Right from the very beginning of their unparalleled 25-year history in the NLL, the Buffalo Bandits have maintained a winning tradition. It began with back-to-back championships in their first two years in the League (then called the Major Indoor Lacrosse League), continued with a third in 1996 and, with key pieces still in place from those early teams, came full circle with a fourth title in 2008.
Those four teams were the subject of a “Champions Night” celebration on Feb. 6 during the Bandits’ game against the New England Black Wolves, when alumni from the four championship teams were welcomed back and honored for their success.
Three of those alumni – the architect of those early 90’s teams and the two players to experience all four championships – took the time to tell the story of how those titles were won.
Bob “Buff’ McCready, the Bandits’ first head coach, made a bold proclamation on Oct. 9, 1991, when he said that he believed the team had the talent to compete for a title in its first year of existence. Within the Bandits’ locker room, however, that was the shared sentiment.
Rich Kilgour, Transition (1992-2009): It was more or less just getting used to the League. At that point, the League was mostly American players who were a little bit more athletic and kind of shot from crazy places and we had pretty much a Canadian team that grew up playing Canadian box. The rules are just a little bit different, the play was a little different and it just took a bit for us to gel I think.
John Mouradian, General Manager (1992-1997): Before we came into the League, from what I can recall, each team could have three Canadians. As a border town, we had an opportunity to have 12. Listen, I’d love to take credit for being a genius but we had 12 Canadians. [Laughs] That was a good situation to be in. We went in having the mindset that we can win this thing.
One of those Canadian players was a 23-year-old forward named John Tavares, acquired in a trade from the Detroit Turbos in exchange for Brian Nikula. Tavares had not yet played a game in the MILL and had gone to Detroit from the Vancouver Burrards in the Western Lacrosse Association.
Tavares would go on to play for the Bandits through the 2015 season, setting NLL records for games played (306), goals (815), assists (934) and points (1,749).
Mouradian: We knew he was a very, very good ball player. J.T. was a very quiet man in his early years; he’s still a very quiet and humble man. He came highly recommended from the guys who knew him, but we did not have an idea, as it would be, that John Tavares would become “J.T.” That’s the best way to put it. Johnny Tavares became J.T. and I guess that pretty much says it all.
Tavares: Being traded to Buffalo wasn’t a big deal at the time because there was no team in Buffalo yet, the League was fairly brand new and I didn’t know a lot about it. And Buffalo was a lot more convenient geographically than Detroit was so I was thrilled to be traded.
The Bandits’ first game in 1992 came on Jan. 4, 1992 against the New York Saints at Memorial Auditorium. They lost 21-17.
Kilgour: I knew nothing about the League, really. I was more scared about playing at Memorial Auditorium and having no one show up. We get there and the butterflies are going, then they came in and told us we had to wait a half hour because there were too many people waiting to come in and buy tickets.
We were all surprised and happy about that, and then the next thing that dawned on us was that we had never played in front of a crowd that big before. Then there were butterflies again.
Their opening night loss began a 0-3 stretch for the expansion Bandits. After their early struggles, Mouradian made the decision to promote Les Bartley, a scout at the time, to head coach as Bob “Buff” McCready made the transition to assistant.
Bartley had grown up with Mouradian, attending the same elementary school and playing junior lacrosse together. Before deciding on his role as a scout, Mouradian had initially recruited Bartley to play for the Bandits.
Mouradian: I said ‘Les, if you were coaching tonight, what changes would you make? What would your lineup be?’ So he told me his thoughts and, not having any idea, I said ‘You know what Les, here’s what I would do.’ And we were bang on, except for a couple of little things. I said ‘Here’s what’s going to happen, either you’re going to be coaching the team tonight or I’m going to be coaching the team tonight.’ He went, ‘What?’
