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JOHN TAVARES AND DHANE SMITH BASK IN BANDITS CHAMPIONSHIP GLORY

June 3, 2023, will forever be remembered as a night of wonder for sports fans of Western New York, particularly those fine folks who consider themselves proud inhabitants of a place called Banditland. This is, of course, the Saturday evening that witnessed the Buffalo Bandits capture their first NLL championship since 2008, after defeating the Colorado Mammoth 13-4, in a victory that head coach John Tavares deemed “the best game we played all year.”

As the Bandits’ organization basks in the glory of the club’s long sought-after return to the NLL mountaintop, NLL.com checked in with the aforementioned Tavares, along with superstar forward Dhane Smith, to ascertain what life is now like as the reigning champs.

In the wake of Buffalo coming up short in the previous two NLL Finals, the first thought that came to mind for both men was that of relief.

“After being to the championship a couple times, and not succeeding, it’s hard not to be relieved as a player or coach,” explained Tavares.

With Smith proclaiming, “it feels like a weight off my shoulder. It feels like everything I worked so hard for finally came to life. All those personal goals were awesome, but the real goal was always to win a championship. Now that I’ve done that, I feel so much more confident, and so much more comfortable, and now I’m ready to do it again.”

Both the legendary player turned coach and the man many consider to be the best current-day player were also in complete sync when it came to their final round rematch with the Colorado Mammoth, the team the Bandits were forced to watch raise the NLL Cup, a mere one-year earlier, on Buffalo’s home field.

“Colorado just seemed to have our number the last three or four years, especially during the regular season when they came to Buffalo and beat us by five goals,” recalled Tavares. “I remember wondering ‘what’s wrong with us? We can’t beat these guys!’ They’re just one of those teams that match up well against us and have our number.”

The 54-year-old lacrosse icon added, “damn, we get to play these guys again, they are tough to beat. But in the same breadth it was like, hey, we get a second crack at that. That served as some extra motivation to win the championship.”

Smith, the 2016 and 2022 NLL MVP expressed a very similar outlook.

“We’ve questioned ourselves so many times regarding why they are better than us and why we can’t get over the hump. All those questions came to mind, especially early in the season when we played those guys. But, to overcome that, especially in front of our home crowd, we owed the fans that. We wanted redemption.”

Virtually every championship-winning coach or player wholeheartedly believes that one of the most memorable aspects of being crowned number one involves the public celebrations that occur in the days after victory has been sealed. This scenario was no different for Tavares, Smith and the Bandits, when it was time for Banditland to showcase their appreciation for what the team had accomplished.

On June 15, an estimated 4,000 fans turned out for a celebration at Alumni Plaza, which sits on the grounds of KeyBank Centre, the club’s downtown Buffalo arena. After many members of the team spoke to and rejoiced with the throng of Bandits followers, the team was paraded 0.4 miles north on Washington Street, with the journey concluding at Sahlen Field, home of the Triple-A Buffalo Bison, where the Bandits were honored throughout the course of that evening’s Bison versus Syracuse Mets baseball game.

As one would imagine, both Tavares and Smith were in awe of the entire experience. Further proof of the love affair that exists between the Bandits organization and the franchise’s adoring fan-base.

“I wasn’t surprised; we have the best fans,” opined Tavares, a four-time NLL champion as a player. “They’re all dressed in orange and chanting. It was so rewarding, particularly when considering some of the tragedies that have occurred during the last couple years in Buffalo. It was nice to give back. Sports is an outlet, and when you’re winning, it brings joy to people.”

Smith, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Bisons game, considered the experience truly lifechanging.

“It was chills,” he said. “You always dream of that moment. To watch 4,000 people show up, it’s something I’ll always remember for the rest of my life. They’re thanking me like I saved the world. It’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of. The fans deserve it as much as we do.”

“The Great Dhane” described the last two months as a “total blur,” as he has stayed extremely busy, proposing to now fiancé Kara Daly in Greece, representing Team Canada at the World Lacrosse Championships in San Diego, and playing with the PLL’s Chaos, all the while working out regularly with the other Bandits players who call the Buffalo area home year-round.

Tavares’ summer has continued to revolve around coaching the game he loves, with the hall of famer serving as bench boss for Major Series Lacrosse’s Six Nations Chiefs, who are chasing a Mann Cup Canadian championship.

“There is no time off in lacrosse. We do 12 months a year,” illuminated Tavares.

While the lives of both coach and player have been quite hectic, it is abundantly clear how proud the pair is of their triumph and how determined they are to do it all over again next season. With this in mind, come training camp, Tavares has one overarching message for his team.

“Last year is over with. We enjoyed it. It’s a great feeling, but we can try to do this all over again, or we can let it go by the wayside.”

NLL