutes).
Evans scored 20 goals, and Maryland alumnus Dan Marohl, a walk-on last year, added 15. Giles scored 17, and Codd 9 (along with 36 helpers) for the Express, while the well-travelled Clark, who played fourteen games with three teams (Wings, Bandits and Saints) last season, managed to unpack his gear often enough to gather 15 goals and 20 assists.
Middie Andrew Hartholt, a late cut by Toronto who scored 21 goals last summer for the Ontario Lacrosse Association Sr. B Burlington Chiefs, has been added to the active roster, and former Rebel goalie Derek "D-Rock" Collins to the practice roster. Rumors have circulated that Disher is being shopped, but there is nothing official as of the roster deadline.
Ottawa's schedule is probably no tougher than Calgary's outside the Northern Division, with double-headers against Columbus, New Jersey and Buffalo, plus a trip to Long Island. With season-ticket sales comfortably over the 2,000 mark, and an overall improvement in talent level, the challenge for the Rebel is to lift their even-strength play and production, while Terry and Lindsay Sanderson try to acquire that rarest of NLL commodities, a 3- or 4-goal-a-game stud who can be counted upon to produce, game in and game out.
Ted Montour is a communications and sports management consultant from the Six Nations Grand River Territory in southern Ontario, an Iroquois community that is the most populous reservation in Canada. Six Nations is the home of lacrosse legend, the late Gaylord Powless.
A former Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) Junior player, coach and general manager, Ted resides in Ottawa, where he handled community and public relations for the Ottawa Rebel in their first NLL season. He also coaches box lacrosse in Ottawa with the Nepean Minor Lacrosse Association, and looks after media relations for the Nepean Knights of the OLA Junior B League.