Kilgour: [Les] was really good at just being organized. He had a lot of balance but at the same time he made sure everyone knew their role and just tried to keep everybody honest. You had J.T., Darris [Kilgour], Troy Cordingley, Derek Keenan, Bob Hamley. We had some really, really good players and good leaders at the time. Jimmy Veltman was there at the very beginning. The list goes on and on.
From that point on, the Bandits clicked. Buffalo won its next five games to close out the regular season, beat Boston 22-16 in the Divisional Semifinals and beat Detroit 19-6 in the Division Finals to set up a championship match with the Wings in Philadelphia.
Buffalo trailed Philadelphia 10-9 in the fourth quarter when Keenan, the League’s Rookie of the Year, scored the game-tying goal.
Mouradian: It was really interesting because, you know, we were down – I remember this – we were down and Derek Keenan wanted the ball. He just said ‘Give me the ball.’ And he took this shot to tie it up that was just amazing, it was a long shot and he buried it.
After trading shots in the overtime period, it was Tavares who scored the game-winner for his fourth goal of the night. Tavares was familiar with Philadelphia’s goalie; they had played together the season prior in Vancouver. Taking advantage of this, he took an atypical behind-the-back shot from just beyond the crease to win the game. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Kilgour: It’s the greatest feeling in the world. The team, we knew it all along that if we showed up, had the right mind frame and played as hard as we could then good things were going to happen. Did we expect it to go on for 20-something games? You never expect that. But we just kept playing and going to work.
After winning eight straight games to conclude 1992, the Bandits couldn’t be stopped in their second season. They went 8-0 in 1993, the only undefeated season in the history of the NLL. Only two teams came within a point of beating them – Baltimore and Philadelphia.
With a championship under their belt already, fans came out in droves to watch the Bandits at the Aud.
Kilgour: It was really crazy. There had never been a championship in Buffalo, and we’re not on the level of the NFL or the NHL but I think the fans really appreciated that we were regular guys and we all had real jobs and kind of the weekend warrior-type mentality. Everyone knew – it was widely publicized –that we only made $125 a game. My first check ever from the Bandits was for $97 after taxes. They knew we were weekend warriors just like them and we kind of got lucky that lacrosse caught on in Buffalo.
Mouradian: We heard that when Boston came into town in hockey, that was the most beer that they sold in a hockey game. Our games outsold that, that’s what we heard. Was that true? I don’t know, we didn’t see the sales, but people were having a great time and it was one big party and that party spilled over.
We used to laugh because I think they made $125 a game and they spent $500 by the time they got their family and paid for everything. They’d spend their $125 in the first hour of the postgame.
Tavares: It was a lot of fun. Obviously when you’re winning everything is a lot more fun. It kind of became where we felt like, regardless of what was happening in the game, we were in any game.
The Bandits earned the top seed in the League and beat Boston in their first playoff game to set up a championship rematch with Philadelphia, this time at the Aud. Once again, the game came down to the wire – Darris Kilgour scored the game-winner with just 29.9 seconds remaining.
Tavares, who said in a pregame interview that he was unsure how much he’d be able to play due to a nagging injury to his right hamstring, was again named the Championship MVP with four goals and three assists.
Tavares: With the adrenaline of playing in a championship game, I don’t think the leg bothered me very much. The first championship was sweet but I think the next one in ’93 was even sweeter because it was at home. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a building that loud as when Darris Kilgour scored the winning goal at the Auditorium. It literally felt like the building was shaking and it was sweeter to bring it in front of your own fans.
The Bandits winning streak would continue into the 1994 season, which they began 4-0. Since going 0-3 to begin their inaugural season, the Bandits had won 22 games in a row.
Tavares: We had a great team, great players and I remember when the streak was broken against Boston at the Auditorium. It was too bad that it couldn’t go on but every good thing has to come to an end.
Mouradian: We lost against Boston; I remember that game because it ended up in a big donnybrook. [Laughs] You know, the guys didn’t like to lose.
