Top News

20 to ’20: Calgary's sporting icons of the 2000s so far — Kaleb Toth


As 2020 winds to a close, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson profiles Calgary’s sporting icons of the 2000s……

Set to join the National Lacrosse League as an expansion squad, the Calgary Roughnecks needed a sharpshooter.

And a salesperson.

Kaleb Toth, a homegrown talent, turned out to be both.

“At first, a lot of people didn’t know what the Roughnecks were. Some didn’t even know what lacrosse was,” Toth recalled, reminiscing about the early days of a franchise that launched in the 2002 NLL season. “So it was more about educating everybody. I remember going to events and talking to kids or talking to parents, and they had no clue what lacrosse was. They didn’t understand. So I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m going to leave you some tickets. Come to a game, check it out and I guarantee you will fall in love with the sport.’

“That’s what it was all about at the very beginning — just getting people aware, getting it out there and getting people to show up. It’s an easy sell as soon as somebody walks in the rink and watches a game, because it’s so entertaining. Once we got ’em there, they were hooked.”

Professional lacrosse has been a hit in Calgary. The Roughnecks averaged nearly 12,700 fans per contest this past season. On the local sports scene, only the Flames and Stampeders are a bigger draw.

Toth, as the original face-of-the-franchise, deserves a heap of credit.

From school visits and camps to media appearances and grocery-store autograph signings, he swayed thousands to attend their first game.

More often that not, he was the guy who’d have them spilling their popcorn — or swinging their shirts — with a top-shelf shot. He retired as the Riggers’ all-time leading lamp-lighter, with 274 tallies, but has since been surpassed by current stars Dane Dobbie and Curtis Dickson in the club record book.

Before Calgary was awarded an expansion outfit, Toth had already started to make a name for himself in a pair of campaigns with the NLL’s Toronto Rock. In fact, the forward scored the last goal in the history of Maple Leaf Gardens when he buried a buzzer-beater in the championship game as a rookie. (There’s a good bit of bar trivia.)

Toth, who’d been commuting back-and-forth from Calgary, mentioned to the higher-ups in Toronto that he’d embrace a trade to his hometown team, if it made sense for both sides.

“Fortunately, they were able to make a deal work,” he said. “My family was ecstatic, because they were able to see me play closer to home. And I was ecstatic about being able to help grow a franchise and help develop a sport I love and I grew up playing in Calgary.”

Not everybody, mind you, was initially thrilled.

The Roughnecks surrendered two significant pieces — second-overall pick Blaine Manning, plus their first-round selection the following year — to pry Toth out of Toronto.

“The other GMs around the league didn’t like the deal. They thought I was getting ripped off,” recalled Brad Banister, who doubled as general manager and the frontman of the Roughnecks’ original ownership group. “They were thinking that I gave up too much. But in hindsight, I still stick to my guns. I think that was the right move, because I needed a face on the team.

“There was more to the acquisition than the fact he was a really good lacrosse player.”

Indeed, the corner-picking proficiency was just part of the appeal.

Toth had been a student at Maple Ridge Elementary, R.T. Alderman Junior High and Lord Beaverbrook High School.

He had played community lacrosse for the Willow Ridge Chiefs and been a standout for the Calgary Axemen.

He’d skated in the Mac’s Midget-AAA Tournament with the Calgary Buffaloes before a four-season stint in the Western Hockey League.

And he was already proving a kid from the Stampede City could make a dent in a sport that had long been dominated by those from B.C. and Ontario.

“Kaleb was such an exceptional athlete, playing hockey, playing lacrosse, kind of doing it all, and I ended up following his path and following him out to Burnaby to play junior,” recalled Calgary-raised Geoff Snider, who represented Canada at four editions of the world field lacrosse championships, spent five seasons as a faceoff ace with the Roughnecks and is now a grow-the-game force with his Elev8 program, which has helped more than 100 local teens score post-secondary offers through the sport.

“I had turned 17 that year and he was in his final year of junior, and I was all excited about getting out to Burnaby. Because that’s what Kaleb did.”

B.C.-born Andrew McBride wound up moving in the opposite direction.

“Being a 19-year-old when I was drafted (by the Roughnecks) and not knowing anyone here, Kaleb was like the mayor of Calgary to me,” said McBride, who would eventually captain the Riggers, later served as technical director for the Alberta Lacrosse Association and is now the general manager of the Okotoks Junior-A Raiders. “He was not only the face of the Roughnecks but probably one of the most popular athletes in the city. It’s funny to say that when you compare to the Flames and Stamps, but that was the reality. He knew everybody. He knew every restaurant owner. He knew all the Flames players. He knew everybody in the community. He’d be out there kissing babies, shaking hands, telling stories … He made people feel welcome, he made people feel included and he made people feel special. And as a young guy and transitioning later into a leadership role, I always really remembered how Kaleb handled himself in the community. He was a role model in how to go about it, how to promote the game and be humble.

“And that was before he was even on the floor,” McBride continued. “He’d score five goals, he would fight their toughest guy and he would clean up the bus. He’d do every little thing it took to be a leader.”

Tracey Kelusky, another franchise all-timer, once said, “When I think of Calgary Roughnecks, I think of Kaleb Toth.”

Toth got people thinking about the Roughnecks. His stat-line — he piled up 628 points in 160 regular-season outings from 2002-12 — is nothing to sneeze at, but that could be his greatest accomplishment.

The Riggers, now owned by Calgary Sports & Entertainment Corp., took their lumps in the early going. In their first-ever game, they made NLL history … by allowing 32 goals.

Just three years later, during the height of Red Mile hysteria, they hung a Champion’s Cup banner.

Thanks to a string of upsets that spring, the Roughnecks hosted the Buffalo Bandits in the title game. With Iggy, Kipper & Co. preparing for the NHL’s Western Conference final, 19,289 fans filled the Saddledome as the local lacrosse heroes laid claim to their first crown with a 14-11 triumph.

“That was just surreal,” said Toth, who scored once and had a team-high four assists on that unforgettable night, winning his second of three championship rings. “It was so nice to see that we were able to convince or show people that the sport of lacrosse was, and is, an amazing game. With all the hard work we had all put in, to see the Saddledome completely sold-out was almost like a dream come true.”

Toth, 43, now lives on Vancouver Island.

Back home, his sport is still booming. The Calgary District Lacrosse Association had annual registration of roughly 1,000-1,500 players before the Riggers arrived. In recent years, that number has grown to nearly 4,000.

“It wasn’t just myself and the Roughnecks. There were a lot of people behind the scenes that nobody knows about,” Toth stressed. “I’m just thankful I was a part of it. Whether I affected a little bit or a lot, it doesn’t matter. I’m just proud of where it is today and I hope it continues to grow.”

KALEB TOTH

Remember me for …

Toth was the original star for the Calgary Roughnecks, racking up 274 goals and 354 assists and winning two league titles over 11 seasons with his hometown team.

Oh and another thing …

This net-filling fan favourite was the first player to be saluted as part of the Forever A Roughneck program.

Staggering stat …

0:01 — That’s what was remaining on the clock when Toth sniped the game-winner for the Toronto Rock in the NLL’s title fight in 2000, the last professional goal ever scored at iconic Maple Leaf Gardens.

These days …

A father-of-three, Toth now lives in Ladysmith, B.C. He has a hectic schedule — working for the post office, managing a tire shop and serving as an assistant coach for the NLL’s Vancouver Warriors.

He said it …

“Growing up, I never dreamed about playing pro lacrosse. I didn’t even know there was pro lacrosse.”

[email protected]

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories