Two thousand, six hundred and seventeen days. Seven years and two months. That’s the length of time between the 2012 NLL Entry draft and the 2019 NLL season opener. The length of time Craig Wende waited between his NLL draft and first career start with the Rochester Knighthawks on the recent opening weekend.
Most goaltenders see time pass between their draft and their first start, however, most of it is spent at the NLL level either on a practice roster, as a backup, or some combination of the two. And rarely as much as seven years. Craig Wende’s road to the NLL is far from the one most players travel.
After graduating from the Burlington Chiefs in 2012, Wende attended the NLL combine, seen as the best way and last opportunity for players not ranked amongst the top prospects to showcase their skills to teams ahead of the draft. Despite not hearing his name, he was invited to Washington Stealth training camp, yet was released before the season. The same thing happened when he signed with the Toronto Rock ahead of the 2013 season.
“After a couple years, I started to come to terms with, maybe it won’t work out,” said Wende. While some opportunities looked like they were fading away, Wende continued to work, signing up for and attending combines for both the NLL and the Canadian Lacrosse League (CLax), where he rotated between the backup and third goaltender of the Southwest Cyclops. When CLax folded before the 2016 season, Wende was drafted to the Toronto Monarchs of the newly former Arena Lacrosse League (ALL).
During this time, he continued to play in the summer with the Oakville Titans (Ontario Sr. B), again rotating between backup and third goaltender. In 2014 he backed up Nick Rose as a member of Major Series Lacrosse’s (MSL) Oakville Rock, appearing in just one game. It was in 2015, and a return to the Titans, when Wende started to see his playtime and confidence level increase.
Paired with the opportunity to play with the Monarchs in the winter, and the Titans in the summer, Wende said he began to find his style of goaltending.
“In 2016 it all started clicking for me,” he says. That year saw his summer culminate with the Sr. B MVP award, momentum he carried into the following winter where he led the Monarchs to the inaugural ALL Cup Final game.
23 years of playing the game of lacrosse lead me to my first start last night in the NLL. It truly was a childhood dream! Big shoutout to my wife, family, and the fans for making it so enjoyable! Now on to the next one……@RocKnighthawks @nll #rocvegas #knighthawkslax pic.twitter.com/3IDpfqU7Dc
— Craig Wende (@cwende1) December 1, 2019
That summer, along with remaining with the Titans as starting goaltender, Wende played for Team Germany in the first ever European Box Lacrosse Championships where he was named a First Team All Star. He would return to the national team in the 2019 World Box Lacrosse Championship, finishing on the President’s All-Star Team.
The productive summer led to a free agent contract with the Rochester Knighthawks for 2017/18 training camp. While things were looking up, once again Wende found himself released prior to the season. Despite the building successes, the NLL remained a dream although he admits, that “at times there was doubt I would ever make it.”
2018 was by far the best season for Wende, who returned to the ALL and led Toronto to a first overall seed and a personal 9-1 record. He then led the Titans to a 9-2 record, the first overall seed and the team’s first ever berth in the President’s Cup as Ontario Champions where they would finish fourth. He won win his second Sr. B MVP award, as well as top goaltender honours. That strong performance opened NLL eyes as he was added to the Georgia Swarm practice roster late in the 2019 season, making his NLL debut April 20th for 17 minutes against the Philadelphia Wings.
If 2018 was Wende’s most successful summer, 2019 was his busiest. In addition to the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship in August, Wende racked up another 9-1 season with the Titans in addition to nine playoff games, once again earning top goaltender honours. He also dressed as an AP backup goaltender in 12 Oakville Rock games, gaining his first career MSL win over Brampton. Almost 1300 minutes of summer lacrosse, all while he and his wife were set to welcome their first child, a daughter, Lilliana.
Wende’s summer success led to signing a free agent contract with the expansion Knighthawks. The Knighthawks surprised some when they announced their roster, carrying three goaltenders on the active roster. The competition will continue into the season between veteran Steve Fryer and young Rylan Hartley, but if there’s one thing Wende knows, it’s how to fight for his position.
While many young lacrosse players would have given up after not hearing their name on draft night, or being released from multiple contracts, Wende continued to play anywhere he could.
“It took me a while to get to where I am today in lacrosse, but I could say that I am proud of that journey,” he stated. He credits the Briscoe family for giving him a chance with the Oakville Titans along with NLL veteran netminders Mike Poulin and Nick Rose, who he played with and learned from with the Georgia Swarm and Oakville Rock respectively.
He said, “If I could give any advice to a young player growing up in the game, don’t give up! It took me a long time to get where I am today and it’s all because I told myself to keep working at it.”
From CLax/ALL to the European and World Championships, via MSL and Senior B, it seemed the name Craig Wende showed up at every combine or draft. It took 2,617 days, but after continuous hard work Craig Wende is finally a full-time NLL goaltender.