If you're going to retire and want to go out on a bang, it's hard to argue with the denouement of Bob Watson's pro lacrosse career. Earlier this year, Whipper Watson led the Toronto Rock to the National Lacrosse League championship, avenging last year's final loss to the Washington Stealth. For Watson, it was a chance for a ring for his other thumb, having earlier lead the Rock to five titles. He's been the league's top goalie twice and finals MVP twice. And in this century, his team actually finished just short of winning the title twice more, losing in the finals.
In other words, Watson's been really good and so, as a result, have been the Rock.
Watson retired immediately after the title game and it took all of a few months for the electors to the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame to vote him in as their newest member. With a voting total of 84 percent. Watson didn't just ride the Rock to the Hall, he also summered frequently with my hometown Brampton Excelsiors. The Excels' frequent participation in the Mann Cup over the years was also part of what made Watson so Hall-worthy. In fact, Rock owner Jamie Dawick went so far as to say Watson was the greatest goalie of all time.
Uh, hold on a sec. Greatest NLL goalie of all time? I think the case for that is pretty solid. Greatest goalie in Brampton Excelsior history. Uhhhhhh, not so much.
First, let me say that I admire Watson greatly. I know he looks gargantuan in his goalie gear when you see him on TV or in person. But truth be told, he's not much bigger than me, or at least the pre-middle aged me without the spare tire. His ability to get in the way of shots for the last 15 years in the NLL and through the summers in the Ontario Major Lacrosse League was tantamount to will (and later experience), being vulcanized with all that rubber being hurled at him. A pleasure to watch and a good guy to boot. Nothing I'm about to say takes away from that.
BUT, in my opinion, Watson's only the third-best goalie I ever saw wear the Excelsior maroon and white. Who was better?
Larry Smeltzer was one. They say the golden age for every child is when they were 12. Back in the late sixties, right about that age for me, the Junior A Excelsiors swung possibly the greatest trade of the franchise's long and storied history by obtaining Ron Weatherhead, Murray Shannon and Smeltzer from the Elora Mohawks for some kids (and I'm sure, some of Ev Coates' money). Weatherhead was a big centreman who reminded one of Jean Beliveau off skates. Shannon was a good defensive wing-man (this was back in the day when teams had lines rather than offensive and defensive units). And Smeltzer was simply awesome in net. The trio was the secret to serious Excelsior contention for the Ontario title and the Minto Cup.
Between Brampton and the title(s) were the Lakeshore Maple Leafs starring Paul Sugate, Bill Coghill (later an Excelsior head coach) and Joe Timpson. The Leafs were the favourites, but Smeltzer didn't care. A burly guy with a brush-cut sprouting some curls, Smeltzer was the wall that wouldn't break. Smeltzer was the difference in the end as the Excelsiors did manage to knock off the Leafs.
Smeltzer had a decent career in senior lacrosse. But it came at a time when there wasn't a pro loop to keep him going. So he retired young. And he didn't retire as an Excelsior. But in the maroon and white? Almost the very best I ever saw.
Which brings me to Dennis Maruk's little brother Barry. Dennis might have been a scoring sensation in the NHL. But he wasn't the best athlete in the family. That honour belonged to Barry, the acrobatic little guy who led the Excelsiors to the Mann Cup championship back in the early 80's. He played for John McCauley's last team, a title winner back in 1981 (if I remember correctly). He stopped shots, he passed as well as any goalie in the game ever did ... and he scored goals. Not infrequently. Rather regularly in fact.
Maruk won the Mike Kelly award for the finals MVP in that Mann Cup final. Guys like Terry Sanderson, current Rock GM and assistant coach, were on that team. The club imported the Wasson brothers from Peterborough for the national championships, adding them to a team that had Bobby Burke, Tom Patrick at his prime and the one-man runaway train, Gord Keates. Steady Barry Richardson played one side on defence, Ian Douglas the other. 'Course, Barry was in charge of hitting Patrick in a sideline scrum early in the game to get the big guy going. (on orders from Gus, the head coach). But with all that offensive firepower, Maruk was the star. There wasn't a single facet of the game he didn't excel in. Diving acrobatic saves? Check. Racing, stumbling back to cover the net after one of his forays up the floor? Check. Passes right on the nose for breakaway chances? Check. Handling the ball killing penalties? Check. Assisting AND scoring? Check, check, check.
I spent that Mann Cup up in the press box doing the TV broadcast of the finals in a sweaty Memorial Arena. Dead of the hottest part of summer. No air conditioning. The kind of heat that just naturally takes your breathe away. That's the environment that Maruk rose to the occasion in, while wearing that sweat-creating goalie gear.
As good was Watson was this spring and as good as he's been in a long, illustrious lacrosse career, he still wasn't the best goalie I ever saw. One other thing? Dawick can be excused for waxing profusely in declaring Watson the best ever.
But Terry Sanderson, who saw Barry Maruk, didn't say a thing. Why spoil the moment when only we old codgers know better?