'A great human being'

Les Bartley behind the Toronto Rock bench in 2001. (Toronto Sun File Photo/Ernest Doroszuk)

Les Bartley behind the Toronto Rock bench in 2001. (Toronto Sun File Photo/Ernest Doroszuk)

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:15 AM ET

ST. CATHARINES -- On a good day, Kim Squire will give you a one-word answer.

On a bad day, he'll give you absolutely nothing.

But then there was yesterday, the day Les Bartley was cremated, and the media-shy ex-Toronto Rock star and troublemaker was ready to talk. Ready to talk about something he never had mentioned in public, to pay his respects to a man who meant so much to him.

"I was drinking sometimes," Squire, 25, said, confirming what many knew but couldn't say out loud. "(Bartley) would sit me down and tell me to smarten up and I would listen. He took me to the side and we had good conversations. He helped me and put me in some good situations on his team."

Squire, who also overcame the potentially deadly flesh-eating disease necrotizing fasciitis two years ago, won four championships with the Rock before he stormed out of a practice last year, ending his association with the team after Bartley had left.

"I would imagine he's the best coach anyone has ever had," Squire said of Bartley, who fought hard to try to stay alive for his son Matt's wedding June 4. "He was a great human being."

As Squire was speaking, about 100 people were leaving a private service at a St. Catharines church for Bartley, who died on Sunday of colon cancer at the age of 51 and just one day removed from Toronto's NLL championship victory. Rock captain Jim Veltman represented the players, team president Brad Watters, part-owner Bill Smith and office boss Yvonne Fox represented the executives and one-time Rock lacrosse staffers Johnny Mouradian, Ed Comeau, Derek Keenan and Sean Ferris attended as well.

It was a short service, with the only eulogy coming from the minister. Most of the talk was about Bartley the person, not Bartley the lacrosse coach.

For a true people-person, this was the right thing to do. Like Frank Sinatra, Bartley did it his way. And Bartley's way involved much more than X's and O's.

There were team-building weekends in Orillia and Acton, visits from sports psychologists, trust exercises and five-hour bonding sessions in hotels.

"When I first got there, I was like, 'What the hell does this have to do with putting the ball in the net?,' " Rock forward Colin Doyle said.

Players sat in front of their teammates to talk about their lives and grown men would cry like babies, whether it was goalie Bob Watson describing the birth of his first child or ex-defender Craig Gelsvik describing a tattoo dedicated to his father.

Bartley, who won his first 22 National Lacrosse League games after an unspectacular non-professional playing career, would make players who were scared of heights climb up walls and would organize team football games. It was summer camp for professional athletes and it worked so well.

"After our 2003 championship (Bartley's last of seven titles), I went up to Les and cleared the air," Watson said. "I was bewildered at first and I couldn't really figure out what he was doing (with the team-building routine). But now I understand. I have a lot of respect for him and I'm glad I shared that with him before he had cancer."

Those who knew Bartley well say one of his greatest talents was making everyone around him feel important. On a spring day at Woodbine Racetrack in 2003, he did just that. The Rock rented a huge tent for what turned out to be his final championship celebration and Bartley was asked to make a speech.

He thanked everybody with heartfelt sentiments -- from the fans, to the office staff, to the players and even the beat reporters -- but he saved his best for the players' families. We don't remember his exact words, but they went something like this:

"Thank you so much to the wives, the girlfriends and the children," he said. "These guys are away from you for a long time and you make a lot of sacrifices to make this happen. You are all part of this team."

What a great team it was.


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