March 11, 2011

Stevens on NLL: Kelusky Could Do Big Things for Bandits

by Neil Stevens |

Tracey Kelusky is not putting up the numbers in Buffalo that he did in Calgary, but said the Bandits' coaching staff "has been very patient in letting me find my groove."

Buffalo, in second place in the NLL East, hosts Boston at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

© Larry Palumbo

Tracey Kelusky's stats are well below his career numbers, but Buffalo Bandits fans need not fret.

The best is yet to come.

Kelusky scored nine goals in his first nine games with the Bandits, which means he'll likely fall short of the 30 he scored last year and the 31 he netted the year before while leading the Calgary Roughnecks to the National Lacrosse League championship for the second time.

Fitting into a new offense can take time.

"I've been allowed to come in and do my own thing," said the 35-year-old forward from Peterborough, Ontario. "The coaching staff has been very patient in letting me find my groove.

"I'm still not playing as good as I need to play, but I'm getting my chances and if I'm getting the chances, the ball will start falling in for me. We have a great core of guys on the offensive set, and we're just coming into our own in terms of adapting to each other's tendencies."

Buffalo, 6-3, took second place in the East away from Boston with a 9-8 road win last weekend and the Blazers, 6-4, will try to snatch it back when the teams renew acquaintances in Buffalo on Saturday (, 7:30 p.m. Eastern).

"With the parity the way it is in the league this season, we're somewhat pleased with our record," Kelusky said. "We look at the games we maybe gave away a little bit, and we think our record could be better. But with the parity in the league 6-3 isn't bad.

"We're not necessarily satisfied. We're looking at the loss column. Toronto is 9-2 and we've only lost three, so we know we can still catch Toronto, and we all know how important it is to finish first and be in a position to be at home for as many playoff games as possible."

'Winning breeds success'

Kelusky said there is no truth to the rumor that he only agreed to report to the Bandits -- after they traded their first- and third-round 2011 draft picks for him -- because playing alongside 42-year-old John Tavares would make him feel young.

All kidding aside, Kelusky was eager to join the Bandits because he'd already teamed with many of them on Peterborough Lakers teams that have won numerous Canadian championships in summer Mann Cup play. Buffalo teammates Tavares, Mark Steenhuis, Chris White, Scott Self, Kyle Clancy, Darryl Gibson and goalies Mike Thompson and Angus Goodleaf were with Kelusky and the Lakers last summer for the latest Mann Cup triumph.

"Winning breeds success," Kelusky said. "You get a taste for it and you want more.

"Once you have a bunch of guys who understand what it takes to win and have won, then they're that much hungrier to win again. We have a proven group of winners in Buffalo starting from the coaching staff right down to the youngest guys on the team, who've battled for Minto Cups with their junior teams. That's by design. [Coach] Darris Kilgour likes to surround himself with winners."

Kilgour is among the best head coaches in league history.

About the Author

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime LM contributor -- are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame. Check for more.

"He's obviously a very knowledgeable coach," Kelusky said. "He demands a lot from his players and he makes everyone accountable. It doesn't matter if you're an 11-year veteran like me, a 20-year veteran like Johnny T. or a rookie. The philosophy of our team is that you're only as good as the guy next to you, and Darris pushes that a lot. It's really fun to be a part of."

Kelusky's approach to playing lacrosse has changed since he was the 2001 pro rookie of the year.

"I'm more cognizant now of the leadership aspect, what makes other players go," he said. "'I'm trying to help out some of the other guys.

"My main focus is team first and succeeding as a group rather than succeeding as an individual. When you're younger, you care a lot about the goals and points because you want to impress. Now, I couldn't care less about getting a point as long as I'm contributing and we're winning."

Boston (9.0), Toronto (9.2) and Buffalo (9.2) are the only NLL teams that have allowed fewer than 10 goals per game, on average.

"If you look at the teams that have successful defenses, they are team defenses," Kelusky said when asked about Buffalo's strong defense corps. "With us, the guys trust one another back there.

"There are guys you've played against -- and for me one would be Jon Harasym -- in the NLL and in the Ontario league, and being Bandits teammates you get an appreciation for all the stuff he can do. Chris Corbeil is going to be a phenomenal defender for a long time. I can't say enough about the Peterborough guys, Scott Self and Chris White back there. That's four guys, but it's tough to pick out anybody because everybody is doing a fantastic job."

Buffalo's defense has remained strong despite the absence of Billy Dee Smith, who blew out a knee playing for Canada in the world field lacrosse tournament in Manchester, England, last July.

Blue-collar player for blue-collar city

Another thing that has impressed Kelusky about playing in Buffalo is the size of the crowds. More than 18,000 watched the Bandits beat Rochester.

"I've been around this league long enough to know Buffalo has been a very successful franchise for a long time," said Kelusky, whose former team, Calgary, is in danger of not being able to finish the season due to financial woes. "It's unbelievable. When you have that many people supporting you, it's like having a sixth player on the floor at times."

Having the same ownership as the NHL team in HSBC Arena is a big part of the Bandits' success story. Denver's NHL and NLL teams also have the same owner. What two NLL teams have the highest attendance? Buffalo and Colorado.

Work ethic is another key factor.

"Buffalo is a blue-collar city with hard-working people," Kelusky said. ''If they get pushed down, they get back up again. That's what we try to do as a team. That's the brand of lacrosse we play. We work hard and pride ourselves on our work ethic. Our fans appreciate that."

All the great years Kelusky enjoyed in Calgary, minus the season almost wiped out by a concussion, leaves Kelusky extremely empathetic towards the financial plight through which his former team is struggling. Owner-GM Brad Banister issued a statement Feb. 22 pleading for a substantial cash influx so the team can finish the 16-game schedule, and as of late this week nobody has stepped up to solve his problem.

"I know there's a lot of critics, people who have been hard on Mr. Banister," Kelusky said. "He's a friend of mine, and I know that he's doing everything possible to keep that franchise afloat. It's been a struggle for the last four or five years. It's a league thing as well. He was a frontrunner in collective bargaining negotiations when we were on the verge of striking. He's been instrumental in not only the Calgary Roughnecks having success, but the league having success as well. I know he's doing everything he can to ensure the Calgary Roughnecks and the NLL grow.

"I'm optimistic that the [NHL's] Calgary Flames will step up. It's a good fan base. The players have got a lot of character and there are some good leaders there. I've spoken to some of the guys and their focus is on winning games. It's tough when you're not getting a paycheck but... it would be ludicrous if nobody stepped up, because it's a market that can survive in the NLL."

How long can Kelusky survive in the NLL?

"For as long as I'm having fun and contributing," he said. "I'm not putting up the numbers I have in the past, but I feel I'm getting my chances. I'm confident I'll be able to cash in when it's needed. I definitely want to play for another two or three years."

Of more immediate concern is the Saturday showdown with the Blazers.

How big a game is this for the Bandits?

"Huge," Kelusky said. "If we don't win this one, last weekend means nothing. We've got to win at home. With our fan support, we have to win the ones we have at home. We know the importance of this game. They're going to be hungry. They know they can be better than they were the last time we met. But we can, too."

When playoffs roll around, the Bandits will be happy to have one of the NLL's all-time great leaders in their lineup. He's a qualified scorer who's been overdue for a big game.

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