February 8, 2012

Stevens: Roik Making Rock GM Look Like a Genius

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

This is actually Matt Roik's second stint with the Rock, but expectations are higher now with the task of replacing Bob Watson. In 1999, the Rock selected Roik in the last round of the entry draft, 72nd overall. On Wednesday, Roik was named to the East All-Star team, a sign of his hot start to 2012.
© Graig Abel Photography

Terry Sanderson will suggest that his name does not belong in the same sentence as the word genius but, for the purposes of this discussion, we're going to vehemently disagree with the general manager of the Toronto Rock.

Terry, your decision to go with Matt Roik in the nets after the retirement of Bob Watson was, indeed, a stroke of genius. There can be no other conclusion given Roik's sensational performances in the three straight wins that have lifted the Rock to the top of the National Lacrosse League's East Division.

''There's still a long way to go but we're pleased with what Mr. Roik has brought to the table to date,'' Sanderson confesses.

Pleased, indeed.

Roik's latest heroics: he blanked Philadelphia for the entire second half in allowing his teammates to pull away to a 15-6 road win last Saturday night. To be exact, the Wings could not get a ball past him for the last 31 minutes 56 seconds. Dan Dawson tried and tried again to ignite a Wings rally but all he got was a nightmare in which Roik stood over his bed laughing.

Roik is hot. "Matt has been our MVP so far," Rock defenseman Patrick Merrill said.

He was voted the league's defensive player of the week for his performance in Philadelphia and on Wednesday was named to the East All-Star team. This is why he's not looking forward to his team's scheduled bye this weekend. He understands the walking wounded, such as hamstring hampered captain Colin Doyle, will benefit from the bye, but he'd rather play.

''I'm liking where we're at,'' he said during an interview. ''I'm champin' at the bit to get back at it. It's a fun time to play right now. We're on a roll and I'd like to keep it going.''

Some fans might be unaware that this is actually Roik's second stint with the Rock, who selected him in the last round, 72nd overall, in the 1999 entry draft out of the St. Catharines, Ontario, junior team. Toronto already had goalies Watson and Anthony Cosmo.

''I had no idea I'd been drafted,'' Roik recalls. ''A friend called me about three days later to tell me I'd been drafted. Most players back then were drafted their last year of junior and that was my second-last year of junior so I wasn't expecting it. The Rock didn't even invite me to camp.''

He caught on the following year and was on the active roster as the No. 3 goalie but he never got to start a game. It was, however, a great learning experience.

''If there were two guys you could be around to pick their brains about the goaltending position, there couldn't have been any better than Watson and Cosmo,'' Roik said. ''Les Bartley was the head coach and Eddie Comeau and Derek Keenan were the assistants and they were coming off winning the championship. I just soaked it all up.''

He spent 2002 and 2003 with a team in New Jersey and he stayed with the franchise in 2004 and 2005 after it shifted to Anaheim, Calif., only to fold. He wound up taking over the No. 1 role in Philadelphia when Dallas Eliuk retired and, in 2007, Roik played 809 minutes, which remains his career high. But a new coach wanted a new goalie and Roik was traded to Chicago where he played in 2008.

''It's been a rollercoaster,'' he sais of his years as a lacrosse pro. ''It's been both fulfilling and frustrating.''

He was determined to succeed.

''Maybe I've been a bit of a slow learner,'' he said. ''I would think, 'Maybe I'm not pushing the envelope enough.' In retrospect, maybe I pushed too hard at times.''

He was traded to a team in San Jose, Calif., where he played in 2009, and after a move to the Seattle suburbs to become the Washington Stealth there were runs to the championship game in 2010 and 2011.

''It was an excellent experience,'' he said of his three years with the Stealth. ''I had a great time.

''The Watkins family made it a top-notch organization. I watched young prospects like Rhys Duch and Paul Rabil and Tyler Richards come into the league. It was a great nucleus. We went on to win the 2010 championship [over Toronto]. It was a young athletic group that was hungry, and [head coach] Chris Hall put together a great squad. It was interesting watching the American players on the team progress in the indoor game. Rabil was a treat to watch. He's quite a talent.''

After the 2011 Champion's Cup loss to the Rock, with Richards getting most of the goaltending minutes in the playoffs, the Stealth opted to name Richards their No. 1 goalie for 2012 rather than having Richards and Roik constantly vying for the top job.

