DENVER — It’s been six weeks since Alex Buque’s face was plastered all over ESPN.
It was around the same time Karsen Leung was picking his up off the Pepsi Center floor.
As if the Rocky Mountain Rivalry needed any fuel poured on the fire.
Two days ahead of the first meeting between the Colorado Mammoth and the Calgary Roughnecks since the March 26 hit that sparked a heated ‘legal or not legal?’ debate throughout the league, Leung spoke for the first time about the devastating open-floor hit from the 230-pound Mammoth goaltender that sent him to the sidelines for a month with a concussion.
Asked if that incident — which the NLL deemed to be a legal hit — adds anything to Saturday’s single-elimination West Division semifinal at the Pepsi Center (7 p.m., TSN GO), Leung, who returned to the lineup last weekend for the regular-season finale against the Toronto Rock, wasn’t pulling any punches.
“I think it just makes me more fired up,” the Roughnecks’ 26-year-old transition standout said Thursday. “After the Toronto game, I’ve really been looking forward to this game because, obviously, that’s the first thing that comes to my mind, and I really just want to destroy these guys.”
While the Roughnecks had termed Leung’s injury an upper-body issue and tried to move on from an incident they clearly weren’t pleased about, Leung finally shed some light on what transpired in the aftermath of the momentum-changing hit that had the Calgary bench fuming, especially after the Mammoth came from behind to win that game 13-12 in overtime.
“When I got hit, the first thing I thought about was, ‘Do I feel OK?’ and at the time I did,” said Leung, who was checked by the training staff and returned to the game. “The lights were a little bit brighter, but that’s all. It took until the adrenaline wore off to notice the effects that, ‘OK, something isn’t right here. I should probably go get checked out.’”
A financial advisor who took over his father’s clientele in Victoria, B.C., it wasn’t until Leung went to work that week that he really noticed something wasn’t right.
“I was reading through client e-mails and probably in the first 10 minutes of looking at my computer in the office with the fluorescent lights, I just couldn’t concentrate and I couldn’t remember anything,” Leung explained. “It was really scary. Honestly, I didn’t know if I was going to get better. I’ve had more than one, unfortunately, and I kind of know it takes a long time to get better. With that one there, it was prolonged symptoms where it didn’t feel like I was getting better.”
As the NLL basked in the glow of the highlight that reached eyes normally not focused on the sport of lacrosse, the Roughnecks issued a short statement disagreeing with the ruling and moved on.
Knowing full well it’d be a topic this week, Roughnecks GM Mike Board still wanted to move on.
“I don’t think it factors in at all,” Board said. “It’s over and done with. We put that behind us as quickly as possible, and we’re just happy to have Karsen back and ready for the playoffs.”
On the other side, Mammoth president/GM Steve Govett, who played in the league during a time when goalies coming out of their net to lay bone-jarring hits was a regular occurrence, is conflicted.
“Look, I’m sorry that Karsen Leung missed games because of an injury, and it’s never been disclosed to us what that injury was,” Govett said.
“I think the rule, as it’s written, is pretty clear that it wasn’t a penalty. I think the rule could be cleaned up to further protect the players and, I think, there’s going to be discussion about that.”
The way the league used a borderline hit as a social media marketing tool didn’t impress a handful of current and former players around the league — it should be noted that there were just as many who were fine with it — including Leung, who had to sit back while he was hurt and watch the highlight of a play that he thought, at one point, was going to end his season.
“Honestly, I wasn’t happy with how the NLL dealt with it,” Leung said. “I think, from their perspective, they blew this thing out of proportion. The league is not huge, it’s a slow-growing league, and they viewed it as a positive thing for fans and everything, which, as a player, is kind of unsettling because if my career was ended there and they’re not trying to protect me, I just don’t feel comfortable with that.”
Unless the Roughnecks can chase Mammoth starter Dillon Ward, the NLL leader in save percentage and, coincidentally, a good friend of Leung’s from their days together at Bellarmine University, Buque may not factor much into the outcome or even see the floor at all Saturday.
With the NLL moving to a three-man referee crew for the playoffs, Leung isn’t expecting any shenanigans Saturday at the Pepsi Center.
“I don’t think so,” Leung said. “On both sides, everyone will be thinking it, but it’s a very important game.
“We play these guys so often and since I’ve started playing (in the NLL in 2014) we’ve played them in the first round every year. There’s a huge rivalry between us and this, obviously, adds a huge component to that.”