Before the bagpipes played and the Bandits took the field on Saturday night, a black-and-orange crowd formed in Tops Alumni Plaza in anticipation of a night eight years in the making. Temperatures in the 80s made the wintry nights of the regular season feel like a distant memory and served as a reminder of the situation at hand: The Bandits were back in the Champion’s Cup Finals.
For some in the crowd, it had begun to feel like 2008 all over again. Pick a fan at random – preferably one of the many wearing a jersey doused in signatures or a homemade game-day outfit – and there’s a pretty good chance they’d tell you they were in the building eight years ago when the Bandits beat Portland for their fourth championship, the last time they reached the NLL’s grand stage.
Take Neil Giunta, for example, a season-ticket holder who played lacrosse at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Kenmore. He’ll tell you about that game against Portland, and then he’ll shake your hand with an orange foam finger.
“It was the loudest I’ve ever heard in an arena,” he said. “It’s just passion. Love of the game. If you didn’t love it, you wouldn’t be here.”
Giunta said he’d been reminded of that feeling one week prior, when the Bandits beat the New England Black Wolves in an East Division Final game that goaltender Anthony Cosmo – a 16-year veteran – described as the most exhausting contest he’d ever seen two teams play. They battled all night, bringing the game to eight separate ties, but it was the Bandits who won in front of a rowdy home crowd.
It was that kind of energy that had first attracted Jeremy West, another season-ticket holder who describes himself as a “die-hard” fan and he certainly looks the part. West wears a black vest over a plaid orange shirt, black shorts over Bandits-colored Zubaz and a hat resembling the one on the team logo.
Unlike Giunta, West wasn’t in the building for the Bandits’ last championship. His first voyage to Banditland came on the final game of the 2008 regular season, a 14-10 win over Portland. He fell in love with the game and the atmosphere of the arena, bought season tickets with his uncle and has been coming ever since.
His absence from the 2008 championship game also means there’s a hunger for West to see one for himself, although he’s not alone in that regard.
“I could feel it last game,” he said of the playoff win over New England. “There’s a lot of hunger here. You can feel it in the stands.”
For others, that hunger dates back decades, as it does for Dan and Lynn Hofner of West Seneca. The couple has held season tickets since the Bandits’ days in the Aud and say they’ve been present for all three championships the team has won at home. Their daughter Nicole, now 27, grew up with the team and is in her second year as a season-ticket holder along with her fiancé, Dan Genzel from Boston, N.Y.
For the Hofners, watching the Bandits is a family affair. When they’re not at First Niagara Center, they’re streaming road games on their tablets or computers. They made a trek to Rochester to watch the Bandits play the Knighthawks, although they were less than impressed with the fan base of their rival – it wasn’t nearly the same, Lynn says.
They love watching the game so much, in fact, that when asked for their hopes for the best-of-3 series they teetered on the line between splitting the first two games and winning at home in Game 3 or simply sweeping Games 1 and 2 and just getting it over with. While the prospect of saved anxiety from avoiding Game 3 was a welcomed one, so was that of watching the Cup hoisted on home turf.
Well after the bagpipes sounded and the Bandits played on Saturday, their hopes were made clearer. The Bandits lost to Saskatchewan in Game 1, a potential outcome that may have been lost in the atmosphere of the crowd and the magic of the season so far. They’ll need to win on the road in Game 2 on Saturday to force a deciding Game 3 on June 11 at First Niagara Center.
With the season on the line and the team on the road, fans won’t have to watch it alone on their computers or tablets. Banditland will be recreated at a watch party at (716) Food & Sport, a common site to convene and root for the Bandits to have one more rally in them.
There will be bagpipes, and there will be plenty of black and orange. But, most importantly, there will be Bandits fans, hoping for one more chance to party like it’s 2008.
By Jourdon LaBarber for Bandits.com. Photo by Bill Wippert.