The scoop on Scoop: Jim Veltman’s life in lacrosse
Jim Veltman was never a man to shy away from the big stage, and when the stakes were highest, the NLL Hall of Famer shined brightest.
The greatest captain in Toronto Rock franchise history had his number retired by the team before Friday’s clash with the New England Black Wolves - who Veltman also spent time with as an assistant coach.
While he was best known for his time donning a Rock uniform, his career started off with their biggest rival.
The then 26-year-old Veltman joined the Buffalo Bandits in 1992. The roster featured the likes of Rich and Darris Kilgour, Derek Keenan, Paul Day, and John Tavares.
Despite all the talent around him, he learned the most from coach Les Bartley, who began the 1992 campaign as an assistant for the Bandits but became the head coach of the team after three games.
“The nice thing about Les was that he was a really good communicator, so he knew he had the talent it was just a matter of how to keep all the egos in check and make sure that it didn’t derail us,” Veltman said. “He did a masterful job of keeping us all in check and making sure we were all on the same page and had all the same goals in mind.”
After taking the reigns, Bartley would help lead the Bandits on an unprecedented 22-game winning streak and the first-ever undefeated season in both MILL and NLL history - Buffalo went 8-0 in 1993. The Bandits would capture championships in Bartley’s first two years as the bench boss and again in 1996.
During his tenure in Buffalo, Veltman began to cement himself as one of the league’s best players when it came to loose balls. He set the Bandits team record for loosies in a game with 29 - he still holds that mark to this day.
Admittedly, it wasn’t something that came naturally to Veltman. He had to work at it and learn in order to get his ability to an elite level. For him, it was more than just scooping a ball up.
"I learned that it wasn’t so much about learning how to pick up loose balls in scenarios, but what to do with it after I got it,” he said. “You put forth so much effort to get it, now what do you do with it? That was as important as being able to pick it up. Whether it’s with the body, or the ball, or a pass, those are the things I thought about a lot.”
Following the ‘96 season, Veltman took a year away from the game to do volunteer work in Uganda with his wife, Teresa. While he was there, Bartley made a move to another organization. The MILL had become the NLL in 1998 and the Ontario Raiders were announced as the first Canadian franchise in the league.
When the expansion draft was set to take place, Veltman was still in another continent and had no connections to what was going on back home. He was staying in the town of Tororo, which was near the border of Uganda and Kenya. The only way to get news from North America was through the post office fax machine in town.
Veltman was informed by one of the townspeople that he had received a fax. When he went to pick it up, it was from new Bandits general manager Marty Cooper, who was checking in and reminding him that he was still property of Buffalo. A week went by before Veltman received another fax, only this time, it was from Mouradian. The new Ontario GM told Veltman that they would be selecting him with the first pick in the draft.
Initially, Veltman was confused, but rather than worrying about it, he shelved the issue until he made it back home. Once they were back in Toronto, he called the PLPA to figure out the situation and find out what team he was on.
“Before the expansion draft happened, they had to sort all of this out. In the end, they actually asked me what I wanted to do, and I took the big risk of following Les instead of staying in Buffalo,” Veltman said.
That decision ended up working out pretty well for him. Ontario would end up missing the playoffs in their first and only season. The team would make a move to Toronto after being purchased by a group led by Brad Watters.
Playing in the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens, the Rock would defeat the Rochester Knighthawks in the 1999 Champions Cup Final to bring home the franchises first piece of hardware. It would be another battle with the Hawks a year later for the championship, but Kaleb Toth would deliver the most iconic moment in franchise history.
The rookie forward would receive a pass from Colin Doyle with just over a second to go in a tie game. He proceeded to rip a buzzer-beater past Pat O’Toole to cement the second straight cup victory.
Veltman was on the bench to witness the final goal ever score at the Old Lady. At the point, he believed that they had run out of time. Instead, he was hoisting his fifth career title just a few minutes later.
Heading into the 2001 campaign, the Rock were firing on all cylinders and looking for the three-peat.
“It was fun because, at the start of every year, we did team-building exercises - Les was big on that. One of the things I remember him having on the sheets of paper was a score clock with 1.3 seconds left. We’d come up with a saying every year to start the year and the one that everybody agreed on that year (2001) was ‘every second counts,’” Veltman said.
The following year, the Rock would lose in the finals to the Philadelphia Wings, however, that wouldn’t derail them for long. Toronto would bounce back and win in 2002 and 2003.
“When we lost to Philadelphia, it was one of the most heartbreaking things ever. The next year, nobody wanted to have that feeling again. So to win in Albany and Rochester and get four championships in five years, that was a really big deal for us. That was something pretty special.”
Bartley would be the man alongside Veltman for the entire ride. The pair helped create a dynasty in Buffalo and were a part of the foundation which accomplished the same in Toronto just years later. However, in the fall of 2003, Bartley would step down as coach and GM of the Rock to battle colon cancer. He would stay on as vice president of the team.
The Rock would head into 2004 with interim coach Ed Comeau leading the way. However, he was fired following a 2-4 start and replaced by Terry Sanderson. They would fall short of a three-peat once again after falling to the Bandits in the divisional final.
