February 9, 2011

Bandits Find Formula for Success at Gate

by Neil Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

With relatively local stars like Mark Steenhuis playing in Buffalo, the Bandits routinely top 10,000 fans at HSBC Arena -- including 9,500 season ticket holders.

The Buffalo Bandits continue to be a major National Lacrosse League success story at the HSBC Arena gate.

Attendance for a 15-12 win over Minnesota was 15,001 last Friday. That followed a home opener throng of 16,685 on Jan. 22.

There are 9,500 Bandits season ticket holders. The game-night presentation includes a dancing squad of cheerleaders, giveaways, contests and the encouraging voice of Chris Swenson, who always seems to know when to urge the crowd to higher decibel levels.

"He's the best there is at the in-game public address announcements," said Scott Loffler, the Bandits' director of lacrosse operations. ''The fans love him. He knows what he's doing."

Swenson has been hired by the NLL to do the all-star game Sunday Feb. 27.

Winning the Champion's Cup at HSBC in 2008 solidified attendance.

"That definitely helped us going forward," Loffler said. "A lot of people who hadn't been to a game and came to see that championship game fell in love with the sport."

Proximity to southern Ontario, where box lacrosse is more popular than it is in most parts of the United States, helps keep attendance high. At least 25 percent of season ticket holders are Canadians. Some of the Bandits' star players, namely Mark Steenhuis and the currently injured Billy Dee Smith, are from nearby St. Catharines. Being within driving distance of First Nations communities also is a factor, since the Bandits always have First Nations players in their lineup.

Add it all up, and it is a recipe for success other cities wish they could replicate.

"We put a good product on the floor," Loffler said. "We've been successful over the last 10 or 12 years and that helps."

Tavares at 699

Buffalo star John Tavares needs only one more goal for 700 in his career, and if he gets it in Philadelphia on Saturday night, the Bandits will make a pre-game presentation to him Feb. 19 when they are at home to play the Wings.

Tavares has 699 goals and 791 assists for 1,490 points in 241 regular season games in his 20 years as a pro -- all with the Bandits. Gary Gait is second all-time in goals with 635 and in points with 1,165.

Gait goes quietly

Gary Gait said he has ended his playing career, but he has said this before and returned to play. Maybe that's why not a lot was made of his latest retirement announcement.

If he's indeed done, the record will show that he scored his last NLL goal at 2:30 of the third quarter against Nick Patterson of the Minnesota Swarm on Jan. 8 in St. Paul. He picked up his last point, an assist, on Jan. 29 in his only other appearance this year.

Besides his scoring exploits, Gait was an NLL head coach for one season, and he steered to the Colorado Mammoth to the 2006 championship. Later that year, he pulled on his field lacrosse gear to help Canada win its first world title in 28 years, and he was one of five charter members to the NLL Hall of Fame.

He's 43 now, coaches the Syracuse University women's team, and will be an assistant to head coach Regy Thorpe with the pro field team moving from Toronto to become the Hamilton Nationals.

Jordan Hall makes big splash

Jordan Hall, the new Knighthawks forward, made quite a splash in his debut in Rochester the other day. Hall scored three goals and was a constant threat. The former No. 1 entry draft pick, selected by Rochester in the dispersal draft of Orlando Titans players, gives the 'Hawks a new and much-needed dimension. He'd been used by the Titans as a transition player.

"I'm happy to be going out the front door," Hall said. "I will play wherever the coaches tell me to, but my role with this team will most likely be offense first, especially after the way our defense and Vino played last game.

"Playing after such a long time off, I aim to cut hard and set picks until I get my spacing and timing back. Luckily, my teammates have no problem sharing and found me in the middle."

Vino, of course, would be former Titans teammate Matt Vinc, the 'Hawks' new first-string netminder.

"Vino always gives his team a chance to win," Hall said. "I witnessed him turn an expansion team into a contender. He prepares a week in advance and studies shooters constantly. He has made my transition to the Knighthawks easier. I already trust him so I know not to worry about the D end and can focus on playing offense."

