IL Indoor looks at storied Calgary captaincy of retired NLL great
Following his retirement from an illustrious 14-year playing career highlighted by two Champion’s Cup titles with the Calgary Roughnecks, Tracey Kelusky now enters his next chapter in the National Lacrosse League as an assistant coach with the New England Black Wolves. Ty Pilson from IL Indoor recently took a look at the legacy left behind by Calgary’s former captain “TK”.
“Tracey Kelusky was the consummate captain,” Pilson writes on IL Indoor. “So much so, it would be fitting to see NLL captains wear a ‘K’ on their chest just like the Soviets in hockey did back in the day. Kelusky helped define the role in the NLL. Along with Jim Veltman, he embodied what a captain should be: The perfect mix of leadership, skill, tenacity and focus.”
Lead with words in the dressing room and lead by example on the floor. Score some of the prettiest goals you’ve ever seen, then battle in the corner for a loose ball like his life depended on it.
Listed at 5-foot-10 (perhaps a bit generous) and 175 pounds, Kelusky played the game like he was six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier. Sandpaper or grit or whatever you want to call it, Kelusky had it.
But, just as important, he had one of the sweetest sticks the game has ever seen. So silky smooth, he made scoring look easy.
Often disgustingly easy.
The first time I saw Kelusky play, he scored six goals and added five helpers as his Montreal team laid what is still the worst beating in league history on the Roughnecks, demolishing the Riggers 32-17 in the Calgary club’s NLL debut back in 2001. A crowd of 9,517 got their first glimpse of the player who would eventually lead their team to two Champion’s Cup titles. A player, who along with hometown boy Kaleb Toth, would become synonymous with the Roughnecks.
A week later, the 2000 NLL Rookie of the Year had a slightly quieter night, scoring just three goals but another 11 points as Montreal dumped the Roughnecks by a slightly more palatable score of 23-16.
The Roughnecks ended up finishing 4-12 that season, as did the Ottawa franchise. However, Ottawa had managed to win a close game against Vancouver (a victory you could argue would help hasten their demise) and therefore had a better divisional record than Calgary. So, Calgary finished dead last and got the mother of all consolation prizes: The first pick in the dispersal draft — otherwise known as The Kelusky Sweepstakes.
With an offensive lineup then featuring Toth, Ben Prepchuk, Jason Wulder, Chris Panos and Kyle Goundrey, the Roughnecks could score goals. Lots of them, in fact.
They just couldn’t stop them from going in their net.
So it was no surprise that then Roughnecks owner and GM Brad Banister admitted he was open to the idea of dealing Kelusky for a package of players to improve his team’s defence and goaltending. He had more holes in those areas than a brick of Swiss Cheese. Every team in the league was interested in Kelusky and stories of ridiculous packages of players both asked for and offered bandied about.
At the time, one GM who wanted Kelusky badly told me that in order to land him he’d have to gut his team in a trade. It was the classic Catch-22. As good as Kelusky was, he couldn’t win by himself. Ultimately, Banister kept the pick and selected Kelusky.
Talking by phone to me in an interview after making it official, Banister summed up his new player succinctly.
“This guy is a franchise player, he’s incredible,” said Banister. “He’s a quarterback out there on the floor. He makes things happen. And he’s a good defensive player. He’s the total package.”
On the floor
On the floor, Kelusky’s stick was a wand.
Jaw-dropping, highlight-reel goals were his norm. Able to score outside and in close with equal efficiency, he had a filthy backhand and the best pound-for-pound swim move in the history of the game. It’s one thing for 6-foot-6 Dan Dawson to Michael Phelps defenders with ease but for Kelusky and his aforementioned much more moderate height, it was incredible how easily he burned guys — especially since a lot of them knew it was coming.
One instance best sums this up for me. Playing at the Dome, Kelusky ended up in the centre of the floor, up high, with now recently inducted Hall-of-Famer Pat Coyle guarding him. Kelusky did his standard back pedal, setting Coyle up for the kill. Coyle followed him nearly to the restraining line before Kelusky swim-moved him with Pat lunging for air.
