How NLL Veterans Defied Father Time During COVID-19 Pandemic

PHOTO BY TREVOR MACMILLAN / HALIFAX THUNDERBIRDS

Jeff Shattler is in his 18th NLL season.


Jeff Shattler didn’t necessarily want to believe it as a young member of the Calgary Roughnecks. But time catches up with everyone eventually.

The fact of the matter is, the longer you stay in the National Lacrosse League, the harder it gets to keep your body ready for the speed and intensity of the game.

“As you head to your mid-30s to your late-30s, you start feeling stuff that you never felt,” said Shattler, now with the Saskatchewan Rush in his 15th season. “I remember Kaleb Toth telling me stuff like that, or Tracey Kelusky, like, ‘As you get older, you start to feel it more and more.’ I was like, ‘Nah, nah that won’t be me.’

“But oh yeah, that’s a true story.”

Veterans need to become experts of their own bodies as much as they are experts of the game they love.

“I’m trying to find the perfect workouts when we play on a Friday as opposed to playing on a Saturday,” said Toronto Rock forward Dan Dawson, who is in his 20th season. “It’s very calculated now, and I do have to really listen. If there’s something nagging, I’ve got to talk to the trainers and the medical staff.”

So what happens when that rhythm gets totally thrown out of whack?

Perhaps no group was hit harder by the NLL cutting the 2019-20 season short and calling off 2020-21 entirely than the elder statesmen of the league. Time was already their enemy before seeing a year and a half of their careers disappear before their eyes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It took a high level of commitment to stay prepared for last weekend’s return to NLL action.

“Father Time isn’t stopping for you,” Dawson said. “If you take a day off at 40, you’re screwed. There are so many young, good, athletic players in this league. I have to do things in order to stay relevant and be able to play at this level.”

Dawson admits he was spoiled during the height of the pandemic thanks to his proximity to the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre, giving him access to both training equipment and a box facility just 20 minutes from his home. His career as a firefighter also kept him active in a time when it was easy to feel trapped inside.

Mental hurdles remained. Athletes are used to offseason workouts, but a hiatus stretching a year and a half is foreign to anyone that’s avoided serious injury.

“We were still training like any time there could have been a season,” Dawson said. “It was easy to kind of get complacent and feel sorry for yourself, but you still can go for a jog outside, you can still do sprints, still do body weight stuff.”







If any veteran needed a push, all he had to do was remind himself what could happen if he slows down.

“Not wanting to show up to camp and not have it anymore, essentially,” Halifax’s Scott Campbell said of his main source of motivation.

Campbell, in his 18th season, constructed his own gym after his usual CrossFit venue became inaccessible. Shattler’s home workouts served as a nice compliment to the time he put in at his clinics in Saskatchewan.

“I had my lacrosse stick in my hand almost every day,” Shattler said. “When I was coaching, I was almost playing with them, showing them the drills, so I had a little bit of an advantage in that way.”

While Shattler kept his stick skills up working with kids, San Diego Seals captain Brodie Merrill had an All-Star lineup of pros nearby. Merrill, the director of athletics at the Hill Academy, stayed sharp thanks to his list of co-workers including Graeme Hossack, Jeff Teat, Clarke Petterson and Reilly O’Connor.

“We were able to kind of have these pick-up games and train together,” Merrill said. “It definitely helped a lot.”

Merrill also had the benefit of playing a pair of seasons outdoors in the Premier Lacrosse League since the last time the NLL was active, but he says there’s a difference between being in field and box shape. Nothing fully prepares you for the beating that comes indoors.

Training camp and Week 1 surely brought some added soreness around the league.

“I remember training camp being a lot easier, to be honest with you,” Shattler said with a laugh.

Shattler announced prior to the start of the season that this will be his final NLL campaign. While he enjoyed the added time he got with his family during the break, he didn’t want to end his career with any regrets.

“I just wanted to leave the game on my own terms, not COVID saying, ‘Alright, you’re done,’” Shattler said.

The futures of Dawson, Merrill and Campbell are less defined, but just like Shattler, they felt they had unfinished business to deal with. All four are on teams with championship aspirations, looking to return with a vengeance after their last title chases were abruptly ended.

And just one week in, they’ve already gotten a reminder of what all the work the past few years has been for.

“I’ve never once taken this game for granted, and I didn’t need COVID to reassure me on how much I love it or how much this game has meant to me,” Dawson said. “But man, did I miss it.”

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