Rock, fans say goodbye to Watson

Toronto Rock fans are preparing to say goodbye to veteran goaltender Bob Watson on Friday...

Toronto Rock fans are preparing to say goodbye to veteran goaltender Bob Watson on Friday night.(Graig Abel/QMI AGENCY)

MARGARET SHERIDAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:40 PM ET

In pro sports, there’s longevity, and then there’s loyalty.

Very few athletes have managed to epitomize both quite the way Toronto Rock goaltender Bob ‘Whipper’ Watson has.

Watson will play the final regular-season home game of his stellar career Friday night against the Buffalo Bandits at the Air Canada Centre. And chances are, there won’t be a dry eye on the Rock bench during his pre-game farewell ceremony.

“It’s going to be quite an event,” said Pat Campbell who, as the Rock’s backup goaltender this season, had arguably the best seat in the house to watch Watson work. “It’s one of those novel things where a superstar retires at the top of his game.

“You see so many where they play until they’re too old to put up the big numbers they do in their prime. But it’s unbelievable to see a guy wanting to leave at the top of his game.”

Friendship and respect aside, Campbell isn’t exaggerating when it comes to Watson’s numbers.

Watson, who just turned 41 years old Wednesday, ranks second in the National Lacrosse League among goaltenders this season, his 13th with the Rock. With a 10-3 record, a sparkling 9.56 goals-against average and a league-leading .799 save percentage, it’s odd that the Guelph native would even be contemplating retirement, let alone actually walking away from the game.

But the NLL is a different kind of pro league, the kind where the players generally spend their weeks balancing a full-time job with family before dedicating their weekends to the game they love.

And it was that delicate balancing act that finally tipped the scales for Watson, who decided early on this was going to be his curtain call.

“I was really going to retire last season,” Watson said. “They didn’t talk me out of it but they always expressed their interest in having me come back. As time drew closer (I got) the itch to play, and the team was so close last year that I knew we were going to have a good opportunity to win again.

“Of course, nothing’s guaranteed, but you take your chances.”

Despite his impressive numbers, Watson insists that age was only one of the factors in his decision to stop playing. He also considered his new career with the Waterloo Regional Police .

“My age is starting to wear,” he said. “There were family concerns about being away from home and I had a new job with the police department and that was taking up a lot of my time.”

A day-oner with the Rock, who moved to Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999 after one season as the Ontario Raiders in Hamilton, Watson was a key part of Toronto’s ‘dynasty years’ when the club won five NLL championships in seven years. And while he values those moments, it’s something much more personal, and historic, that Watson believes was the most memorable part of his career.

“Winning the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens,” Watson said after a moment of thought. “I was a Leafs fan growing up and I always had aspirations of being a Maple Leaf and playing at Maple Leaf Gardens. Obviously, I didn’t make it in the hockey world but that I lived that dream through lacrosse was really special.”

Campbell’s best memory of Watson is actually bittersweet, coming from his time spent playing with the Rochester Knighthawks.

“We hosted Toronto for the championship game (in 2003), which we lost (8-6). Whipper pretty much single-handedly won that game for Toronto. I couldn’t believe it. If anyone had ever told me we’d hold them to (eight) goals and still lose the championship, I’d have bet my life savings against it. He was unbelievable.”

Watson’s age and work commitments aside, lacrosse isn’t something he is ready to give up cold turkey.

“You never fully walk away from the game,” Watson said. “To be part of that group, that team dynamic — I’m definitely going to miss that.

“I’ll certainly always bleed Rock red, white and blue. I’ll always be around as a fan.”

Watson and the Rock will play their final game of the regular season in Calgary Saturday, April 16.


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