The New Westminster Salmonbellies got a lot stronger on their left side when they signed free agent Tom Johnson on April 3.
Johnson had applied to Western Lacrosse Association commissioner Casey Cook in February to be declared a free agent, and Cook ruled in Johnson's favour on March 17.
The Burnaby Lakers, who held Johnson's rights, appealed the decision, and on March 29, the appeal board upheld Cook's decision, allowing Johnson to sign with any WLA team.
The appeal board was chaired by former commissioner Sohen Gill, and was made up of former players Bruce Turris, Ben Hieltjes and Pat Coyle.
The Salmonbellies announced Johnson's signing via email on the afternoon of April 3.
"I'm pretty happy," Johnson said. "New West is pretty close to my home (in Delta), and I'm so happy to join a team with such a tradition of winning."
Also playing into Johnson's decision is the opportunity to play with guys he considers friends.
"Tyler Richards, Jeff Zywicki, Shayne Bennett and Ian Hawksbee are guys I'm playing with in Edmonton (in the NLL)," said Johnson. "Hopefully, we can bring a Mann Cup back to New West. - I want to be part of a winning team. I'm only 26, but my body feels like it's 35."
As happy as Johnson was, his new boss was even happier.
"We're very excited to get him into Salmonbellies' colours," Salmonbellies general manager Dan Richardson said. "We've lost Jordan Hall to a torn ACL, so we really needed a lefthander. When Tom became a free agent, we said this could be a great fit for us."
Richardson said that it took less than a day for the 'Bellies to contact Johnson after the Lakers' appeal failed.
"When we talked to him, he told us two or three other teams had already talked to him," said Richardson. "I remember interviewing him when he was a junior and we took Ilija (Gajic) second. I liked him back then, and we love him now that he's a 'Bellie."
Burnaby Laker general manager Paul Rowbotham was not pleased with the decision.
"We don't agree with the commisioner's ruling," said Rowbotham. "That's why we spent the $200 on the appeal. - We still believe a mistake was made, and we're looking at our options."
Rowbotham said he has talked to lawyers about what the next steps could be, but he isn't sure what those steps are.
Cook explained the rationale behind his decision.
Prior to Dec. 4, 2010, any player who sat out two years in the WLA became a free agent, regardless of whether he played for other teams in the NLL or Major League Lacrosse during the winter.
But at a WLA board meeting on Dec. 4, 2010, a new bylaw was passed whereby a player could only get free agency in the WLA by sitting out two full seasons, which includes play in "any other box lacrosse league in Canada, NLL (National Lacrosse League) and MLL (Major Lacrosse League)."
Cook ruled that because Johnson had sat out one season prior to the change, he was effectively grandfathered into the old rule where he would gain free agency by sitting out two WLA seasons.
"The operating policy in force when he started his period of hold-out should be the policy that is enforced in this case," wrote Cook in his ruling. "It is not reasonable to expect that rules, of any kind, can be created and administered retroactively. This goes contrary to principles of natural justice."
Johnson, 26, was the first overall pick in the 2007 junior draft out of Delta. He was drafted by Langley, winning rookie of the year honours in 2007 before he was traded to Burnaby in 2008.
Johnson finished the 2008 season ninth in league scoring and then played 13 games for the Lakers in 2009, scoring 23 goals and adding 17 assists for 40 points.
He sat out the 2010 WLA season due to an injury and sat out 2011 while travelling through Europe.
Johnson, who represented England in the world lacrosse championships in Prague, spent almost three months backpacking through Europe.
"I sold my lacrosse gear to one of my (England) teammates, and then I went everywhere. I think it was 13 countries.
"My favourite spots were Spain and in Lagos, Portugal because I'm a big-time surfer and the surf experience there was awesome. - I also had a chance to see England play Switzerland in a Euro (2012) qualifier at Wembley."
During the winter, Johnson has played in the National Lacrosse League for the past five season, the first four with the San Jose/Washington Stealth and this season with the Edmonton Rush.
Johnson attended Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky and was also a football and rugby star in high school.
The 6-2, 205 pound sniper will wear number 23 for the 'Bellies.
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