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Gloves Off: Will Johnston

The Riptides Practice Roster Rockstar

New York Riptide fans probably know the name Will Johnston, but it wouldn’t be surprising if fans of other NLL teams did not. That’s because, while Johnston is a member of the Riptide, he’s only seen nine-and-a-half minutes of game action. The 20-year-old from Nepean, Ontario, is a member of the Riptide’s practice squad.

The practice roster, which can have up to four players, allows teams to carry extra players who can fill in for injured or unavailable players while continuing to work on their own development. Sometimes these players aren’t ready for full-time roles in the NLL, so while on the practice roster, they can hone their skills while soaking in knowledge from the pros around them. They practice with the team and generally take part in all other team activities, but when the first faceoff comes, you can find them sitting in the press box cheering on their teammates until they get get the call that they have been moved to the active roster.

“We’re always in the loop with what the team is doing. We’re not treated differently than anyone on the active roster,” Johnston says. “We understand what the plan is and what’s going on. The only difference is that we don’t travel to all the games, just a few.”

Some players are given the opportunity to continue to develop elsewhere while also remaining part of their NLL club. In Johnston’s case, that meant being a member of the Arena Lacrosse League’s Peterborough Timbermen.

Johnston was able to attend Riptide practices and learn from Steven Orleman and Gowah Abrams, but then spent most weekends in Millbrook, Ontario, as the Timbermen’s starting goaltender during their February through April season. He started nine of the Timbermen’s 12 games, finishing with a 4-3 record, 447 minutes played, a 13.55 GAA and .723 save .

The Arena Lacrosse League is a developmental league and an official strategic lacrosse partner with the NLL. Players are aged 18 and up at various skill levels and at various stages in their careers. The ALL plays by NLL rules. A notable name who came from the ALL into the NLL this season was Dean Fairall from the ALL’s West Division.

“We wanted Will to get as many games in against older players that may be able to test him a little more than he has been,” says Riptide head coach Dan Ladouceur. “We wanted him to see a lot of high-quality shots and start to develop his own identity and routine when it comes to a schedule similar to life in the NLL.”

“At first I was, not frustrated, but a little bit wishing and wanting to be at every single Riptide game,” Johnston says. “But after being to a few games and just watching, I understood that’s not what I wanted.”

So the ALL was a great solution to get quality minutes in net.

“The opportunity to play games is much more beneficial and it’s so much more fun. If I have the choice, I would do it again: play in the Arena League to get some games under my belt with grown men and guys who are in and out of the league (NLL). It’s more beneficial than watching every game and not playing.”

Johnston is currently completing his first season of Jr. A lacrosse after making his mark in a tournament last summer as a member of the Toronto Beaches, coached by Riptide assistant captain, Damon Edwards. Prior to that he was a member of the Jr. B Nepean Knights. While a lot of players choose prestigious NCAA schools and play college field lacrosse, Johnston chose to stay home. He’s currently pursuing a communications degree at Carleton University in Ottawa.

He’s the youngest player on the Riptide.

“Everyone gives me a fake hard time because I’m the youngest and that I’m like their little brother,” he laughs. “They all joke around.”

Johnston entered the Riptide’s training camp as the 34th overall draft pick from the 2021 Entry Draft. He said he didn’t anticipate going as high as he did, and didn’t have many expectations going into either the draft or training camp.

“There were four goalies in total and I imagined there would be two active roster spots and one practice roster spot, so I knew I would have to prove myself,” he says. Edwards and Callum Crawford, who is also from Ottawa, were able to prepare him.

“I got a little bit of what to expect and then I jumped in with both feet. I got to know everyone pretty quick. At times you forgot it was a tryout because everyone was hanging out at the hotel and getting along. It’s more so fun and a good experience than it is stressful.”

Johnston doesn’t seem to put too much pressure on himself and he keeps his expectations in check – for a goaltender, he’s pretty laid back. He’s been a goaltender since his first year in tyke lacrosse. It’s part of his identity.

“I wasn’t overly good as a runner,” he remembers, “I don’t know whether it was because I was so bad as a player, or because I was better at goalie than everyone else, but the coach just kept asking me to go in net. I could already tell I was better as a goalie than as a runner so I never wanted to change it up. I liked the success and at times the small amount of praise I got from my teammates.”

He does play defense, though, if he plays field lacrosse.

He says he never developed any game day rituals, beyond a basic routine – a pre-game coffee and energy gel, getting half his equipment on and then stretching, and then taking shots until he’s warm.

Some teams travel their practice roster to every game, but the Riptide don’t, allowing their players to pursue extra lacrosse opportunities like the ALL. Johnston attended five games.

He was only on Long Island once this season, but looks forward to being back.

