Sportsmen of the Year

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

HAGERSVILLE -- It's 8 o'clock on a practice night at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena, a splendid facility dropped, as if by God, into a snowswept landscape 30 minutes from Hamilton.

The Toronto Rock, defending champs of the National Lacrosse League, unfold out of their vehicles in packs of twos and threes and begin dragging wheeled equipment bags across the icy parking lot. A 9 o'clock practice gives the players enough time to get home from work, grab a bite and set out on what, for many, is a two-hour drive.

But it means a midnight ride home and a bleary early-morning return to the real world.

There are no Lexus SUVs or Cadillac Escalades in the lot. This is a Wal-Mart demographic.

"I don't know what kind of car Mats Sundin drives," said Rock captain Jim Veltman, who pulled up in a worn Suzuki Esteem, "but it's sure nicer than mine."

When the Rock enter the arena, no one looks twice or asks for an autograph. They look to the world like a beer league team coming together to break up the monotony of winter.

They are, instead, winners of five championships in seven years of operation.

"The Rock," said NLL commissioner Jim Jennings, "are our New York Yankees."

Presenting the players of the Toronto Rock, the 2005 Toronto Sun Sportsmen of the Year.

There's no denying the Rock are an unusual choice for a newspaper that devotes copious coverage to the Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays and Argonauts.

That said, the 2005 year in sports was unlike most any other, a year in which you didn't have to go very far to find a disaffected athlete or evidence of money corrupting a sport. As the stories about lockouts, steroid scandals and athletic misconduct mounted, fans voiced their longing for the days when sport was simpler.

We think this city's lacrosse players provide that simplicity. They are, in our judgment, the athletes people say they want to follow.

The players are working people, cops, teachers and printing press operators, advertising designers, carpenters and students. Coach/GM Terry Sanderson runs a sporting goods store in Orangeville.

In a city where the Raptors' Jalen Rose earns more than $15 million US, mostly to practise and sit on the bench, the Rock work hard and work cheap.

Veltman, long the league's dominant defenders, earns $23,000 a season. A high-school phys-ed teacher, he uses the extra money to stay home every second day with his kids.

The minimum NLL salary is $6,500, 1/24th of the NHL's $400,000 minimum. The NLL average is $16,500, but if the league manages to climb into shouting distance of the other major sports, those salaries would increase.

"We are where other leagues, the NFL and NBA and NHL, were in the 1950s and 1960s," Jennings insisted.

The players of the Toronto Rock share beers with fans and opposing players after games. Many live in Whitby, one of the most unpretentious places on earth.

"People want to know you work just like they do or you drive the same kind of car that they do," said Veltman, the club's 40-year-old captain.

"When I go back to work, I'm treated like most teachers. I've got to deal with kids that need discipline. I've got to deal with kids that need help and routine. I think that's the humbling part but it's also what makes our sport attractive."

Here then are portraits of four players, Dan Ladouceur, Blaine Manning, Tim O'Brien and Jim Veltman. Not to single them out, because the entire Rock roster shares this award, but we think they are good representatives for the team. They speak to who the players are and why they matter, on the floor and in arenas far removed from lacrosse.


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