Keeping the faith in Colorado

Hey, Mammoth fans, there is an upside to your team's 11-game home losing streak: it has to end soon.

General manager Steve Govett admits to being extremely frustrated, but rather than moping, all his energy is going into figuring a way out of it.

"We're attempting to work through scenarios to get back on the winning track," Govett said. "We'll be patient.

"We think we have a talented roster not far away from tremendous success. We're going to stick with the plan and address the issues that present themselves. We're not losing faith or sight of where we're at."

Attendance in Denver remains strong. There were 14,091 at the latest home game.

"We've got great fans," Govett said. "They've stuck with us. Every time I'm out in the community, they say, 'We're with you,' or 'We like the team.' They're the ones we do this for every week. It's a great sports community."

A lot of one- or two-goal losses have gone into the unwanted streak, so it's not as if the paying customers are being served up hamburger. They're still getting steak.

"The games are entertaining," Govett said. "We're giving our fans some things to cheer about. We've had some letdowns, but for the most part, we're very competitive and just a couple of goals away from being 4-1 or 3-2. We just have to continue to keep the faith and stick with it. Our fans appreciate our efforts."

Powell tied with Bergey

Boston Blazers forward Casey Powell has tied former Philadelphia Wings star Jake Bergey for the all-time lead in goals scored by Americans when regular season and playoff totals are combined. Each has 269.

Bergey still leads the regular-season tally with 256 to Powell's 243.

In regular-season points, former Wing Kevin Finneran is first with 564, Powell is second with 558 and Bergey third with 557.

Calgary has No. 1 offense

The Calgary Roughnecks are first in the West Division with the No. 1 offense in the NLL, and nobody would have guessed as much after they traded away offensive stars Josh Sanderson and Tracey Kelusky in slashing payroll heading into 2011.

Through six games, the Roughnecks are averaging a league-best 11.8 goals a game. Scott Ranger has 17 goals to rank behind only Boston's Casey Powell, who leads with 23.

Goals scored, average per game: 1. Calgary, 11.8; 2. Minnesota, 11.6 average; 3. (tie) Washington and Toronto, 11.5; 5. Boston, 10.6; 6. Buffalo, 10.4; 7. Rochester, 9.8; 8. Colorado, 9.4; 9. Edmonton, 8.8; 10. Philadelphia, 8.6.

Boston has No. 1 defense

After all the hype about Boston bringing in Casey Powell, Josh Sanderson and Kevin Buchanan to boost the offense, it's the defense that is No. 1 in the league -- and that despite losing John Orsen to a serious ankle injury.

Goals allowed, average per game: 1. Boston, 9.1; 2. Philadelphia, 9.3; 3. Toronto, 9.8; 4. Buffalo, 10.0; 5. Colorado, 10.2; 6. Minnesota, 10.4; 7. Rochester, 10.8; 8. Calgary, 11.5; 9. Edmonton, 11.8; 10. Washington, 12.0.

Montour on the mend

Former No. 1 Buffalo goalie Ken Montour has been cleared of any concussion issues, said Scott Loffler, the Bandits' director of lacrosse operations. Montour has yet to see the floor this year, but Loffler indicated he'll be available before the end of the 16-game regular season.

"The issue now is his neck and upper back," Loffler said. "It's possible he could be back this season. We're comfortable with the goalies we have, Mike Thompson and Angus Goodleaf, and when Ken is ready to come back, we'll have a difficult decision to make."

Hearing that Montour is recovering rather than regressing is reason for relief. Too many players have been sidelined by concussions. Merrick Thomson of the Philadelphia Wings missed all of last season and has yet to resurface.

Neil Stevens has covered professional and Canadian summer lacrosse since 1971 for various media outlets, including the Canadian Press. He retired from the CP in 2008. That year, Stevens joined the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- as the only media members recognized by the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame. He played from age 5 to 23, including three years in the junior ranks and one year (1969) as a professional in St. Catherines, Ontario.

Check laxmagazine.com/nll throughout the season for more from Stevens and coverage of the NLL.

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