By Graeme Perrow
Many sports franchises have a particular trade that fans remember as one that turned the franchise around, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Many Blue Jays fans remember sending Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to San Diego for Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter. Oilers fans remember losing Wayne Gretzky (though it didn't "turn the franchise around" as much as first thought - they won the Stanley Cup a year later). Both Flyers and Nordiques/Avalanche fans remember the Eric Lindros deal. For the Toronto Rock, the biggest one (known to Rock fans simply as The Trade, at least until the Colin Doyle deal of two years later) occurred in the summer of 2004. It was essentially Anthony Cosmo for Josh Sanderson, but there was more to it than that.
I remember watching Josh Sanderson score 10 points for the Albany Attack in the 2002 Championship game (and thinking he should have been named game MVP even though the Attack lost to the Rock), so I was excited about having him join the Rock. However, I did think at the time that trading Cosmo was a bad idea and would come back to bite the Rock later on. Despite the fact that Cosmo blossomed into one of the best goalies in the league, I was totally wrong on this one. This turned out to be a fabulous trade for the Rock.
For four seasons, Cosmo was the Rock's backup goaltender, behind the legendary Bob "Whipper" Watson. During most of that time, Whipper was the definite #1 goalie and Cosmo was the backup. Beginning in 2003, Cosmo began playing more often, and when Whipper got injured, Cosmo took over. He played in nine of sixteen games in 2004, as he and Whipper more or less shared the goalie job. Whipper was in his mid 30's at the time while Cosmo was more than seven years younger. I distinctly remember one game where Whipper started but didn't play very well and was pulled in the first quarter. Cosmo finished the game, and played amazing. I wondered that night if we had just seen the unofficial transition from the Watson era of Rock history to the Cosmo era. Beginning that night, I assumed that Cosmo would be the starting Rock goaltender the next season, with Watson serving as the backup, if he didn't retire. Never happened. The Cosmo era, if it ever truly began, ended a couple of months after the 2004 season ended.
In a blockbuster deal, Toronto traded fan favourite Steve Toll, defenseman Darryl Gibson (later to become an all-star), two draft picks and a player to be named later to the San Jose Stealth for the single-season assist record holder and master playmaker Josh Sanderson, his cousin Phil Sanderson (another soon-to-be all-star defenseman), and Rusty Kruger (who happened to be a good friend of Josh). It wasn't officially part of the trade announcement, but it was widely known that the Rock "player to be named later" was Anthony Cosmo. It was weird that someone as good as Cosmo was a player to be named later, but that wasn't the weirdest thing about The Trade.
The league was about to hold an expansion draft for the new Minnesota Swarm. Each team was allowed to protect a certain number of players and the Swarm would be allowed to pick one unprotected player from each team. As part of the deal with the Stealth, the Rock were obligated to protect Cosmo. Not only was this weird because it meant that they had to leave someone else unprotected, but the Stealth already had two very good goalies (Brandon Miller and Rob Blasdell), both of whom they protected. So the Stealth essentially forced the Rock to protect a Stealth goalie, allowing them to end up with three. This made little sense, as Cosmo started the majority of games for the Stealth the next season, with Miller and Blasdell seeing little floor time. Blasdell was left unprotected in the next season's expansion draft, and was selected by Edmonton (who immediately traded him to Arizona).
In an even more odd turn of events, the Rock player that Minnesota selected in the expansion draft was none other than Rusty Kruger – who was traded back to the Rock two days later for Eric Pacey and Ken Millin.
Many lacrosse fans raised a Spockian eyebrow at The Trade announcement since Josh's father Terry Sanderson was the GM and head coach of the Rock at the time. Some wondered if he gave up too much to acquire his son, his nephew, and his son's best friend. But nepotism aside, The Trade turned the Rock into an offensive powerhouse. Josh Sanderson combined with Colin Doyle and Blaine Manning to make the Rock one of the most potent offensive lineups in NLL history. In 2005, Doyle led the league in scoring, Manning was tied for second, and Sanderson was tied for fourth. Josh set a new single-season record for assists. Doyle, Manning and Josh were named to the All-Star and All-Pro teams, and Doyle was named league MVP as the Rock won their fifth championship in seven years. In 2006, all three were again All-Stars, as was Phil Sanderson, Josh led the league in both assists and points, and Doyle and Josh made the All-Pro team again.
After 2006, the Rock went downhill quickly. Terry Sanderson was fired, and Colin Doyle was inexplicably traded to the Stealth. Without Terry to fight for him, Josh became unpopular with management, and he was traded to the Calgary Roughnecks during the 2008 season. (In return the Rock received Lewis Ratcliff, who was later traded for Colin Doyle. The circle of life continues.) The Rock finished below .500 in both 2007 and 2008 (their worst records ever), and they missed the playoffs in 2008 for the first time in team history.
But what about Cosmo? He became the starter in San Jose that Rock fans knew he would. He made the All-Star team in 2005 and 2006, was named Goaltender of the Year in 2007, and is now, as a Boston Blazer, widely regarded as one of the best goaltenders in the league. And yet the Rock traded him away — so why was this still a great trade? Because of Bob Watson. In the six seasons since The Trade, Watson has simply been outstanding. He made the All-Pro team in 2005 and 2008, and was named Goaltender of the Year in 2008 at the age of 38 — on a team that went 7-9. He's had several different backups (John Preece, Phil Wetherup, Mike Poulin, Mike Attwood, and now Steve Dietrich), none of whom played much because Watson is a workhorse. Trading Cosmo didn't hurt the Rock because even if they hadn't, he wouldn't have gotten much playing time anyway. The fact that the Rock pretty much sucked in 2008 and 2009 is irrelevant — their suckage was not Watson's fault, and having Cosmo in goal wouldn't have changed things.
The Rock had an excess of talent and traded some of it away for a championship. That's the quintessential example of a great trade.