Shawn Williams was traded by Edmonton to Minnesota, then Minnesota to Buffalo. Photo Credit: Dale MacMillan
After posting their first losing record in over a decade, it was no surprise that the offseason was full of changes for the Buffalo Bandits. When training camp opened in early December at First Niagara Center, a slew of new faces could be seen around "Banditland." But for three new acquisitions, general manager Steve Dietrich, veteran forward Shawn Williams and rookie transition Dhane Smith, the surroundings were actually quite familiar.
Dietrich, the sole NLL Hall of Fame Class of 2012 inductee, spent six years (2002-2007) as the starting goaltender for the Bandits before ultimately retiring as a player in 2010.
“It’s good to be home,” Dietrich said. “I’ve been thinking about this job since probably before I played here.”
Taking over after Buffalo's first losing season since 1999, the man known as "Chugger" was well aware that his new role as Bandits GM would involve making some major changes.
“When we sat down as both the management team and the staff, we knew that we wanted to get rid of some guys,” Dietrich said. “Not just send a message but bring in some new, younger, reinvigorated guys to almost bring the passion back here.”
Playing for six seasons with the full force of Banditland behind him, Dietrich knows what it means to suit up for the Bandits and just how disappointed fans were with last season’s performance.
“From a player that loved playing here and was heartbroken when I left, the last couple years, I don’t think the passion was here," he said. "We set forth trying to keep the glue guys and also bring in some new guys that are just going to be amazed at playing in front of 18,000 people and realize what an honor it is to put on this jersey every week. Hopefully that will reinvigorate the guys that are still here to bring that passion back in them.”
After hanging up his goal stick for good, the 42-year-old spent the last two seasons as the goaltending coach for the Toronto Rock. Working on the coaching staff of Buffalo's divisional rival gave Dietrich an interesting and useful viewpoint heading into his new role with the Bandits.
“I think we needed to get younger and I think we needed to get quicker, especially out the back end," he said. "I think we’ve done that. Those are some of the areas that Toronto tried to take advantage of – press the ball and press the issue. Now we have a lot of youth and a lot of speed coming out our back end so if teams want to press us and push the play, go right ahead. You’re just going right into the way we want to play now.”
Unlike Dietrich, Shawn Williams' stint with the Bandits was much briefer and came far earlier in his career, as "Willy" played just two seasons with the Bandits from 2000-2001. Despite his short tenure, Buffalo held a strong place in Williams’ heart.
“It’s awesome walking in this building," Williams said. "Great memories. [Buffalo] is always a great place to play and it’s great to see [former teammates John Tavares, Darris Kilgour and Dietrich].”
After leaving Buffalo, the right-handed forward spent 10 years with the Bandits’ rival to the east, the Rochester Knighthawks, where Williams led the team to the playoffs eight times with a Champion's Cup win in 2007.
The 38-year-old played with the Edmonton Rush last season and helped his team make an unexpected run to the NLL title game before losing to his former squad in Rochester.
“Last year, going into Edmonton, there was a big turnover," Williams said. "Unfortunately it takes some time to come together. It’s not that easy. You like to say you should be able to do it, but sometimes you can’t. It obviously clicked for us at the right time [playoffs].”
Recognizing that Buffalo has had a similar roster turnover, Williams is hopeful that the 2013 Bandits can find their groove easier than the Rush did last year.
“The good thing about the East is that we all live closer and we get to practice during the week," he said. "We’re together more and I think that’s definitely an added bonus and a luxury we have."
With the departure of some key leaders like former captain and defenseman Chris White, Williams was asked whether he expects to fill some of that leadership void in the Bandits locker room.
“I just do what I do," he said. "I’ve always been told ‘let your play speak for itself’ and everything else takes care of itself. I don’t plan on changing that at all.”
Williams and Dietrich aren’t the only new members of the Bandits organization with previous ties to the club.
Dhane Smith, Buffalo’s first-round draft pick (5th overall) in the 2012 NLL Entry Draft, is a younger cousin of longtime Bandits defender Billy Dee Smith. The rookie was all smiles during his interview with the media.
“I’m really excited," Smith said. "I know the fans here are crazy and I love it."
As one could imagine, having a cousin on the team afforded Smith some special access over the years.
“I remember my first year of junior, I actually went in the dressing room and got autographs from all the guys," he said. "Now I’m playing with them. It’s kind of weird.”
Each of the three newcomers experienced a different type of homecoming, but you won't find anyone happier to be back in Buffalo than Steve Dietrich.
“This is something that I’ve wanted to do, this is the place I’ve always dreamed of doing it,” he said with a smile. “It’s a dream come true."