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Kyle Couling's value to the Buffalo Bandits justifies his being an exception to the rule.

When head coach Darris Kilgour took over at the start of the 2003 National Lacrosse League season, he began shaping a roster filled with quality players who live close enough to Grimsby, Ont. to attend his weekly practice sessions.

One by one, the half dozen or so coast-to-coast travelers he inherited were traded or allowed to become free agents.

All but the 31-year-old Couling, a native of Western Canada who is from Port Moody, B.C. and lives on Vancouver Island. He's one of the biggest reasons the Bandits allowed just 11.4 goals per game this season, fewest in the franchise's 14-year history.

"There's a reason he's the exception," said Bandits General Manager Kurt Silcott. "He does his job, stops his man and when the odd occasion presents itself, he'll score some points when it's needed. But he knows his first job is defense. He's probably one of the single most important guys in our lineup."

Couling, who is one of the Bandits' three captains, and his partners on defense tonight face the daunting task of keeping the Rochester Knighthawks and superstar John Grant Jr., under control. The Bandits (11-5) host the Knighthawks (10-6) at 8 p.m. in HSBC Arena in a first-round playoff game.

The winner moves on to Toronto's Air Canada Centre next Friday night to face the first-place Rock (12-4) in the East Division final.

When Grant -- who finished first in the league with 49 goals and tied for second with 105 points -- thrives against the Bandits, the Knighthawks usually win.

"Johnny is the type of player that if he can get four (goals) on 12 to 15 shots, then you're in a lot of trouble," said Kilgour. "That means he's moving the ball and the rest of the team is very dangerous. If you give John Grant four goals on 25 or 30 shots then you're doing a good job because the ball is not moving and he's taking a lot of opportunities away from the other guys."

In the season series, captured 2-1 by the Bandits, Grant had eight points in Rochester's victory and a total of just six points in the two defeats. He's averaged nine points in the Knighthawks' last four victories in the series, less than four points in the last four losses.

For Couling and the other backliners, that means the pressure is on.

"He is one solid boy in the defensive end for Buffalo," Knighthawks coach Paul Day said of Couling. "When he slides to hit people he hits hard. He's definitely the key to their defense and there are probably only about five guys like him around the league."

Couling, a two-time All-Star Game selection, has plenty of travel time to think about just how important it is to limit opposing stars like Grant.

Typically his trek from home, where he works as a foreman carpenter, for a Saturday night game begins about 6 a.m. Friday.

First he flies into Vancouver, then to Toronto, normally arriving about 8 p.m. Then it's a two-hour drive to Buffalo, making it a 13-hour journey.

"I get to Buffalo and have a steak, then get up in the morning and get ready to play," said Couling, who is finishing his sixth season with the Bandits. "I play, then I leave for Toronto on Sunday morning, and I'm back and ready for work by most Monday mornings."

That travel grind would hinder most people. But not Couling, though his equipment was lost twice this season in transit.

"If I stay for two or three days then I'm definitely more tired than if I just come in for the game," said Couling, who is 6-foot and 190 pounds.

"When I get home I feel it a little more than I do here. But I've always been a traveler so I don't even think about it. I don't mind the flying, I can sleep anywhere."

Couling's regular job involves "carrying boards around the muck and building foundations for homes." He loves the relative solitude of British Columbia, its mild winters and plentiful eagle population. But he's never asked to be traded closer to home, though Vancouver had a team for three years and Calgary would make for an easier commute. "I get to live it up here in Buffalo on the weekends," he said.

Couling lives with his girlfriend, former Bandits trainer Heather Griffiths, who, luckily for him, understands completely the rigors of his travel schedule.

Couling's work ethic has made a mark on his younger teammates.

"Kyle allows me to have me freedom and I know he's always there to cover up for me when I need it," said 24-year-old midfielder Mark Steenhuis, who figures to spend plenty of time shadowing Grant tonight. "He's a gentleman off the field but he has that grit on it that you need. There are some guys around the league you might compare him to, but I don't think there's a tougher guy."

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