By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The time seemed like a mistake. The Buffalo Bandits were scheduled to play a preseason game (maybe scrimmage would be a better word) against the Colorado Mammoth at the KeyBank Center at 9:30 Sunday morning.
Nine-thirty? Really? I haven’t been associated with athletics that early since I had first period gym class as a senior at Clarence Central High School, which started at 9:13.
But it seemed like a good chance to see the Bandits again after the offseason. Therefore, I was off to see two pro teams play in a game with no fans. That’s right – it’s too expensive to open up the building to the public for such an occasion. You’d need ushers, security staffers, concession workers, etc. I grabbed a seat about 20 rows up behind the benches with broadcasters John Gurtler and Dave Buchanan. Good company.
The game had three NLL officials, complete with their newly mandated visors. The end zone scoreboards were turned on, so we knew the basics of the game situation (score, time, penalties). Some veterans like Dhane Smith, Matt Vinc, and Steve Priolo got the morning off, and the lineups changed a little bit between halves. The Bandits and Mammoth played a good game, but Colorado came away with the 10-8 victory.
Even so, it provided a good lesson about the nature of sports. The athletic competition is fine, but spectators certainly are what turn a game into an event. It was a reminder that without the importance of having the result matter, a game turns into something of a pick-up contest to outsiders. The context of something larger, like a tournament or a league season, greatly adds to the drama. Besides, the public address system and fan noise add to the fun of attending any sporting contest. Remember that satisfied buzz in a crowd when a sellout is announced? It’s almost as if the fans are saying, “Yes, we were the lucky ones who got in to see this!”
From there, it was time to check in on the team’s summer activity. That mostly consisted of cornering Bandits’ general manager Steve Dietrich with a bunch of questions. Here are notes collected during my morning:
* The biggest story of the offseason came with John Tavares was named head coach, moving up from co-coach with Rich Kilgour. Dietrich expressed some sadness over what he thought had to be done.
“It’s never good to make decisions like that, and it’s never easy,” he said. “Troy (Cordingley) is one of my closest personal friends, but we knew at the time that (ending his coaching tenure last year) had to happen. That was a decision that was easier. This was a tough one. If you use the phrase ‘Bandit Royalty,’ he (Kilgour) is that. He’s a tremendous person. We just felt for this team to take the next step, JT had to be the voice. We needed to go in a different direction. I’ve been in lacrosse for more than 30 years, and it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
As part of the reshuffling, Dietrich added the responsibility of assistant coach.
“JT says about it, he’s my boss outside the rink, and I’m the boss inside the ink,” he said. “It was weird at practice yesterday. I hadn’t held a stick in my hand for a while. But I’m excited about the staff we have. I’m going to jump on their coattails.”
* The Bandits might have taken the biggest hit from the National Lacrosse League’s expansion draft, losing forwards Shawn Evans and Jordan Durston. Those are two veterans that will be tough to replace.
“Anytime you have a team that’s pretty good on paper, and you’re only allowed to protect a certain amount of guys, you’re going to lose some good people,” Dietrich said. “We did everything we could to move the dominoes around and get hurt the least as possible. Losing them is two tremendous losses.
“Add that to the loss of Ethan O’Connor and Thomas Hoggarth to knee injuries, and now Chase Fraser to a knee injury, it keeps going on. We had some depth, which we lost with losing those guys. We’ll be on the lookout for help. We brought some guys in this weekend who showed well, but you are always digging to get better.”
O’Connor and Hoggarth will miss the entire season, while Fraser will be out for a month. Ex-Bandit Vaughn Harris turned up on the field today. He was lost in the expansion draft a year ago but came in as a free agent for the start of training camp. Dallas Bridle will get a chance to win a spot on the right side for forwards.
* Speaking of expansion, the league has gone from nine to 13 teams within two seasons. That’s quite a jump in a short time and it has to be a bit of a drain on the talent pool for the NLL.
“We need the league to expand, but we need the talent pool to grow with us,” Dietrich said. “I think the big thing is that we need more Americans that want to play. The Canadian talent pool is starting to dwindle, so we need those Americans to sustain a few more teams.”
Philadelphia and San Diego were competitive last season, and they’ll be joined by Rochester and New York this year. The extra teams make it difficult to try to forecast what this season might look like.
“I thought Rochester did a tremendous job of who they brought in – a lot of Canadian talent,” Dietrich said. “You look at some of the guys New York brought in, and when you see them on film you realize they are good American players. It’s tough to gauge. I like athletes, and that’s what New York did. I think they’ll both be good.”
* This weekend also marks the team’s first look at the Class of 2019 in terms of draft choices. The top pick was Brent Noseworthy, who Dietrich said looked a little raw but is big (6-4, 220) and skilled to give him a high ceiling. Otherwise, the draft may not provide too much help right away.
“The second round pick (Nathaniel Kozevnikov) would have been a top-10 pick is he didn’t have a knee injury, so that’s why we grabbed him,” Dietrich said. “Ryder Garnsey (third rounder) was the one closest to my heart – a kid that I monitored for more than a year. He was gung-ho, but now he’s fallen off the radar. Taylor Kauffeldt (fourth round) is hurt. Tyler Halls is a young kid who is trying to make the big jump from Junior A to this level. Joe Watson (a 6-4, 300-pound goalie) showed well today (in the preseason game).”
*The second half of the game Sunday featured a “test drive” of the league’s new green-colored ball, which the NLL won’t use for at least this season. It takes a bit of an adjustment to follow it, but wasn’t too distracting from the stands.
“I’m an historian, and I’m a white ball guy,” Dietrich said. “They are trying to distinguish it as the NLL ball. A lacrosse ball is always white to me. In hockey, the puck is the puck. But they are trying.”
* The best moment of the offseason for a Bandit? Gurtler reported that Chris Cloutier was the winner of a 50-50 raffle at a Bills’ game this season. The young forward may have to pay for the first team dinner of the season on the road.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)