Watson had earned title game MVP honors and retired so Sanderson was looking for a replacement for his six-time champ. He had been as an assistant coach in Philadelphia when Roik played there five years previously so he was well aware that Roik was a good goalie.

A deal got done last July and Roik joined the Rock in exchange for defenseman Kyle Ross. Ironically, Ross had been recommended to the Stealth by Roik after the two were summer teammates with the New Westminster Salmonbellies in British Columbia.

''Terry Sanderson asked me if I was interested in following in Bob Watson's footsteps,'' Roik recalls. ''I decided it was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up.

''I'd established myself on the West Coast but it was great to get back east a stone's throw from my home town [of Dunnville, Ontario]. It was pretty much a no-brainer.''

Sanderson is satisfied with what he's seen.

''He's playing well for us and he'd be the first to tell you he's playing behind a pretty good defense,'' Sanderson said. ''He's doing what we need: he stops the ones he's supposed to. And he's really changed from when I worked with him in Philadelphia to where he is now.''



''In my previous stint with Matt, I didn't know if the team was the most important thing to him,'' Sanderson explains. ''Now I can say without reservation that he has joined a room full of unselfish players and he's very team-oriented. It's good to see.''

There's been plenty of evidence over the years to show that Roik can lose his temper. He fought opposing goalie Brodie MacDonald in a Salmonbellies playoff game last August. But he's been cool, calm and collected with the Rock.

"Dan Dawson tried and tried again to ignite a Wings rally but all he got was a nightmare in which Roik stood over his bed laughing."

Even when the team started the season 0-2, he said, ''I never had any doubt about what this team could do. We could have started 0-5. I still wouldn't have had any doubt. There were the injuries to Blaine Manning and to Colin Doyle and even then we didn't second-guess ourselves.

''I've been on teams before that lost key components and you scratch your head and say, 'Where do we go now?' Not with this group. There's a great coaching staff and nobody in the dressing room holds anything back. Every player leaves it all on the floor. That's what has made this trade the best thing that's happened in my career. They play with their heart and soul. It amazes me after all the championships and accolades these guys have earned that they're still so hungry to win.''

His father, George Roik, was among fathers who made the trip to Philadelphia as guests of owner Jamie Dawick last weekend.

''That was a highlight of my career. My father really appreciated that. To see the smile on my father's face after that game . . . I can't thank the Dawick family enough.''

A lot of people have been congratulating him on the perfect second half.

''The guys came out on fire and everything was running efficiently but I felt I kind of let the guys down with a couple of softies I let in during the first quarter,'' he said.

Sanderson confronted him when he went to the bench during a stoppage in play.

''Terry gave me some choice words. The offense was doing its job, the defense was doing its job, and I wasn't holding up my end of the bargain. Terry likes to be blatantly honest and I couldn't appreciate that more.''

Roik began playing better and the Rock took command.

''We started to get some power plays and started burying our chances,'' Roik said. ''As the game went on, I got more comfortable. I found my groove. It was fun.''

He drove Dawson crazy.

''Dan has definitely had my number in the past. That one will be nice to deposit in the memory banks.''

So far, so good.

''This is the best start I've had,'' Roik said. ''It stems from training camp and hitting the gym.

''Athletically, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in.''

Strength and conditioning coach Sean Holmes helped make that happen.

Assistant coach Steve Dietrich, the former NLL goalie of the year and league MVP, has been working closely with Roik.

''Steve has helped me out tremendously. I can't thank him enough. He's helped me learn how to react to different shooters and he's really helped me build my confidence,'' Roik said.

And Roik can't say enough about backup goalie Pat Campbell, who is indispensable as the MVP of Rock morale.

Roik, 32 now, is so thankful he's getting this chance.

''It's a blessing being here,'' he said. ''I won't take it for granted. I just want to help these guys get to that final goal.

''There are too many tangibles here to fail. To see these guys off the floor as family men with their children, they truly are amazing people. Never mind their talents on the floor, they are amazing human beings.''

Once lacrosse gets in the blood, it stays forever.

''It feels good to be part of this small niche of people and to battle against guys you can call friends at the end of the day,'' Roik said. ''It's the best sport on two feet.

''After 10 or 11 years, to be able to still be playing, it's quite humbling. It's been an integral part of my life. A big part of my life has been dedicated to this sport. Without this game, I don't know where I'd be. I still really have a passion for the game and feel fortunate to still be able to play. I thank the league for that.''

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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