Rebuilding Rock

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

In Toronto all they know about professional lacrosse is winning.

For the Toronto Rock, failing to win a National Lacrosse League championship is considered an off year.

Such is the landscape when a team claims five titles in seven seasons.

"When the Rock were first assembled they were Canada's team," said Rock alternate governor and director of lacrosse operations Mike Kloepfer. "We had players from all provinces. The NLL was predominately an American-content league. So we were living in a great time where great Canadian lacrosse players from B.C., Alberta and Ontario were basically sitting at home during the winter and we were able to access them."

Now things are a bit more challenging.

Canadian players are scattered throughout the league, forcing the Rock to invest more time in the scouting and draft process.

Yet they're still one of the league's top franchises. Since their inception in 1998 the Rock have never missed the playoffs.

Tonight they're in town to take on the Edmonton Rush, before having to board a plane to host the Colorado Mammoth tomorrow.

ONTARIO RAIDERS

Originally the team was known as the Ontario Raiders and played out of Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. They were purchased by a group of investors led by then Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager, Bill Waters, relocated and renamed the Rock in 1999.

That year the team played in their first championship game, defeating the Rochester Knighthawks 13-10 in the final at Maple Leaf Gardens.

They went on to win the title again the following year 14-13 on a goal by Kaleb Toth with 1.1 seconds left in the contest. It was dubbed the greatest professional indoor lacrosse game of all time and was the last sporting event held at the Gardens.

Dan Stroup, now a member of the Edmonton Rush was named game MVP, scoring five goals in the contest.

"When it came into being the access to a real high number of Canadian players really opened up the opportunities for the Toronto Rock," Kloepfer said. "They also had terrific coaching and managing by people like Les Bartley. I think Les was the person who set the tradition and set the trend and it just has continued that way."

Bartley led the Rock to four championships as head coach and general manager. He died of cancer hours after the Rock won their fifth championship on May 15, 2005.

Last year the Rock were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. It was only the second time since 1999 that they did not take part in the NLL final.

MADE SOME DEALS

"One of the dilemmas coming into this season is that we didn't have good drafting positions," Kloepfer said. "Now we've made some deals and we've made some trades and we've gotten ourselves some important draft picks over the next few seasons."

The biggest deal involved trading away their highest-profile player in Colin Doyle at the beginning of the season.

Doyle was sent to the San Jose Stealth in exchange for Ryan Benesch, Kevin Fines, Chad Thompson and a pair of draft picks.

Doyle was the team's all-time leader in scoring and games played. He was also a former league MVP and three-time championship game MVP.

"We addressed a lot of things with that trade," Kloepfer said. "Obviously trading someone as popular as Colin was no easy task. We had to think about what was in the best interest of the Toronto Rock."

Despite the fact the team is not as dominant as it once was, the Rock continue to draw well. Last season they attracted over 16,400 per game to the Air Canada Center. This year the number is just over 15,800.

"There is a lot of competition for the sports entertainment dollar in Toronto," Kloepfer said. "But I think the Rock found a real niche. It was like the people's team.

"I think the whole persona of the National Lacrosse League has never been the high-profile, highly paid professional athlete, so I think people can really relate to them."


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