By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Bandits were taking part in a midweek practice in Ontario in March when goalie coach Anthony Cosmo delivered some stunning news. Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz had been diagnosed with the Covid-19 virus.
At that moment, general manager Steve Dietrich of the Bandits had a strong hunch that his life was about to change drastically.
Sure enough, the National Lacrosse League halted its schedule a few days later, and on April 8 it cancelled the rest of its regular season. There’s no word on when a decision might be made concerning the playoffs. Buffalo would qualify for the postseason if the same eight-team format that was originally planned is used if/when play resumes.
But that’s only one of a number of unanswered questions as the NLL season remains on an indefinite pause. Every sport has a yearly rhythm to its schedule, but the pandemic has smashed that rhythm to tiny pieces.
Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich took time out of his less-than-normally-busy schedule to answer questions about the team and the league:
Buffalo Sports Page: What’s it like to be a general manager of a sports team when there are no games on the schedule?
Steve Dietrich: There’s no doubt that every day I’m thinking that “we should have been here” or “should have been there.” It makes things difficult. We’ve stayed in touch. The staff meets every Friday night on a Zoom call, just to go everything. Scott (Loffler, the team’s director of operations) tries to fill us in if he knows anything. We’ve been all doing scouting reports on every team. There is a lot of behind-the scenes stuff that we’ve been doing. But there’s nothing that would rate with having a playoff game or a regular season game.
BSP: Are you staying in touch with the players?
Dietrich: Each guy on the staff is reaching out to a group of players. More importantly, they check to see if they are OK, if they are in a good mental space. Are they fine? Is the family fine? Lacrosse is so down the list of things we’re worried about with our players. Conditioning is something we talk about on the off chance that we can finish this thing. We had a Zoom call with the defense last weekend. We had a Zoom call with the offense before that. The staff has done a good job keeping in touch with the players. I talk to a lot of the leaders, and they do a lot of things together on a group message. It’s been good. It’s been better than I thought it would be.
BSP: Have you heard much from the league on what might be ahead? Obviously it’s hard to predict what might happen under the circumstances.
Dietrich: The one thing I take solace in is that they are trying. They haven’t thrown in the towel yet. They are just like the NBA, NHL and major league baseball. Everybody is so worried about the health of everyone, first and foremost. The last thing on everyone’s mind is, when are we going to be able to play lacrosse? I do know they are still hoping, and that gives me hope. I hope at some point we can get this going again.
BSP: The playoffs will take a month or so. Could you wait until September or October and pick it up then, or are we starting to get closer to the point where it might be better or even necessary to start over? I know that’s a complicated part of that.
Dietrich: It’s incredibly complicated. I’m a big hockey fan. I listen to those guys, and they are talking about playing in late summer and starting the next season a little bit late. I don’t know what we can do. I know with the summer leagues up here (in Canada), I don’t think anything is going to happen there. That probably buys us a couple of extra months. When it comes down to it, I don’t know the ramifications with the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) concerning it. We have days where we have franchise player designations, and days when we have to qualify free agents. Then we are supposed to have a draft in September. The league has to work with the PLPA (players association) to go over those things if we go to August or September. That’s obviously the time when you are looking at next year and dealing with free agents.
I’m a lacrosse lifer, and I obviously think we have as good a chance as anyone to win this thing. I hope that at some point we can finish it. If we get a little later, it gets into stuff that’s way above my pay grade.
BSP: You’ve lost the NCAA lacrosse season in the spring, and soon you’ll lose the summer leagues in Canada. The draft, I guess, is going to be really odd because you haven’t seen some of them play in a year.
Dietrich: That’s the big thing. We do a pretty good, in-depth job of scouting. When we go out in the summer, we don’t only watch the players eligible to be drafted. We’ll take notes on kids a year or two in advance. We may be a step or two ahead of some teams. The wrench is the NCAA. If they give an extra year of eligibility, our hands are tied about whether someone will accept it and not turn pro for another year. The Canadian kids who are not at NCAA schools – you can figure out what they’ll do pretty easily. But that option for the extra year will make it tough.
BSP: Teams such as yours made some trades before the deadline to improve the chances of winning now. The Bandits acquired Dan Lintner and Frank Brown from Rochester for an injured Thomas Hoggarth and Dallas Bridle along with two draft choices. What do you think when you look back at that now?
Dietrich: It’s crazy. I laugh a little about it when I think back. We really liked what we got. We think Dan and Frank are going to fit in here long term. But you’re right – we forced that quickly because of Chase Fraser’s injury. We were really low on the right side. But if I had to do it all over again, I probably would. I think those guys will be key pieces for us moving forward. It would have been nice to know we’d only get two or three games out of those guys. You can’t live in the past.
BSP: Some of the leagues have talked about playing without fans in the short term. I thought back to the scrimmage you had against Colorado in the KeyBank Center in November, when there was nobody in the building. It was an NLL game, with a scoreboard and officials and all that, but obviously the atmosphere was different. It was almost a preview of what sports events might be like when they resume.
Dietrich: It’s especially different in Buffalo. Playing in Buffalo – there’s nothing like it. It’s second to none when it comes to playing lacrosse in our league. However, some of us have grown up in the game. When we got to junior or major in the summertime, the buildings are pretty empty. So we’re used to doing it – but not in the National Lacrosse League. It definitely would be different. You’d hear a lot more talking on the floor. The players would have to be a lot more careful about what they say. It won’t be something we want to do. The fans are so important to what the league is all about. But we’re in strange territory, and if we want to finish this thing it’s something we’re going to have to look at.
BSP: And unless a vaccine comes along, it’s going to be tough to finish the season even without fans. If one guy gets sick, you might be looking at shutting things down again.
Dietrich: I probably have watched more CNN in the last five weeks than I’ve seen in the 49 years of my life. I keep hoping that a vaccine is close or that a drug is working. I have my fingers crossed. I watch not just for sports, but I hope that the world can get back to normal. But you definitely hope the drugs are not too far away.
This is something we’ve never faced, and I hope for everyone’s sake that we never have to face it again.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)