January 24, 2012

The Incredible NLL Odyssey of Mat Giles

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Mat Giles, 36, is in his first season with the Buffalo Bandits, the team he scored his first career goal against while with the Toronto Rock. He's made stops on 10 other NLL rosters in between.
Image courtesy of Bill Wippert

It has been a remarkable journey.

Mat Giles has played for Toronto, Albany, Columbus, Montreal, Ottawa, Rochester, Toronto again, Edmonton, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Minnesota and now Buffalo in the NLL.

Giles, 36, has been involved in three dispersal drafts and an expansion draft and he's been traded seven times.

The six-foot-four, 245-pound forward is showing that he's still got a lot to offer: he scored two goals in the Bandits' 14-10 season-opening victory over the Toronto Rock; and picked he picked up a pair of assists in a 12-9 win in Rochester last Saturday night.

Les Bartley got him started in the NLL 13 years ago. The late and great Toronto Rock coach had a cottage near Peterborough and would drive into the city to watch Ontario senior summer league games. Giles was making the 80-mile drive from Toronto to play for the Lakers. Bartley offered him a Rock tryout and the undrafted free agent made the team.

Bartley handed him No. 27 because that's what Darryl Sittler of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs wore and Bartley was a big fan. Giles suited up for six games in 1999, scored two goals, and the Rock won the championship.

''Being from Toronto and getting to play in Maple Leaf Gardens was an unreal experience,'' he says.

He'll never forget his first NLL goal.

''It was in the Gardens against Buffalo,'' he recalls. ''Mike Hasen was checking me and I got free, went to the net, and beat [Bandits goaltender] Marty O'Neill.''

Giles and Rock captain Jim Veltman lived in the same lakeshore neighborhood and would share rides to practices and games.

''I learned a ton from Jim,'' says Giles.

He was plucked off Toronto's practice squad late in the 2000 season by Albany. Darris Kilgour, who now coaches him in Buffalo, and Troy Cordingley, the current coach of the Rock, were playing for the Attack and Terry Sanderson, now the Rock GM, ran the team during its brief NLL existence.

''I played junior against him and he was an intimidating player,'' Giles says of Sanderson. ''He was almost as intimidating when he was coaching. He holds everybody accountable.''

Giles appeared in two games with Albany and in 2001 was acquired along with goalie Ken Montour by the Columbus Landsharks for Dan Teat.

''In Toronto and Albany everything was well run but it wasn't like that there,'' Giles says of his Ohio stint. ''But it was my first full NLL season and it was a lot of fun.''

Current Bandits teammate Tracey Kelusky was playing in Columbus then, too, and in a complicated transaction seven Columbus players including Giles and Kelusky were switched to a new franchise in Montreal.

''I still don't know how that happened,'' says Giles.

''We were a good young team,'' he says of the 2002 Montreal experience. ''Terry Sanderson was coaching me again. Montreal was such a great city to be in.''

Around that time, Giles moved from Toronto to Peterborough and continued playing for the amateur Lakers during summers.

The Montreal Express folded and a new team in Ottawa claimed Giles in a dispersal draft. Giles scored 34 goals in 2003 for the Rebel. It's his career best. Many of the players, including Giles, went on to help Peterborough win the Canadian amateur title.

''The team had a lot of potential but there was little fan interest,'' Giles recalls of his Ottawa days.

Ottawa folded and Rochester claimed him in a dispersal draft. Giles played for the Knighthawks in 2004 and in 2005. Again, the core of the team was from Peterborough.

When an expansion draft was held in 2005 to stock a new team in Portland, Ore., Giles was picked by Portland then flipped to Toronto for the first Rock pick of players off a team in Anaheim, Calif., that had just folded.

Giles only played four games in his second go-round with the Rock before a new team in Edmonton managed by Rochester acquaintance Paul Day acquired him for a second-round pick in the 2006 entry draft.

''That was a tough year,'' Giles recalls of the 1-15 inaugural Rush season. ''A lot of guys just weren't ready for that caliber of lacrosse.''

So, now we're up to 2007 and Jamie Batley is hired to run a new NLL team in Chicago. He claims Dan Stroup and Chris Gill in a dispersal draft and flips them to Edmonton for two men he coached in Peterborough, Giles and Jason Clark.

''The coaching staff and seven or eight of the players were from Peterborough,'' Giles recalls. ''We travelled together to a lot of games in a van. That team had a ton of potential. Batley worked us hard. Management-wise and everything else, they did a great job.''

The Shamrox were around for all of two years before becoming recession victims.

Philadelphia claimed Giles in that dispersal draft. Lindsay Sanderson was Wings GM at the time and had helped run the short-lived Montreal club so was keen on getting Giles.

''I was happy to go there,'' Giles recalls. ''It's one of the most historic franchises in NLL.

''I take it year by year...I don't know if I'll be pushing John Tavares's limit but I'll keep playing.''

-- 13-year NLL veteran Mat Giles

''They had some young talent, a lot of good pieces to the puzzle. Lindsay started giving me the ball and said, 'Let's see what you can do.' Playing with guys like Merrick Thompson brought my points up because he was such a good scorer. Drew Westervelt was just coming up, too.''

Giles would amass a career-best 70 points in 2009.

During the 2010 season, the Boston Blazers got hot and figured they could go all the way. Looking for roster depth, they traded Dave Cutten to get Giles from a Wings club that was missing the playoffs and looking to get younger. Boston never did go all the way.

''That was a great organization. The leadership of Dan Dawson and Anthony Cosmo was phenomenal. But we came up a little bit short.''

Boston traded Giles and a first-round 2012 draft pick to Minnesota for Kevin Buchanan and a fourth-round pick. Assistant Swarm coach Joe Sullivan, another one of Giles' Peterborough acquaintances, had a hand in that deal.

''It was a young team and they were looking for some veteran leadership,'' says Giles.

Giles scored 16 goals for the Swarm last winter.

Meanwhile, Kilgour began looking last autumn for somebody to help Kelusky and Luke Wiles on the right side in Buffalo, and he thought of Giles. The deal got done. Minnesota, in rebuilding mode, sent Giles to the Bandits for a fourth-round 2013 draft pick.

''Darris called me and asked me to come in,'' says Giles. ''I was unsure because they had so many righties going into camp but they were looking for a big body to bang around for Kelusky and Wiles and I knew I could do that.''

Kilgour is happy about how he's fitting in.

''He opens up space for a lot of people,'' says Kilgour.

Giles is always been wanted somewhere.

''I take it year by year,'' he says. ''I don't know if I'll be pushing John Tavares's limit but I'll keep playing.''

He sees a transformed NLL. Down to nine from 13 teams, the level of competition has never been so intense.

''It's changed a lot,'' says Giles. ''When I started, you only got paid if you dressed.

''Sure, we're down to nine teams now but the nine teams are very strong. Of all my years in the league, this year is the most competitive. It's unreal. The guys let go by teams this year could make up a team.''

He was playing atom hockey 30 years ago when teammates urged him to join them playing lacrosse after the hockey season was finished. He gave it a try and stuck with it.

''As soon as I got a stick I just loved it,'' he says. ''I was bangin' a ball against the garage the first day I got it.

''I love the game of lacrosse. When I was seven and my parents brought home that stick, I fell in love with it that first day and I've been in love with it ever since.''

Giles, a carpenter by trade, spends his summers these days coaching the Peterborough team in Ontario's Jr. A league, and Kelusky and Toronto Rock forward Dan Carey are his assistants.

Giles has saved most of his NLL sweaters.

''I'm missing Albany and Boston but the others are hanging on a pipe in the laundry room.''

He still wears 27.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.

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