TORONTO – Luke Wiles hopes his tough times, on and off the field, are gone, and the good times are here to stay.
Wiles and the rest of the Bandits have two important games coming up in the next two days. Tonight they will play the Rock here (7:30 p.m., nll.com. Radio 930 AM) as Buffalo tries to prevent Toronto from running away with the National Lacrosse League’s East Division. Then they return home Friday to host the Philadelphia Wings, currently tied with the Bandits for second in the East.
Wiles’ season didn’t start well, but he has a suspicion that 2013 has turned around in his direction.
“I’m happy I’m back in Canada, happy to be back practicing, happy to be with a great group of guys,” Wiles said. “I can’t tell you how close this team is. It’s a good mix. Some people say we’re old, but I think we’re in our prime. This week will tell us a lot.”
Wiles’ early-season problems were something of a surprise. He was one of the Bandits’ most important players in 2012 after coming over from Washington in a trade. The forward’s 39 goals ranked third in the league and first on the team. When the ’12 season was over, Wiles took some time to rest.
“I had a couple of teams show interest in me to play in the summer, but my body was breaking down,” he said. “My wife found a job right away, doing court documents in Philadelphia. So we headed back to Philadelphia, and I ran my lacrosse camps in Ontario in the summer.”
Wiles turned 30 last August, and tried to enjoy his first lacrosse-less summer since he was about 7. As the NLL season approached last fall, Wiles was ready to get back to work to regain his edge. He needed a contract with the Bandits to do that, and that proved initially elusive.
“I should have gotten it done before the first weekend of training camp. It didn’t get done,” Wiles said. “I told the team last season that I wanted to do a contract that was a three-year deal. I hadn’t been locked down before. I figured, I’m in my prime years now. I might not get a long-term deal later. At 32, 33, they might think I was too old — even though at that age, I still want to be playing, and I think I’ll be able to play well.”
Wiles knows what it’s like to be a holdout. After all, he once held out for five straight years, which has to be something close to a record in pro sports.
But when he finally signed a one-year deal for the 2013 season, there was an extra wrinkle. Wiles had applied for a green card to gain permanent residence in the United States. That takes time to process.
“It’s super-complicated,” he said. “My lawyer told me it would take up to 90 days, but that it could be as low as 40 days. I was hoping I would get it around Christmas, but it went longer than I anticipated.”
Until Wiles received that card, he wasn’t allowed to cross the border into his native Canada. If he tried, the waiting time would recycle back to the start of the 90-day period. This is a problem for someone who plays for a team that practices in Ontario during the season.
“In the first 15 practices, I only practiced five or six times,” Wiles said.
The schedule did the veteran a favor, since the team didn’t have any games in Canada while he was waiting for his green card.
Wiles did participate in games, but he wasn’t too effective initially. The right-handed shooter had only four goals in his first six games, a far cry from his production in 2012.
“I was forcing too much, and I was hurting myself,” he said. “I had rugburn. I always had something in my legs. Then I threw my back out. I went through a lot of little injuries.”
In addition, Wiles says he tried to do a little too much when he did play, and wasn’t fitting in well with a roster that had seen half the team depart in the offseason.
“Your job is on the line all the time,” he said. “There are no nights in this league when you can lollygag around. If you do, you are out of the lineup. That’s the harsh world we live in. You can’t be walking on eggshells.”
Finally, though, Wiles seems to be getting his life and game in order. He’s been driving from Philadelphia to Buffalo weekly in order to take part in practices, but he’s landed a sales job here that starts in mid-March. That will cut down on his knowledge of Interstate road conditions considerably.
He’s coming off his first three-goal performance of the season, which proved helpful to the Bandits in a win against Rochester on Feb. 16.
“Last game I got to playing smarter, something Darris Kilgour always talks about,” he said.
Kilgour added, “I don’t think he changed anything. He’s had the continuity of working with the team. The guys are on the same page, and it’s helped. The big difference last week was that he shot the ball well. …Hopefully he’s turned the page, because he’s a big part of the offense.”
Now comes a big pair of games for the Bandits. Toronto is 6-2 and 1½ games ahead of Buffalo (4-3). Then the Bandits come to First Niagara Center to host Philadelphia (4-3).
“It we get two wins this week, we’re sitting pretty,” Wiles said. “If we get a split, we’re still not in a bad position. You can’t think of overlooking Toronto, or they’ll wax you. Then there’s Philly; they are 1-1 against us and we need to win that series.”
Kilgour said Wednesday that John Tavares will play in tonight’s game. He’s been out with a calf injury.