Don’t blame yourself if the name Dan Craig was an unfamiliar one when the Toronto Rock announced that he would make his NLL debut last Saturday night against the Buffalo Bandits.
The game was Craig’s first box lacrosse game in nearly three years.
Seriously. The sixth-round 2017 pick had practiced, but due to an ankle injury, hadn’t even made it into exhibition games. His last box experience was with the Orangeville Northmen in the summer of 2015.
He has played field lacrosse more recently though, graduating from Penn State in 2017 where he majored in economics and scored 20 points in his senior year with the Nittany Lions.
So scoring two goals and two assists was a pretty good debut for someone out of practice with the intricacies of the box game.
“I was excited for the opportunity but being my first box lacrosse game in a while I was more nervous for the fact that this was my first game, not that I was playing in the NLL,” Craig said, adding that “box lacrosse is basically my favourite thing to do.”
The Shelburne, Ontario native played minor lacrosse in his hometown before being drafted to Jr. A in Barrie. In four years with the Lakeshores, he amassed 300 points in 79 games and was named league MVP in 2014. He was traded to the Northmen for a Minto Cup run in his final year, but a broken thumb waylaid the season.
“We made a good push as far as we could, but we actually didn’t make it out of the first round. It just kind of fell apart (after my injury),” said Craig.
After his junior career, Craig focused on his collegiate career, where he started 38 games over years, tallying 44 goals and 28 assists. He was twice named an Academic All-Big Ten.
His success at the junior level convinced the Rock to take a chance on him despite his time off from box lacrosse, but he’s fit in well with his teammates and readjusted well.
“The mood in the room was a little sombre to be honest,” he said. “We were throwing a lot of rubber at the goal in the first two games and couldn’t really find the back of the net but Saturday’s win was huge for us. It gets our confidence back.”
With the trade of Stephan Leblanc, Craig might find himself in more games on the left side for the Rock that he expected in his rookie season.
Head coach Matt Sawyer was cautiously optimistic about the 23-year-old’s first game.
“I thought there was some early jitters if you want to call it that out there, but both he and Kieran (McArdle) got better as the game went on and we have high hopes for both of them,” Sawyer said.
Craig said his first goal, a backhand, came as a surprise.
“It definitely wasn’t written up like that on the bench,” he chuckled. “I got the ball with six or seven seconds left and tried to get underneath (the defense) and I stumbled a little bit and had my hands crossed. With the field lacrosse background that I have and the Canadian that I am, I can’t really switch to my right hand, so I’ve had those types of flip shots quite often in field. I’ve scored a couple so I just tried to get it on net. I figured close to the near side was my best opportunity to score.”
Teammate Adam Jones said Craig’s first goal gave the team a boost.
“When Dan got that first one I could see his confidence go up… there were some big milestones that game with people getting their first goals and the new guys stepping in and playing well.”
Craig lists Colin Doyle and John Tavares as his greatest lacrosse influences, but he looks up to Jones as well and loves playing with him.
“He’s like a dad out there,” Craig said. “He delegates everything. He helps me out a lot and I’ll come off and he’ll say ‘good shift but this is something to improve on…’ He is kind of like a lacrosse father-figure because you learn so much from him every single time he’s on the floor.”
Craig and his teammates will look to improve to 2-2 this Saturday night in Vancouver against the Stealth. Game time is at 9 p.m. ET and can be seen on NLLTV.com.