Rory Smith got into a regular-season NLL game for the first time in nearly a year and had such a positive impact in a much-needed Vancouver Stealth win that his teammates presented him with the hard hat they award for exceptional effort.
"That meant a lot to him," general manager Doug Locker said.
Smith, 29, has suffered enough concussions to place his lacrosse career in jeopardy. He was not in uniform for Vancouver's first 14 games this season, but he reappeared Saturday night and helped the Stealth defeat the team they are trying to catch, Calgary, 13-12.
"I thought he was a force," Locker said. "He was a big reason why we were able to hold some of their big guns down. I've seen enough of Curtis Dickson to last a lifetime. He's such a spectacular player. Rory was a good matchup there. He did a good job of keeping Curtis out of the middle as much as humanly possible. He also did a nice job on Wesley Berg, another stud. I thought he was a difference maker in our game."
Smith emerged out of the Mimico lacrosse program on Toronto's western waterfront as one of the toughest defensemen in the sport. He was willing to drop the gloves to settle on-floor disagreements with his fists. There was much more to his game, though, and he was good enough to earn a spot on Canada's team that won world indoor gold in Prague in 2011.
But numerous concussions put Smith's livelihood in peril, and he bounced from team to team. Before the 2016 season began, the Stealth opted to be extra careful in waiting until they were sure he could play without risk to his health.
"We brought him along very slowly," Locker said. "He was probably ready to go a couple of weeks ago, but we wanted to make sure he was in the best shape possible."
The decision to activate Smith was made after repeated consultations.
"There was an abundance of caution," Locker said. "First, he was cleared by our medical staff. The second step was being cleared by a neurologist who wasn't a member of our medical staff, but an independent referral by our medical people. After those steps were passed, then the next step was assessing his desire and ability to play.
"We had all the medical clearances and felt we did due diligence. Rory wanted to compete. He's almost 30 and is a man who is capable of making decisions about what he wants to do in his life."
It was either use him or release him, and after all Smith had been through and all the work he put in to get to this point, the club was not about to release him. He was elated when he got the nod to dress for the game Saturday.
"Someone said to me before the game just how happy he was to be getting the chance to play again," Locker said.
Smith was assessed again following the game.
"He was put through a battery of tests afterwards and he passed them with flying colors," Locker said.
Concussions have become a hot-button topic in discussions of athletes' injuries in various sports. Decisions on whether a player is fit to play largely have been taken out of the hands of coaches and managers and given to medical personnel.
"I've got a political science degree, not a medical degree," Locker said. "We rely on them. Once we got the green light from the doctors, we were satisfied Rory was fit to play. They have no desire to put somebody at risk. And because of the nature of concussions in sport in general, we like to think we're being as cautious as we can be."
Injuries have hit the Stealth hard this season. Eight players have been on injured reserve, amounting to nearly 50 man-games lost. Of those injuries, a high percentage are concussion-related, Locker said.
"Rory is not the only guy in our league who has had multiple head trauma. Everybody has an opinion on this type of injury, because it's in the media so much. We rely on the medical specialists, and I can sleep well at night satisfied about the way we handle this type of injury. We would never let a player on the floor without full neurological testing, and that has been done with Rory, so we are comfortable in letting him play.
"I was really, really happy with the way he played and I was more than happy with the way he came through it."
Smith was wearing No. 24 in his last NLL game of 2015. In making a fresh start, he rearranged the 2 and the 4 and wore 42 Saturday.
Vancouver, now 4-11, retained a slight chance of qualifying for the playoffs by defeating third-place Calgary, which is 7-10.
The Stealth have three games remaining: at home against Saskatchewan on Saturday, at Colorado on April 29 and at Georgia on April 30. They have to win them all to stay alive. Calgary has just one left and would have to lose it to drop to the basement, should the Stealth win out.
The season series ended 2-2. So, should Vancouver and Calgary both finish 7-11, a second tiebreaker would be used to break the tie. That would be the teams' record within their division. The Stealth have a better record than Calgary within the division, so they own that tiebreaker, but they are not thinking that far ahead.
Saskatchewan, first overall at 12-4, will be a formidable opponent this weekend.
"We don't have any margin for error," Locker said. "We have a pretty good team coming in here next weekend. We knew what we were up against last Saturday. That's a heck of a [Calgary] offense to deal with. Now we get a much tougher opponent that is really clicking on all cylinders coming in.
"I'm hopeful we'll continue to get healthier. I'm optimistic by nature. It's been hard the last month with Garrett Billings and Logan Schuss injured. But we're beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe we can get on a bit of a run here. It's all about Saturday now. The guys know what's at stake. For a team that lost seven in a row in the middle of the season, I've been really impressed with how our guys have handled it week in and week out. That was accentuated by the effort they put in last Saturday. They got down by three but stuck with it and grinded out a win in a close game.
"We'll step back, take a deep breath, and try to figure out how to beat Derek [Keenan]'s squad."
With Rory Smith back in the lineup, they've got a chance.