But, as was the case in years past, the Rock would once again rebound and reach the top of the mountain in 2005. They would defeat the Arizona Sting at home to capture their fifth championship in seven years in front of a league-record crowd of 19,342.
“That crowd was so unbelievable because it was so loud. I had never played in front of that many people in my life,” Veltman said.
Unfortunately, just hours after the victory, Bartley died at his home in St. Catherines, Ontario following an 18-month battle with cancer. Veltman knew that his longtime friend and coach was with the team in spirit and that the players were battling to bring home another cup for Les.
"People played for him and his memory and I have to hand it to Terry Sanderson for emphasizing that at different times during the year and pulling that memory for players to play for that," he said.
2008 would serve as the final year of Veltman’s illustrious career. The team would scuttle that season, however, missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The longtime captain’s final game would come at home on April 27 against the Philadelphia Wings.
Veltman would take as much time as possible before the start of his final game to soak in the environment. Before warmups got underway, he came out from the locker room at sat in the stands, just a few rows behind the Rock bench, and took a look around the vacant Air Canada Centre.
“Just the relationships I had with people and the fans, it was just one of those nights where you wanted to absorb everything and make sure you didn’t miss out on anything. I took a few minutes before the warmups to myself, we weren’t going to the playoffs, but that didn’t mean that this night wasn’t going to be special.
Once the game started, it was business as usual. After the Wings hopped out to a 2-0 lead, the captain would have an answer, scoring the Rock’s opening goal. He would finish the night with the single tally and four assists as well as 17 loose balls.
The Rock would go down 7-1 at one point in the contest, but they would eventually claw back. Aaron Wilson would tie the game at 14 with just under five minutes to go, but Athan Iannucci would score the game-winning goal in the final minute to carry the Wings to victory.
Following the final buzzer, Veltman had a chance to take one last lap around the floor with his teammates. A few fans held up a “Thank you, Jim” sign in the crowd while he was making the rounds.
“It was surreal. It felt like it was almost too selfish of a night. So many things were centred around me and maybe it fed my ego for the rest of my life. I’ve lived off that night for a while,” he said.
“The relationship we had with fans … I don’t think other sports have that. We saw fans before and after games. I think it speaks to the kind of people lacrosse players are. We always thought (meeting the fans) was a part of it. That’s part of the special nature of professional lacrosse.”
Veltman was 42 years old when he officially retired. He said that while he could’ve continued to play, his body wasn’t allowing him to compete at the level he wanted.
It didn’t take long for him to get back into the swing of lacrosse. Just a few weeks after his final NLL game, he would agree to become an assistant coach for the Ajax-Pickering Rock. Veltman said at the time that he felt comfortable joining the staff in Ajax, as he had served as the captain for the Senior B team previously.
He was also named as an assistant for Glenn Clark with Toronto for the 2009 season.
Having just stepped away from the game, it was a different experience being behind the bench than out on the floor.
“When you’re behind the bench so quickly, you kind of go ‘Why didn’t that guy do that?’ You’ve got to stop yourself from doing that and realize that you have to put your teacher hat on and not be the guy that says ‘I would’ve done this.’ I think people tire of that very quickly.”
To become better at his newfound craft, Veltman went back to the bank of Bartley, Comeau, and Keenan to take what they excelled at as coaches and apply it. He would get the opportunity to be the head coach of the Czech Republic team for the 2011 FIL World Indoor Lacrosse Championships. Having spent some time in the country while playing in the Ales Hrebesky Memorial Tournament, he knew the love that the Czechs had for lacrosse.
“I found out that they’re as passionate about box lacrosse as Canadians. They love box lacrosse more than field lacrosse,” Veltman said. “They just needed more seasoning, but they already had a coaching staff and general manager that were passionate. They wanted to watch the film and learn new things, and that was perfect for me. That’s the kind of environment that I enjoy the most.”
The team would feature some North American talent like Kurtis Wagar, Kyle Ross, Chet Koneczny, and Jamie Plunkett. The team would fall just short of a bronze medal, but the experience gained from the tournament would be the best prize for the team.
Two of those Czech players - Pavel Došlý and Jakub Nováček - ended up playing a few summers in Ajax, with Veltman serving as a billet for Došlý.
He would once again return to an NLL bench with the New England Black Wolves. He would spend a pair of seasons as the defensive coordinator for the team.
Veltman stepped away from the Black Wolves in 2017 so that he could travel with his family across Africa and Europe. They went to France, Greece, Slovenia, as well as Italy, where the family worked at a pair of olive farms for a total of 16 days. They then travelled back to Uganda to show their children what they had done 20 years earlier.
Despite not being involved in lacrosse in an official capacity, he’s far from removed from the sport.
His son, Kris, has spent parts of the past four summers playing for the West Durham Ironheads in Junior B. The 20-year-old will be trying out for the Toronto Beaches Junior A squad, which is coached by Clark.
Veltman also likes to keep close tabs on the NLL and the world of lacrosse as a whole.
“I’m still in the game. It’s a part of who I am and part of my makeup,” he said. “I follow the NLL, watch New England and Toronto play, and read all the articles. It’s still a big part of my life. It’s just not the all-consuming part of my life.
“I will never leave this game.”