He was called up to the active roster for the Albany game, a 17-9 loss. In the third period, Johnston saw three shots and made one save.

“It was a complete surprise,” he said. “I got the call to the active roster earlier in the week but I wasn’t expecting to go in. It was nine minutes, but I loved every second.

“It didn’t go the way we wanted, but everyone was happy that I got an opportunity.”

Members of the practice squad are expected to be ready to jump to the active roster at any time. They have to train and practice just like everyone else; harder, sometimes, to gain any edge they can.

For Johnston, when he’s with the Riptide for game days, that comes in the form of being on the floor 30-45 minutes before the first warmup to help the shooters get into form.

“Including practice, morning shootaround and the first warm up, I get the most shots all weekend during the warmup,” he says.

But after the first warmup, he’s not allowed back on the floor: second warmup is only for those in the night’s lineup. So he showers and puts on a clean suit, waits in the locker room for the game’s scratches, and then heads upstairs to the press box to watch the game and cheer on his teammates. During intermission he heads back down to the locker room for halftime motivational speeches, but he stays quiet and observes.

“The expectations for Will are the same as any practice player or non-dressed player – be a good teammate, support your teammates, learn from watching, contribute positivity,” says Ladouceur.

The coach kept a close eye on his young goaltender throughout the season. Johnston says that Ladouceur and Jim Veltman, Riptide General Manager, check in with him frequently to make sure his development is on track.

“I like Will’s athleticism and approach to the game. He plays angles well and has great lateral movement,” Ladouceur says. “I think the plan is to continue to increase his exposure to players of NLL caliber, encourage him to play a lot of lacrosse, see a lot of shots and expose himself to different game situations and the challenges that come with them.

“I think I would like Will to continue to work on trying to pick up the ball quicker out of shooters sticks as well as some rebound control and transition to his passing platform. I do think Will has a bright future and if he continues to prepare and develop the way he has, he will make a great addition to the NLL goalie ranks.”

Johnston’s compatriots on the practice squad fluctuated throughout the year. Ty Thompson spent the season on it, but other guys went up and down. Ryan Fournier and Luke Van Schepen occupied the other two spots at the end of the season. Kris Veltman is another player who spent most of the season on the squad, and he’s in the same situation as Johnston: he played with the ALL’s Oshawa Outlaws.

His Outlaws eliminated Johnston’s Timbermen in the ALL quarterfinals.

“I play against Kris in the ALL and then I see him at practice the following week. I’ll see him during ALL warmups and we’ll joke around with each other. I always find he has my number in Riptide practice, on drills or any breakaway he’s able to score, so I get a little nervous when he gets a chance in an ALL game,” Johnston says.

Veltman is just one of the teammates that Johnston has a connection with. He also counts fellow goaltenders Steven Orleman and Gowah Abrams among his closest teammates, though he echoes similar statements heard from other Riptide players and coaches this season about the overall closeness of the team. Everyone bonded very quickly; Johnston said their personalities are all similar.

At 22, Orleman is the closest in age.

“I pick his brain a little bit and try to be a good teammate for him. I’m super happy to see the success he had in his rookie campaign,” Johnston says.

He praises Abrams as everyone’s favourite teammate. “Everyone loves Gowah. When we’re on the floor he gives me pointers and tell me what he learned from other goalies.”

Having three young, relatively inexperienced goaltenders isn’t usually an ideal situation for a pro team, but with Orleman’s success this season the experiment was a good one. The three goaltenders are a good unit.

Ladouceur says a close relationship with goaltending coach Angus Dineley helps as well.

“I think our goaltending trio are very tight and communicate often away from the floor. I know Angus talks to each one of them regularly, and not just about lacrosse and the mechanics of goaltending, but about what each guy has going on in his life. Angus gets a complete picture and acts as a mentor to these young men both in their life journeys as well as in their roles with the Riptide.”

The Riptide have a similar team culture to the ALL’s Timbermen, which is beneficial for Johnston as he gets used to the life of a professional athlete. The commitment and desire to win is consistent.

“It’s a great group in Peterborough,” he says. “I met a bunch of guys who really love the game, and a lot of them are in the same boat as I am. It’s a nice mix of passions and ages, and everyone has the same goal, which is to win. There are guys trying to make it back, or to the NLL, and a couple guys who live and die by the Timbermen. They love it so much.”

Johnston says he underestimated how much fun he’d have in the ALL.

“I became a better goalie because of it. I think that’s important to do, play games and get reps, wherever that is.”

Johnston doesn’t like to look too far ahead. This summer he’s content chasing a coveted Minto Cup with the Beaches, who lost in the Ontario Junior Lacrosse League final battle with the Whitby Warriors last night. Luckily for Johnston, the Beaches for the first time ever are Minto Cup bound and will look to rebound for the title.