He smacked his stick in frustration on the floor as Kelusky ran down the middle and scored.
Coyle was one of the best ever. He likely expected that move was coming. He still got torched. That memory has always stuck with me.
As for his backhand, perhaps the only guy with a better one is his childhood friend John Grant Jr. At a time when many still saw the backhand as a trick shot (and you saw far fewer of them used in NLL games), Kelusky showed night in and night out that it’s a legit way to put the ball in the net.
Twice he scored eight goals for Calgary, what I consider a lofty single-game standard for any NLL sniper to achieve.
On April 2, 2003, he had eight goals in a game and with still almost eight minutes left in the tilt he went to the sin bin after exchanging a volley of slashes with fellow Peterborough boy Mat Giles, ending the momentum he had as he was within striking distance of the then-record 10 goals in an outing.
The second time he scored eight was just over two years later on April 18, 2005 against the Toronto Rock in a 20-12 victory for the Riggers at the Saddledome. His hot hand that night led Calgary to one of its most decisive victories ever against Toronto in front of a home crowd that still relishes every time their club can beat their Canadian archrivals.
Kelusky finished his pro career with 383 goals and 440 assists in 195 games, good for an average of 4.2 points a game. He scored 37 goals and 30 assists in 16 playoff games, an identical 4.2 point average.
Kelusky was incredibly consistent — another hallmark of a great player.
Off the floor
Like most NLLers, he battled through and played through many injuries. None was worse than when he got his cheekbone broken in an off-floor incident near the start of his first year with the club.
Kelusky ended up in a hospital bed following surgery to insert a plate and screw into his face. He had a slight concussion to boot. The team feared he was lost to them for the season. Kelusky had Calgary out to a 2-0 start with eight goals and six assists in those two contests. The Riggers were enjoying the feeling of winning after their 4-12 campaign. The wins and Kelusky’s play was energizing the city of Calgary, which was still getting used to pro lacrosse.
But Kelusky missed just three games before returning. It buoyed the team, which made the playoffs with a 9-7 record before falling to the Buffalo Bandits 16-9 in the first round of the playoffs. The next year the Riggers would complete their incredible ascent from worst to first, hoisting the Champion’s Cup at home before a sold-out gathering of nearly 20,000 fans, still an attendance record in Calgary.
A good example of his dedication and leadership came in 2009.
During Calgary’s second Cup run, Kelusky missed the team’s morning shootaround but came out and scored five first-half goals as Calgary built a huge lead and coasted to a 17-5 win over the Stealth in a Friday-night tilt. During the game, a little birdie in the pressbox told me Kelusky had been back to Ontario to attend his Grandma’s funeral, someone he was very close to, before hoping a red-eye flight Thursday night to get back in time for the game.
He wanted to be there for both his family and his lacrosse family. He didn’t want to let either one down. He didn’t.
What’s more, a visibly emotional Kelusky still took the time to come and talk to me after the game in a hallway outside the dressing room and tell me the story of his week. I had asked the club PR person to ask him if he was up to talking to me about it. Kelusky knew I cared about writing about more than just the score. I wanted to write about the players and their stories for the game’s dedicated fans in Calgary and across the league.
He wore the C. He understood his role on the floor and off it to grow the game.
Enduring impact and legacy
Kelusky should be a slam-dunk, first-ballot NLL Hall-of-Famer. It will be asinine if he’s not.
His jersey will no doubt be the second to be hauled into the Saddledome rafters, joining Toth in the Forever a Roughneck club. Seeing No. 17 up there beside Toth’s No. 9, his road roommate during his Calgary years and a good friend, will be fitting. The pair were the faces of the franchise, the Calgary kid and the adopted son.
And the league is certainly better off with the news Kelusky is staying involved in the NLL, serving as a defensive coach for the relocated New England Black Wolves. At first glance having Kelusky serve as a defensive coach seems odd. A fellow Calgary media hack made a strange face when he read about Kelusky’s new gig.
Really, it shouldn’t be a big surprise.
Scoring, assists, loose balls, a little defence, leadership — Kelusky was versatile as a player, and now versatile in retirement.