Features · Lacrosse

Sandy Chapman: A constant in a changing NLL

2011 wasn’t all that long ago, but in the world of professional sports it might as well be a lifetime.

Physical activity is hard on the body, so even athletes in peak physical condition sometimes retire from the game they love in their mid-30s or early 40s. It gives them little time to achieve everything they want, which in the NLL, is to win the Champion’s Cup.

For the Toronto Rock, just two members of their 2011 championship season remain on the current roster, and only one – Sandy Chapman – was a veteran back then. Rob Hellyer was a rookie and played six games over the course of that season. Stephan Leblanc is the only other member of that team still in the league.

Chapman, an Acton native, also won championships with the Rock in 2002, 2003 and 2005, as well as with the Rochester Knighthawks in 2007, where he played between stints with the Rock.

The just-turned 37-year-old has had to watch several of his revered teammates retire over the past two seasons. First, former captain Colin Doyle called it a career. This past summer, three more followed – Kasey Beirnes, Rob Marshall and Jeff Gilbert. At 33, Marshall was the youngest of the group, and even Doyle was only 39.

But Chapman’s a renegade – he’s not ready to go. He’s still healthy and having fun.

“It was a lot of fun playing with those guys but as everybody ages they’re going to have to move on from lacrosse,” Chapman says. “I’m enjoying every game that I get to play out there and seeing how it goes. I was hurt for a couple of games earlier this season so it’s refreshing getting to go back out there and have tons of fun while I play.”

Unfortunately, Chapman was moved back to the IR again prior to the Rock’s loss to Calgary last Saturday, but he’s hopeful it will be a short stint.

And after the Roughnecks exposed every weakness on the Rock’s defense, he’s desperately needed back on the floor, not just for his steady play, but for his leadership ability on the back end.

“We don’t rely on one person to do too much,” he downplays. “My role has definitely changed in terms of leadership and it’s been a lot of fun being part of this building process over the last few seasons.”

The necessity for leaders on the floor and in the room is about the only thing in the NLL that hasn’t changed since the Rock’s last championship. The game is faster due to a higher focus on offense and conditioning. That peak physical condition we mentioned earlier? Ten years ago going to the gym was a hobby. Now it’s a lifestyle for a lot of players.

“You’re seeing the athletes,” Chapman says. “Not just on our team – everyone’s trying to play fast and transition. Guys are just so good five-on-five you just don’t create the chances that you used to. It’s turned into a faster-paced game, which is hard on the body.”

Rock head coach Matt Sawyer says that Chapman is one of the most underrated players in the NLL, past and present.

“He’s a guy that all lacrosse players should look up to. They certainly do in our room,” Sawyer expressed. “He’s a great competitor, a great leader, and he’s someone you want on your team. Our younger guys and even our older guys to look up to him and his work ethic. He’s not the most vocal guy but he leads by example and a coach only hopes to have a team full of guys like that.”

Chapman has scooped 752 loose balls for the Rock, which puts him fifth all-time on the team’s record list. He’s just a handful away from 1000 in his career, which he takes pride in.

“I had to be good at things like that earlier in my career to get floor time,” he explains. “It’s the blue-collar part of the game. You’re not going to get a ton of accolades for it unless you’re someone who gets a boatload like Brodie (Merrill) who’s just off the charts. It’s the grinder’s role in the game and there are a lot of guys like me who take pride in it, especially on defense. Everybody you’re playing against is so athletic and they’re so talented that you can’t take a shift off. Everybody’s going 100% all the time.”

From owners right down to players, lacrosse is a labour of love. That’s why Chapman, who also works as an ER nurse, is still playing the game as hard as he can even when he sees his contemporaries moving on. Even when the Rock lose, Chapman can still be found with a smile on his face because he just got to play the game he loves for the last 60 minutes.

It’s an attitude he hopes he can pass on to his younger teammates.

“Tom Schreiber’s another guy who just seems like he’s having fun all the time, and that’s what you want to parlay to your teammates,” Chapman says. “Sure it’s great to make a few bucks but you play lacrosse because it’s fun. It’s great being with the guys and competing every weekend and being part of a team atmosphere.”

While their four-game win streak was an emotional high, Chapman is still realistic, although hopeful, about the team’s chances this season. He’d love a crack at a sixth Champion’s Cup.

“We have a lot of young guys so we’re a work in progress,” he recognizes. “It’s not going to be smooth; there are going to be ups and downs. We hope the offense can score 20+ but in this league you’re not going to score that many goals every game. From a defensive point of view, if you keep your opponents in single digits you have a good chance. We have a great chance against anyone in this league.”

The Rock are on the road for the next two weeks and then have a bye before returning home on March 3rd to host the Georgia Swarm. This Saturday they are in Rochester for an 8 p.m. date with the Knighthawks, who they defeated 17-9 at the Air Canada Centre on January 12. All games can be seen on NLLTV.com.