By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Welcome to Rochester, home of one of the oddest situations in professional sports these days.
The Knighthawks hosted the Buffalo Bandits on Saturday night at the Blue Cross Arena, and I jumped at the chance to attend the game as a spectator and not have to worry about writing an instant report. In other words, my laptop stayed home. I was more interested in taking a first-hand look at the Knighthawks’ situation.
Refresher course: This is season 25 for the Knighthawks, and you’d have to say as a team that it has been one of the most successful franchises in the National Lacrosse League. Rochester has won five championships in its first 24 years, coming in 1997, 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2014. It lost in the finals five more times including last season.
But it’s fair to say that performance at the box office has not matched the performance on the field. The Knighthawks have never averaged 10,000 fans per game in the regular season (statistics go back to 2005). The high point was 9,902 in 2008, the year after a title. The bottom was three years later at 5,331. The team never attracted more than 8,000 per game in the three years it won back-to-back-to-back titles.
In the past two seasons, the Knighthawks averaged 6,755 and 6,760 respectively during the regular season. Owner Curt Styres has paid for some good teams during 10+ years on the job, but the franchise has been in the bottom half of the league in attendance during that decade. He couldn’t be faulted, then, for moving the franchise to Halifax at the end of 2019. That was announced back in September.
But at the same time, the NLL announced that an expansion team would replace Styres’ team in Rochester. The new owners – Pegula Sports and Entertainment – are the owners of the Bandits, Bills, Sabres, and – relevant to the story – the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League. Yes, it’s a little odd to have one owner for two lacrosse teams in the same league, but it might have been a hard sell to find another owner in Rochester.
While the Pegulas plan to fix up Blue Cross Arena a bit this summer, certainly they wouldn’t mind seeing a new arena built to house their teams. When you walk into the building, you can figure out why. It opened for business in October, 1955, thanks to a construction crew that included legendary wrestler “Gorilla Monsoon.” The then “Rochester Community War Memorial” hosted the NBA’s Rochester Royals for two seasons, which means that legendary stars like Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes played there back in the day. You can’t go to many places that hosted pro basketball in that era, but you can get the idea what it was like by visiting Rochester’s arena. The place got a facelift in 1998, taking out the stage and adding some seats and concession stands, but it’s still not exactly modern.
The Knighthawks are back for one final season in 2018-19. The “lame-duck” status this season comes with a few moments that have to be a little awkward.
For example, the team is retiring the uniform number of John Grant Jr. next week. He’s one of the biggest stars in league history, right up there with John Tavares and Paul and Gary Gait in career scoring totals. When his jersey reaches the rafters, it will be staying there and not going to Nova Scotia. In other words, No. 24 will not be worn by any Rochester player in succeeding seasons, even though his franchise connection is to the one in Halifax.
Meanwhile, we still don’t seem to know what the Halifax Name-Coming-Soon will be packing for the move. Will the team in Rochester still be named the Knighthawks? Will the franchise’s records carry over to Halifax, or will they stay in Rochester? This second point may only matter if you enjoy the statistical side of sports, but it still needs to be determined. Along those lines, would you buy a souvenir shirt or jersey this season in the hopes that it will either be a collectors’ item or still relevant in a year, or would you wait until 2020?
And what if you worked for the Knighthawks? Some employees might want to move to Halifax, while others would prefer to stay in Rochester. The fact that two different countries are involved in such decisions complicate matters even more. But, depending on the person and job, it might not be their choice. That all makes long-range planning – personally and commercially – difficult. Like I said, it’s awkward.
In the meantime, we can only hope that the rivalry between the Bandits and Knighthawks won’t cool down once the two teams have the same owners. The fans in both cities enjoy watching wins over the visiting team when they get the chance. Saturday’s contest even required security guards to restore order when conversations about the game became a little, um, spirited.
I’d miss a Rochester franchise if it left the league, so I’m glad it is getting a second chance next year. This new one had better work, though, because a third chance seems unlikely.
As for the game …
On Saturday, a friend and I happened to sit behind six of the Buffalo Bandettes, the team’s cheerleading/dance squad, who made the drive from the Buffalo area. I can report that they are a friendly group who maintained their enthusiasm for the Bandits throughout the game.
That wasn’t easy on a night where Buffalo struggled almost from the opening faceoff. Austin Shanks scored two goals for the Knighthawks within the first five minutes, and the Bandits only had one lead (6-5 in the second quarter). Rochester scored five straight goals to break the game open, and went on to an 18-13 win.
The odd part was that Buffalo had done such a great job on the Knighthawks’ offense in the first meeting, allowing only four goals. Shanks almost doubled that total personally, scoring seven times and adding an assist. Neither Matt Vinc nor Zack Higgins could stop the assault; the result spoiled Vinc’s homecoming in Rochester after playing a key role in three championship teams. It was a chippy game with a total of 68 penalty minutes; perhaps the Bandits didn’t adjust well to that style of play.
In any event, Buffalo continued a difficult road trip with an overnight drive to New England, where it will play the Black Wolves at 6 p.m. on Sunday night. The Bandits will be home on Saturday to play Colorado.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)