By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor
THE FINAL TIP: Arizona at Toronto
The National Lacrosse League is about to cap a very busy post-season with a North America-wide ("… and all the ships at sea") network TV broadcast of the Champions Cup game from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Media advisories have been flowing at a one-a-day rate with announcements of individual honors and new teams, to wit:
Gary Gait of the Colorado Mammoth received the Sportsmanship Award for the second consecutive year, although it is small consolation for not securing a league title in his final season;
Andrew Turner of the Rochester Knighthawks is the Defensive Player of the Year, an Oscar-like acknowledgement of his "body of work" as much as this season, in my opinion;
Steve "Chugger Dietrich" of the Buffalo Bandits, to no one's surprise, is the Goaltender of the Year;
Ryan Boyle of the San Jose Stealth is the Rookie of the Year, while No. 1 draft pick Delby Powless Jr. of the Bandits is the No. 2 vote-getter for All Rookie Team honors, followed by Andrew Burkholder (Philadelphia Wings), Rory Glaves (Anaheim Storm), Ryder Bateman (Minnesota Swarm) and Dan Finck (Wings);
Bob Hamley of the Arizona Sting is the "Les Bartley Trophy" winner as Head Coach of the Year, picking up the General Manager of the Year hardware as well, while Bart himself (who, ironically, has never been named Coach of the Year) collects Executive of the Year honors; and,
In the last off-the-floor award that I will cite, Mike Koreen of the Toronto Sun is the first recipient of the newly-named "Tom Borelli Award" as NLL Writer of the Year, beating out, among others, Tom Borelli of the Buffalo News, the 'dean' of pro indoor scribes.
First and second All Pro teams were headed by Dietrich and Turner and include MVP candidates Dan Dawson (Arizona), regular-season scoring champion Colin Doyle (Toronto), John Tavares (Buffalo) and John Grant Jr. (Rochester).
Colin Doyle is the 2005 NLL Most Valuable Player, an acknowledgement of his own monopoly-busting scoring accomplishments as well as his not inconsiderable hand in those of team- and line-mate Aaron Wilson.
There were also a slew of what I will stop short of calling self-congratulatory front-office awards, as well as more meritorious selections for Equipment Manager and Athletic Trainer of the Year (based on, if nothing else, the amount of abuse, good-natured and not, and general taking for granted that they have to put up with from players and coaches alike.
Meanwhile, two new NLL franchises have been announced for next season, to Edmonton, Alberta and Portland, Oregon. The Edmonton franchise, with its instant rivalry with Calgary, was awarded to Bruce Urban, an Alberta entrepreneur who is Western Canada's biggest purveyor of recreational vehicles. The new team's home will be Rexall Place (originally more aptly named the Northlands Coliseum), home of the NHL's Oilers. The Portland owner is 24-year-old Angela Batinovitch, who instantly becomes, hands down, the youngest owner in North American pro sports. A business graduate of Loyola Marymount University, she is the President and CEO of a Los Angeles women's "professional fashions" store called Bat's Daughter,
a nod to her father Robert, founder of NYSE-traded Glenborough Realty Trust. Batinovitch pére, along with brother Andrew and family friend and business associate Wallace Krone, are minority shareholders. The team will play in the 20,000-seat Rose Garden, also home to the NBA's Trailblazers, and operated by Global Spectrum, an arm of Comcast Spectacor, long-time partner and landlord of the Philadelphia Wings.
So much for League business, and on to the serious business - the eighth Champions Cup title match, with the dynastic Toronto Rock hosting the arriviste Arizona Sting. Perhaps the first thing to note is that these two squads, and the respective coaching staffs, are anything but strangers to each other. Of the combined rosters of some 50 players, over 80% are veterans of the Ontario Lacrosse Association's junior and senior box leagues; the remainder are from British Columbia and Alberta, or the US. The cumulative time that they have been playing with and against each other in the Canadian summers, going back to pre-adolescent minor team days, is into the decades. This game will be more Brampton Excelsiors (Terry Sanderson's Mann Cup-winning Major Series side before this year) versus the rest of the OLA, than the US versus Canada. What's really at stake here are some southern Ontario bragging rights until the 2005 Mann and Minto Cups roll around.
