There are lacrosse hotspots in Canada _ British Columbia’s capital of Victoria, the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby and the Ontario cities of Peterborough and Brampton, for example _ where boys are born with lacrosse sticks in their hands.
Well, not really, but just about. By the age of five, kids in those places are registered, running and gung-ho on the indoor game _ generation after generation.
Rhys Duch is from Victoria so, naturally, he’s a lacrosse player.
The 22-year-old Stealth forward, adapting quickly to the pro game because of his deep background in the sport, is among the National Lacrosse League’s top rookies. After seven games, he had 13 goals and 23 assists for 36 points.
``It has a lot to do with the guys around me,’’ says Duch. ``I get to play with some pretty talented players, which has helped me put up some pretty good numbers.’’
Duch’s sensational start to his pro career is one of the reasons why the Stealth view the remainder of the NLL season so optimistically. The prized rookie had his best game last weekend when he scored three consecutive goals in the late going to help San Jose nail down a huge win over the Colorado Mammoth.
Being on the floor with captain Colin Doyle, the former NLL scoring champion and MVP, has been invaluable to Duch.
``Nothing but positive on the floor and off the floor,’’ he says of Doyle’s impact on the team. ``He’s a great teammate and a great captain.
``Not only does he make plays happen but teams have to pay attention to him, which allows guys like me to get opportunities. That gives me a little more room out there to make things happen.’’
Coach Jeff Dowling loves the way Duch is making things happen.
``Rhys’s role is to put up points and create offensive chances for himself and his teammates,’’ says Dowling. ``We expect Rhys to not only take smart shots and hit the open player with the pass but to set solid picks to free up space for his teammates and to battle for loose balls.
``I think Rhys' s strengths are his offensive ability and his unselfish play. Rhys knows the offensive end: where to be and what to do with and without the ball. We are comfortable with him playing either right-handed spots on the power play or the top, where he has played most this season. He has worked well with Jeff Zywicki, Paul Rabil and Frank Resetarits, and when he does shoot the ball, he is very accurate. About 23 per cent of his shots have been finding the back of the net.’’
A good working relationship between a player and a coach is vital for success, and Dowling can’t say enough about Duch’s attitude.
``Rhys is respectful of the game, his teammates and his coaches,’’ says Dowling. ``He understands what is needed of him and has gone out of his way to ask questions if there is something new to pick up on.
``We know that when we get to the rink we don't have to worry about getting Rhys to focus on the game and task at hand. He is ready to go when his number gets called.’’
There were raised eyebrows among Stealth fans when high-scoring Luke Wiles was dealt to Toronto during the off-season. Management dared to peg its hopes on Duch to pick up the slack, and he’s delivered bigtime.
``It has proved to be a good move for us as Rhys is currently 13th in league scoring and second in rookie points.’’
Going into this weekend’s games _ the Stealth are on the road Saturday against Boston and Sunday against New York _ Duch had picked up an average of 5.14 points a game. Rookie scoring leader Daryl Veltman of the Boston Blazers had six more points than Duch but had played two more games so was getting an average of 4.67 points a game.
With Duch and Veltman trading shots Saturday, it’ll be the first pro meeting of the league’s two most outstanding rookie forwards. Duch was the No. 3 pick and Veltman the No. 1 pick in the 2008 entry draft.
Both have played summer amateur lacrosse in British Columbia _ Duch with the Victoria Shamrocks and Veltman with the Coquitlam Adanacs _ and were opponents in the same games maybe once or twice in the past. Neither can remember much of the other. They both, however, have vivid recollections of the NLL’s pre-draft combine game last year when they were teammates.
``I only got to play with him for a short time but I definitely enjoyed it,’’ Duch recalls. ``He can shoot from the outside and from the inside . . . I could see that he was an outstanding player.’’
Veltman remembers that game.
``I think he had more goals but I think I got more points,’’ recalls the Blazers standout. ``I was really impressed with him. He’s a solid player on the right side.’’
Duch is one of nine players living in an apartment complex rented by the team just outside San Jose, and he’s making a lot of new friends helping coach a high school field lacrosse team. California teens just learning to play the sport are eager for pointers.
Duch intends to play for the Shamrocks in his home city again next summer. Stealth teammate Aaron Bold also suits up for the ‘Rocks for Western Lacrosse Association games.
Duch hopes somewhere down the line to make use of the health sciences degree he earned at Stony Brook University on Long Island. He aims to get an MBA and eventually work in health care management.
In the meantime, he wants to make opponents sick of his scoring exploits with the Stealth.
~ Neil Stevens played box lacrosse growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he attended the same high school as did Stealth GM John Mouradian. Years later, as a sports writer for The Canadian Press wire service, Stevens began covering after NLL expansion into Canada in 1998 the home games of the Toronto Rock and the league in general. In 2008, Mouradian and Stevens were inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame _ John in the builders' category and Neil as a media honouree. At the age of 61, Stevens is now retired, but still covering Rock games and writing weekly NLL columns for the wire service for distribution to daily newspapers across Canada. ~