By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
When early-arriving fans reached their seats for Saturday’s open practice by the Buffalo Bandits at the KeyBank Center, they saw a lacrosse team working out.
But it wasn’t the Bandits. It was the Philadelphia Wings.
With many players coming from Ontario, it’s easier for the Wings to stage part of training camp in Buffalo than it is in Philadelphia. Therefore – trivia alert – the brand-new expansion team’s first-ever workout was held in Buffalo. At least for Vaughn Harris and Dave DiRuscio, taken off the Bandits’ roster in the expansion draft, the workout seemed like old times.
Eventually on Saturday morning, the Wings left and the Bandits took over. There must have been a certain amount of glee about stepping on the slightly revised (some new color schemes on the carpet) playing surface. After all, the labor dispute the National Lacrosse League delayed the start of the season by a few weeks. This was supposed to be the day of the home opener for Buffalo; instead it’s the start of a brief training camp.
“It was getting a little tight on time,” co-coach John Taveras said about the compressed schedule.
“Stuff happens,” added co-coach Rich Kilgour said. “It was totally out of my control. I just had to wait for the email saying we were ready to go. I’m excited about the season.”
A quick start
The Bandits will be busy leading up to the season opener. Buffalo has some practices and scrimmages scheduled. That means players still may be introducing themselves to each other when the games start counting in the standings. Play could be a little sloppy at the start of the season, but it shouldn’t be that much of a problem.
“A lot of these guys play all summer and all winter,” Kilgour said. “There are two types of defenses – high pressure or pack it in. It will take a little time to get them on the exact same page. We have four practices to get ready for that first game, but every team is in the same boat.”
The centers of attention on Saturday were Buffalo’s two biggest acquisitions. Goalie Matt Vinc was signed as a free agent. He is the reigning goaltender of the year, and is considered one of the best to ever play in that position.
“There are a lot of people in Rochester that had a big role in my career,” Vinc said about the move down the Thruway. “It was a matter of making the best decision for myself and my career and my family. I think this is the best decision, moving forward. I like what Buffalo has built here in terms of players and coaching staff.”
Vinc is from St. Catharines, Ont., and he also said that Rochester’s pending move to Halifax in the summer of 2019 was part of his decision-making process.
Meanwhile, Corey Small was acquired from Vancouver for Mitch Jones, with other draft considerations involved. That was a classic NLL deal in that outside factors led to the transaction. Small had moved back to St. Catharines, where he grew up as a Bandits fan. Jones wanted to return to Western Canada for personal reasons. It turned out to be a good fit.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to come here,” Small said. “I’m happy to get the chance to play here. Every time I play here, I realize that there’s nothing like playing here in this league – the fans, the atmosphere.”
The Bandits had about 30 players turn up for the start of camp, well below the usual number. There isn’t time to give some young players long looks under the circumstances. Free agents Mark Steenhuis and Bill O’Brien have agreed to contracts, and were in the KeyBank Center on Saturday morning.
Competition for roster spots will be fierce in these two weeks, since there’s not much time to make an impression on the coaches. The active player roster has been increased from 20 to 21, and there is a practice squad for young players, so only a handful of players will need to be cut before opening night. You can bet that the NLL’s new teams, Philadelphia and San Diego, will be watching the transactions wire closely to see if they can find players that can help them.
The other order of business on Saturday was to check in on the status of Darris Kilgour, the former player, coach and general manager of the Bandits. Darris was involved in a Sept. accident that left him with two broken tibias, a broken femur and a dislocated knee. Rich reports that his brother is making good progress.
“He’s tougher than a two-dollar steak,” Rich said. “He’s way ahead of schedule. That’s Darris. He’s a fighter.”
Opening Day for the Bandits is on Saturday afternoon, December 15. The schedule will run through the end of April as the NLL had to cram to adjust its schedule to account for the two weeks lost to the labor dispute. But the teams still will play 18 games, and everyone is ready to turn the page and get to work.
“It’s been a long summer, so I’m very excited to get back for sure,” Josh Byrne said.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)