This is not to say, by any means, that the Champions Cup itself is secondary, not with Rock builder and now-VP Les Bartley still occupying a prominent role in the proceedings. Earlier this week an NLL media colleague, Neil Stevens of the Canadian Press wire service, did an excellent and touching story of what Bart, who will be unable to attend this Saturday's game due to his ongoing battle with colon cancer, means to the NLL and lacrosse, as well as to the many coaches and players whose lives he has touched. The Cup will always have his name all over it in more than just engraving.
As to how these two teams match up, there are more than enough questions and imponderables, so let's start in goal. Toronto's Bob "Whipper" Watson is the one with all the experience and rings, and the cooler nickname, while Mike Miron typifies Arizona's newcomer status. Watson is criticized for his occasional weakness on long outside shots, Miron for his size and immobile style. Watson is a clutch ball-stopper, as he amply demonstrated in the semi-final two weeks ago against Rochester. His second-half performance in particular was classic. Miron, on the other hand, has no such big-game tests on his pro resumé, and has been pulled often enough during this regular season that Ken "Monster" Montour posted a 4 - 0 record. If Tiny should begin to get shaken early, particularly by Toronto's ball movement and inside game from the likes of Doyle, Wilson, Josh Sanderson and Blaine Manning, the game may turn on whether or not Bob Hamley pulls him in time to stop the bleeding, something that, in my opinion, he failed to do often enough that it cost the Sting a couple of games this season.
Up front, I think the Sting-ers will give Rock defenders at least as hard a time as Doyle and company give them. Dan Ladouceur will be matched up against Arizona's Dan Dawson most of the time, and "the Big Dog" has had problems before with attackers that he cannot easily bully. The other problem for Toronto is that the equally troublesome, and explosive, Craig Conn will be coming from the same side of the floor, and at the same time, as the right-handed-shooting Dawson, and with his 'el Torito' size and strength at 5'11" and 220+ pounds, he is a load for any one of Toronto's remaining leftie defenders (and there are seven of them in addition to Ladouceur) to handle. If Laddy can't handle Dawson, and starts taking penalties in the process, it will be a long day for the guys going out the Rock's back door, and don't forget, long-bombing Cory Bomberry and overdue Jonas Derks are coming from that side as well. Then the Sting has Lindsay and Pat Maddalena attacking the cage from the other side of the floor, while Toronto counters with just Brian Beisel and face-off man Patrick Merrill. Swing man Chris Driscoll has drawn rightie defensive duties on several occasions this season, and Sanderson may have to move him from front to back door again.
At the other end of the floor, the Rock can and do give any NLL tender fits. When Doyle, Manning, Sanderson or Wilson are not on the floor, Captain Jim Veltman's play-making still includes the odd, and invariably timely, goal, and any one of Matt Shearer, Rusty Kruger or Nick Trudeau can get a hot hand.
As to imponderables, let us not forget the Toronto / Rochester scoresheet: --- defender John Rosa, 1 goal and 1 assist, defender Brian Beisel, 2 goals, defender Phil "Phlip" Sanderson, 1 goal, and defender Patrick Merrill, 3 assists, all in a 12-goal day for the Rock. Arizona's Pat Maddalena lead the NLL in short-handed goals with Buffalo a couple of seasons back. The Sting have a decided advantage in team speed, while Rock skipper Terry Sanderson abhors fast-break lacrosse. Toronto's extremely well-rested Phil Wetherup is just one Cory Bomberry shot away from having to replace Watson in goal (just ask Dwight Maetche).
This game has all the ingredients to be an entertaining, see-saw, down-to-the-wire box lacrosse game. Or it could turn out to be a yawner with the Rock getting their foot on the neck (or would it be the tail) of the Sting and holding it there. Or it could be an Arizona jail-break.
All photos from teams and team sites.