If the Toronto Rock ever needed a saviour, it is now.
So Josh Sanderson, one of the National Lacrosse League’s all-time great playmakers, the man nicknamed Shooter, is coming back.
The team’s top scorer last season, the five-foot-seven, 160-pound Sanderson stepped away from the game before the season started to heal from injuries sustained over an 18-year career. But he will return Sunday when the Rock visit the New England Black Wolves, who are tied atop the East Division with the Buffalo Bandits with a 3-2 record.
The timing couldn’t be better for the Rock, who are last in the NLL in scoring and winless in five games. They were held to seven goals or fewer in their first four games.
If their record was reversed, Sanderson wouldn’t have tried to come back so quickly. “It was a decision I had to make sooner than I would have liked,” he said. “But you feel frustrated for the guys.”
The Rock can still turn their season around. They have 13 games remaining, with a five-game homestand coming up after the New England game.
“We have to play desperate, and obviously I want to contribute and do what I did last year and that’s get the ball into the right guy’s sticks,” said Sanderson, a 38-year-old Orangeville native.
He led the Rock to a 14-4 record last year with 102 points, including 83 assists that tied him for the league lead. And Toronto reached the Champion’s Cup final for the first time since 2011. But in December, the Rock put Sanderson on the physically unable to perform list.
“I was at the point where I felt the body couldn’t do it any more,” he said. “My body was telling me to stop playing and I actually listened, for a bit. Now I’m stupid enough not to listen anymore.”
Sanderson worked out with a personal trainer while watching his team sputter. When the Rock fired assistant coach Dan Ladouceur at the start of the month, Sanderson called general manager Jamie Dawick and said he wanted to come back.
Dawick had supported Sanderson’s decision to step away.
“I was going to give him his space,” he said. “I wasn’t really optimistic that this was going to happen. Now, hopefully, his presence and leadership will ignite and spark the team. He’s been missed.”
Sanderson’s first home game will be Friday, against arch-rival Buffalo.
Sanderson has not found it easy trying to combine a pro lacrosse career while rearing four children, from ages 7 to 11, and operating his sporting goods store, Sanderson Source for Sports, in Orangeville.
It’s been a tough time for him emotionally as well. His father, mentor and former Rock general manager Terry Sanderson died in November, 2014, from the effects of a heart attack. He was 62.
“Last year was an emotional year,” Sanderson said. “I thought it would be my last year, to be honest. My dad always plays a part in my decisions. He was everything.”
And what if he can’t help turn the team around? Well, Sanderson said, he will go down with the ship. He’s committed to the team for the full season.
“We’re at the point of the season,” Sanderson said, “where it’s either now or never. There’s no turning back now.
“I’m going to empty the tank. If we don’t start winning . . . ,” he paused. “I don’t want to even think about it.”