Honouring Bartley

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

It's not a battle.

That's the hardest thing to accept.

You don't lose, just because you die. And your not gone, just because you are dying.

And so it was yesterday that Toronto Rock veteran Jim Veltman spoke of former coach Les Bartley as someone in the building, even though Bartley was back home in St. Catharines, dying of a cancer that began in his colon.

"He belongs here ... he belongs in the game of lacrosse and he's not here and it breaks my heart," the 39-year-old Veltman said.

"He's like a brother to me and he lives, he lives in all of us."

Before yesterday's National Lacrosse League championship game, they played a montage in honour of Bartley on the scoreboard at the Air Canada Centre.

Bartley was the franchise builder of the Toronto Rock, the coach who left the Buffalo Bandits for a NLL franchise in Hamilton.

Veltman won three titles in Buffalo with Bartley. Veltman left the league for a year in Africa. When he came back, Bartley was in Hamilton and he drafted Veltman, one of the best loose ball artists ever, in the expansion draft.

"I really wasn't too happy about that," Veltman said. "We had enjoyed a lot of success in Buffalo and I was skeptical about how much success Hamilton would have."

He was right of course, but the words Bartley used to persuade Veltman were lasting.

"Come with me," he said.

"We'll build something together."

They did that.

You can point to Brad Watters' lucrative decision to buy the club and move it to Maple Leaf Gardens and then the ACC, but the point man for everything was Bartley.

Eleven members of the Rock club that won the club's fifth championship played for Bartley.

At one time, everybody did.

"Les Bartley is a great man," said Arizona Sting general manager/coach Bob Hamley.

"We're all thinking of him."

No one has ever ascertained whether a long goodbye is the best kind, but thus it has been for Bartley. He became ill in the autumn of 2003 after leading the Rock to four titles in five years.

It was Bartley who helped pull the league out of a labour abyss that threatened to take it where hockey is now.

Instead, the game wakes up giddy this morning.

Bartley has left in degrees, as the disease asked more, but everywhere, there are talismans of his presence.

The NLL announced this year it is naming its coach of the year award after him.

Yesterday's game drew 19,432, the highest in league history. Yesterday afternoon, sports fans all over North America saw the contest on NBC, and while it's true the league paid for the privilege, such largesse would have been unthinkable only a year ago.

The nice folks at home saw an entertaining game in a rollicking arena.

Veltman's title was his eighth.

That's one more than Bartley.

"Uh-uh," Veltman disagreed.

"He's still an executive with us. We're still tied."

Veltman called Bartley earlier this month. They met a while ago in St. Catharines. Bartley, as he sometimes did, had advice for Veltman.

"He understands," Veltman said. "He's drawing the people who are the closest in to him."

And the words they shared?

"I can't say," Veltman said.

"It's so personal."

No doubt, though, they were about living.


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