The Thunder's prize off-season catch may have been reeling in a Salmonbelly.
Joe Hiltz, a veteran of the New Westminster Salmonbellies in Canada's Western Lacrosse Association, decided to give the higher-profile American indoor game a second shot.
Lured back to the states by a pair of friends, Rochester's Marty O'Neill and the Thunder's Gary Gait, he received two tryouts, with Baltimore being his first stop.
"I never made it to Rochester," Hiltz said.
And for good reason. If not for teammate Gait, Hiltz might be the National Lacrosse League's Most Valuable Player over the first month of the season.
Hiltz, the NLL's second-leading scorer with 13 goals and 15 assists in four games, has filled almost every offensive void for the Thunder (4-0), which lost over 20 percent of its goal scoring and nearly a third of its assist production from a year ago.
"He takes a lot of pressure off Gary [Gait]," Thunder coach John Tucker said. "You can't leave Gary, because Joe is such a threat. Plus off the field, he keeps everyone loose because he's a veteran and such a great guy in the locker room."
But his new-found fame has come at some expense.
To play for the Thunder, Hiltz has had to live three time zones away from his wife and two children, 5-year-old Emily Jo and 3-year-old Joshua, who live in British Columbia.
Hiltz plans to play for the Thunder again next year but might opt to return to Canada for a summer indoor league.
However, he has increased his ties to the area when he became the offensive coordinator for the Villa Julie men's lacrosse team this week.
Besides coaching, Hiltz is taking the opportunity to enroll in a couple of college courses for the first time.
"It's tough when your wife and two children are that far away," said Hiltz, 30, a native of Peterborough, Ontario.
"We talked about it and decided I wasn't getting any younger. If I wanted to play, I had to do it now."
His only previous playing experience in the United States was a one-year stint in 1993 with the now-defunct Detroit Turbos.
He had two goals and six assists in five forgettable games in Detroit, but has already proven in his short return how his game has grown over a six-year career with the New Westminster Salmonbellies.
Known primarily as a goal scorer, Hiltz recorded 12 assists in his first two games, nearly matching his single-season totals the past four years with the Salmonbellies. In his first appearance, he assisted on the Thunder's first three fourth-quarter goals that sealed the victory over Rochester.
When defenses no longer slid away from Gait and Matt Shearer, Hiltz shifted his game back to the same shooting that netted 91 goals in six seasons across the border.
Missing on only three of 10 shots, Hiltz recorded a career-high seven goals, including four in the first quarter of a 22-15 win at Buffalo on Jan. 16 to earn his first league Player of the Week honor.
And in his worst offensive output of the season -- three goals and one assist last week at New York -- he still managed to make an impact.
In the Thunder's tightest game of the season, he stepped up at the end with an unassisted, game-tying goal with four minutes remaining.
"There's no limit to this team," Hiltz said. "We have about nine guys who can score goals. So if you try to stop three, six other guys will hurt you.
"For me to get a chance to play on a team of this caliber is a great honor."
Site: Baltimore Arena
Time: 7: 35
Radio: WCBM (680 AM)
Outlook: The Wings (0-3), no longer featuring the core of players from last year's championship team, have already matched their loss total from last year, losing by an average of almost four goals. A defeat tonight would mark Philadelphia's first four-game skid in team history. The Thunder (4-0), last year's runner-up, is aiming for a franchise-record fifth straight victory. The Thunder has won seven of its last nine games, losing to only the Wings in that span. Philadelphia leads the all-time regular-season series, 19-5.
Pub Date: 1/30/99