Locals return to Hamilton to play the Rock on Saturday night

Before moving to Toronto to become The Rock, they started life in Hamilton as the Ontario Raiders, and 12-year-old Stephan Leblanc was there.

Two dozen years later, half of those spent as an elite NLL player, the Dundas native will be back in Hamilton to play vs the Rock Saturday (5 p.m. at the FirstOntario Centre) as a new member of the Georgia Swarm.

“One of my first exposures to professional lacrosse was the Raiders when my dad took me to games at Copps Coliseum,” says the 36-year-old forward who was traded from the Halifax Thunderbirds to the expansion Panther City last week, then only a few hours later was distributed again to Georgia.

“I have a lot of friends and family that come to this game, and that’s the fun part.”

The Rock (née Raiders) were not only Rock (née Raiders) Leblanc’s first professional team, but also his first team as a professional athlete. He played minor and junior lacrosse in Burlington because a cousin lived there, and after two more years as a junior in Burnaby, BC, and an NCAA All-Star career at Queen’s University in Charlotte, the Rock selected him 11th overall in the 2009 NLL Draft. He was the league’s 2010 Rookie of the Year and went on to become one of the most prolific left-handed scorers in NLL history, amassing 317 career goals, 833 points and 858 stray ball digs during his brilliant career.

After eight years in Toronto he was traded to New England but during the 2021 pandemic off season he signed as a free agent in Halifax where he lives with his wife and children and is the regional manager of Ford Motor Company.

Now Leblanc is part of a great Swarm band from that area returning to play the Rock for the first time at their new home in York and Bay.

Appropriately, given his arena history, it’s The Rock’s “Kidz” night.

“I have nephews who were four when I was traded (from Toronto) and now they’re in the sweet spot of 10, 11, 12 when they can really enjoy watching me play,” Leblanc said.

Georgia’s head coach is Hamilton’s Ed Comeau, who has done just about everything in lacrosse in this city, nationally and internationally in the professional, amateur and college ranks. His assistant coach is Sean Ferris of Burlington and 21-year-old Swarm rookie Ethan Riggs, the former Bengal manager of Hamilton and Burlington, hails from Dundas like Leblanc. Additionally, there are four players from Oakville, Georgia, as well as Six Nations residents Brendan Bomberry and creative Lyle Thompson, set to become one of the sport’s all-time greats.

“It’s our away ‘home’ game,” said Comeau, who was head coach at McMaster for 22 years and assistant coach of the Raiders before moving with them to Maple Leaf Gardens. “It’s always a big game to play in this area for the guys in our league. It’s like the Leafs, with all the players from Ontario coming into town to play and getting up for the game. We have a lot of guys looking to get tickets and families and friends get to see them play, when not all of them would necessarily go to Toronto or across the border.

Comeau, who is the general manager and former coach of the men’s national team, had left the Rock before Leblanc was drafted, but he got it with the national team and knew he would be fit for offense. high octane from Georgia.

“He has exceptional skills and he’s a very good team player,” said Comeau. “He is selfless and works hard for others. Earlier in his career, he played anywhere: shorthanded, on offense, defense, power play, shorthanded. We will not ask him to do all these things.

Leblanc’s offensive skills will fit well into Saturday’s game in which Dan Dawson of The Rock will break the league’s most games played record and may also surpass the all-time assists record. It also features three of the NLL’s top four scorers: Thompson leads with 39, The Rock’s Tom Schreiber is third with 32 in just 10 games; and Shayne Jackson of the Swarm has 30. And Dawson, who became the league’s second all-time leading scorer earlier in the year, has a dozen.

And the home and away streak — the rematch is next Friday in Georgia — has implications for playoff position. The Rock is third in the NLL East with an 8-4 record, one spot above Swarm’s 7-6 record.

“Besides being an extremely important game, it’s good to come back and play in Hamilton,” said Comeau. “I was here in 1998 with the Raiders and it’s great to see pro lacrosse again. The kind of support they get here generally bodes well for the Minor Lacrosse Association, which is very important to me.

Leblanc admits last week’s trade threw him off balance at first, but now he’s excited to play with the Swarm’s notable offense.

“When the crowds were allowed in, the fans showed up for the Rock games,” says Leblanc, a former student of what was then Dundas Highland High School. “It’s good for Hamilton’s pro sports and it’s a really good rink for pro lacrosse.”

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