The Toronto Rock retired Hall of Fame goaltender Bob Watson's No. 29 on Friday night at the Air Canada Centre. (Photo Credit: Graig Abel)
Watson at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2011.
From 1999 to 2011, Bob Watson lived up to the team name on the front of his jersey.
He was a Rock.
Over the last nine months, however, Watson’s life has played out like a feel-good movie fresh off a Hollywood soundstage.
After shunning retirement to play one final year, Watson won the sixth and final title of his storied career and second championship game Most Valuable Player award last spring. Then, there was induction as just the third goaltender and only member of the Class of 2011 into the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame.
What could possibly top that? Try a franchise first.
On Friday night, Watson’s No. 29 will be raised high above the Air Canada Centre floor prior to the Rock’s tilt with the Rochester Knighthawks.
Forging a career that allows a player to be the last one to wear his jersey number is quite a feat. However, it’s more special to be the first on one of the league’s marquee franchises to receive such an honor.
“It was a little shocking and overwhelming considering the players that I’ve played with over the years,” the 41-year-old Watson said Tuesday. “And to have that bestowed on me was special and something that I am certainly going to cherish.”
One of those players Watson may have been thinking of was longtime teammate and captain Jim Veltman – a Hall of Famer and five-time champion with Toronto. However, Rock owner and president Jamie Darwick cited Watson’s unwavering loyalty as the reason for being chosen first.
“The retirement of a players number is not something we're going to throw around lightly and number 29 is the best place to start. This cements his legacy with the franchise,” Darwick said.
Watson’s credentials cannot be questioned.
“Whipper” joined the franchise in 1998 and helped Toronto win a championship in 1999 – the first of five in a seven-year span. The NLL Goaltender of the Year in 2001 and 2008, Watson planned to retire after the 2010 season, but came back for one final season.
All he did was help Toronto end a six-year title drought after turning away 46 shots in an 8-7 win over Washington.
Did the soft-spoken Watson ever think his career would unfold this way? Not a chance.
“Kind of last thing on that was my mind,” he said. “When you break into league, you’re just worried about making the team and trying to make an impact and keeping your position.”
He certainly achieved that. Brian Shanahan, a color analyst for the Rock on TSN, said Watson is reminiscent of a Hall of Famer from another sport.
“I always compared him to Grant Fuhr in his heyday with the (NHL’s Edmonton) Oilers. He didn’t always have the best goals-against average, but whether the score was 15-14 or 8-7, when you needed a big save, Watson was the guy to do it. … He had a knack throughout his career of being the best money goalie,” Shanahan said.
Months after the final game and the his induction, Watson could draw upon any one of a number of countless memories from his playing career, but playing the final professional sporting event at Maple Leaf Gardens in 2000 trumps them all. Days after the birth of his son, Dylan, Watson was in goal as the Rock defeated Rochester 14-13 in the NLL title game on Kaleb Toth’s last-second tally.
“It was a warm night and the arena was full and my energy was so low, and it was just that threat of overtime and I was at the point where I was just ‘Jeez, I don’t think I can do overtime,’ and for Kaleb Toth to score that last-second goal was just thrilling,” Watson said.
While the rest of his teammates celebrated, Watson went back to be with his new family. The following day, he skated alone at the home of one of the NHL’s Original Six teams before rejoining his team.
Walking away from what you love – and being among the best ever to do – isn’t easy. It was for Watson, who said he knew when it was his time. But that’s not to say he doesn’t miss it.
“I think when you walk away from the locker room, that’s the toughest part.” Watson said. “And it may be cliché, but you can go down and see the boys and visit them, but after the game when that door closes and you’re on the opposite side, you’re not a member of that exclusive club anymore and I think that’s the part that you miss.
“That’s a special part of my life and a lot of great memories being inside that locker room. When you walk away from that, it’s an adjustment.”
So is being a fan, especially now that he is one full-time.
“Definitely a different perspective,” he acknowledged. “It’s been very enjoyable, at times frustrating, but for the most part enjoyable. I get to watch my (son Dylan and daughter Sydney) and how they react, I never had that opportunity to sit through a game with them over the past 15 years.“
In addition, it’s safe to say he will never forget the passion and energy the fans brought every game.
“It’s not so much shocking, but it’s proud just to see that playing for the blue and white my whole career,” he said. “They want nothing for the boys but to succeed. They settle for nothing less.”
Precisely what Watson gave them for more than a decade.
THE BOB WATSON FILE
Name: Bob Watson
Born: April 6, 1970 in Guelph, Ontario
Noteworthy: A six-time Champion’s Cup winner, all with Toronto between 1999 and 2011. … Named NLL Goaltender of the Year in 2001 and 2008 … Was selected as Most Valuable Player of the NLL Championship game in 2003 and 2011. … Is the all-time league leader with 6,471 saves and one of two netminders with at least 100 career wins.