Last waltz for Veltman

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

As the curtain closes Sunday on Jim Veltman's lacrosse career. he will remember a 5-year-old kid, so small he had to be lifted on to the players bench so he could see the floor.

He will blink into the lights at the Air Canada Centre and remember a dozen championship celebrations and, when applause enfolds him, he will remember a brother, a friend and the night his team did his hometown proud.

He will accept the accolades for a 37-year career -- 17 seasons spent at lacrosse's highest level. And, then, he will be very afraid.

"I think one of the reasons I've continued to play is the fear of not knowing what it'll be like when I stop," Veltman said this week. "I still have that fear."

The Toronto Rock captain is 42 and next year begins a four-year contract which many believe will see him become the team's head coach before it ends. But as one door opens, Veltman admits the one closing weighs heavily.

"No longer going on the floor will be frustrating. I'm worried about what's going to happen there. I remember vowing I'd never be a 40-something who just hung around. And here I am, 42. I guess the fear of not actually playing was more than the fear that I was just hanging on."

To lacrosse fans, Veltman is legend. Gretzkyesque. He carries that kind of weight and has made that deep an impression. He sees and dissects a lacrosse game the wayGretzky does a hockey game.

"He sees everything on the floor before it happens. He has a unique ability to anticipate," Bob Watson, Rock netminder and confidante, said.

"Watch a game and you might not notice him because people look for the flair and dramatic. Jimmy can do that, too. But he often does the little things. You wonder where he's going and then, suddenly, he's in the right place."

Veltman began his NLL career in 1992 as a playmaker and scorer, but his longevity lies in the innate ability to evolve. He became a defensive player and he led the league in loose balls for 14 seasons, including a single season record of 226 in 2006.

"Jimmy says: 'What does this team need me to do,' and does it because he's capable of playing all parts of the game. That's what made him great," Watson said. "He dominates loose balls ... but, more than that, he's one of the fiercest competitors I've ever met. Jimmy likes to win."

Veltman has won a lot. Four Mann Cup championships, including one of life's treasured memories.

"We played the New Westminster Salmonbellies in 1992. That was a classic moment for me," he said. "It was Game 6, in Brampton, my hometown, the building was packed and with the humidity the floor was really slippery. Between the second and third period, they got a fertilizer spreader and put resin over the whole floor. With the pitter-patter of shoes, the stuff floated into the air and anyone with allergies had to leave the building. We played in this cloud of resin and my brother, John, scored the tying goal.

"It was such an elated feeling. To win in my hometown, to hoist that trophy -- it's still the holy grail of lacrosse because it takes so much to win it."

Three NLL championships after turning pro with Buffalo in 1992 would follow. He moved to Toronto in 1999 and, as team captain, led the team to five championships. He was the league MVP in 2004 and the first recipient of the NLL sportsmanship award in 2002.

"My first memory of lacrosse is a game when I was about 5 and scoring a lot," Veltman said. "I remember I was called up to a rep team with kids two years older. I think I scored only one more goal the rest of the year but I just loved being on that team. I was the smallest kid.

"I remember I couldn't see over the boards so whenever I came off the floor, the coach would lift me up so I could stand on the bench and see what was happening."

He would go on to the NLL and collect 156 goals, 645 points and a league record 2,400 loose balls.

"Jimmy is what you see. Quiet, the kind of guy who thinks before he speaks," said Watson, who believes Veltman could squeeze in a couple of seasons more.

"You play as long as you can and Jimmy did that," Watson, 38, said. "I know how I feel after games and I don't take close to the abuse that he does."

Lacrosse doesn't make anyone rich. Veltman got $125 a game when he broke in with Buffalo.

"And, I was travelling from the other side of Oshawa," he said. "By the time you buy a few beers and eat after the game it was probably costing me money."

But the game has rewarded him even in that sense. He is earning the league maximum $30,000, plus a little more through a personal appearance contract. It's not why he has played so long, but it's a nice fringe benefit for his family which includes wife, Teresa, a music teacher, and two young children.

"Every year I ask: 'Is this something you can still support?' " Veltman said. "Everyone needs that reassurance, but maybe especially me because we've got the kids, and there are other things in life, like careers.

"She always said: 'You can play as long as you want as long as I'm not pushing you in a wheelchair after you're done."

Veltman, a phys-ed teacher at Agincourt Collegiate, has never had a serious injury -- a five-week layoff this year with a knee ligament tear is the worst he has incurred.

"She knows this is what I love to do," he said. "She knew she'd be asking me to give up something I really love, that I was meant to do. It would be like me asking her to give up music."

But come Sunday, Veltman will walk on to the floor and face the inevitable. The last waltz.


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