Philadelphia would eventually get its revenge, defeating Buffalo in the championship game in 1994 and again in the first round of the playoffs in 1995. In 1996, the Bandits went 8-2 to reclaim the top seed in the League and beat Rochester in the first round to set up yet another championship rematch with the Wings.
Tavares: We beat everybody pretty bad that year. It just seemed like things were pretty easy in ’96 –1992 and ’93 seemed a lot harder than ’96; ’96 just seemed like we were stacked with players and it was the right combination of players.
Mouradian now lives in Philadelphia, across the street from former Wings General Manager Mike French.
Mouradian: I think what’s really interesting about what happened back then is the fact that Mike French was a very dear friend of mine from Niagara on the Lake. We grew up playing lacrosse, played on the national team together and became good friends. When he graduated from Cornell, he moved to Philly and played for the Wings and then was the GM of the Wings.
I couldn’t sit with Mike French in the press box. We almost went at it a couple times. I had to sit at the other end of the press box because when I’d sit beside him it wasn’t a fun scene. [Laughs] They won two in a row in ’90 and ’91. We won in ’92 and broke their three-peat. Then they beat us in ’94 and broke our three-peat. It was a big rivalry, big rivalry.
Kilgour: There were wars, literally wars with them. I mean it was mean spirited and we had another shot at them after they eliminated us for two years. It was pretty sweet to beat them right there and I’m pretty sure that was the last game in the old Aud. That was the greatest arena ever to play in. I love how nice the new arena is but that old arena just had character. It felt like the fans were right on top of you.
Buffalo lost to Rochester in the championship game in 1997 and in the first round to Philadelphia the following season before missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 1999.
Kilgour: Then we kind of had a downward spiral there for five or six years. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Like I said, it’s so hard to explain when a team’s on that roll and has that confidence and it’s really hard to explain when you don’t have that confidence and it seems like every things going wrong.
The Bandits eventually made it back in to the championship game in 2004 but lost to Calgary, then lost again as the top seed to Colorado in 2006. Finally, they earned the top seed again in 2008 and hosted the championship one more time – this time defeating Portland 14-13.
Rich Kilgour was the captain of the 2008 team, Tavares remained one of its top offensive players and Darris Kilgour was now behind the bench as the team’s head coach.
Kilgour: It was a 12-year wait, it was rough. We got through it at home in front of a full house at First Niagara Center, I think it was called HSBC Arena at the time but whatever it was it was great. It was a tight game and a good game and it was just nice to get back on top of the mountain again.
Tavares: Since I retired, it seems harder to believe when you’re out of it that we did play for so long and were there for all the championships. That’s a very special feat to accomplish for any player let alone two players. Rich was a great captain, great player, great leader. I became a captain after that and I’m definitely a different type of leader; Rich is really good in the room, definitely a better leader than I am overall. I’m more of a leader on the floor. Rich was a leader on the floor and in the room.
Kilgour: It started in ’92; I thought ‘Oh, this would be something fun to do for a couple of years.’ I ended up playing until 2009. To have Johnny there and Darris actually coaching the thing – Darris my actual brother and Johnny who I had played with for 18 years at that point – especially for me and Johnny to go through the hard times too. Darris didn’t abandon us but he went up to coach Washington for a little bit. When he came back, that was kind of the turning point.
Rich Kilgour and Tavares are now assistant coaches for the Bandits, while another member of the early championship teams – Cordingley – serves as head coach. Mark Steenhuis, who was named Transition Player of the Year in 2008, and Billy Dee Smith remain holdovers from the final championship team.
Dhane Smith, current Bandits forward: It definitely increases the hunger. Having those veteran guys, I know we have kind of a younger team, but having those veteran references. They tell us all about it. Having John Tavares on the bench, Rich Kilgour, Troy Cordingley … It’s been unbelievable learning from those guys, knowing they’ve won so many championships and it’s kind of cool how they kept those guys around for this long. Hopefully it’s a trend going forward.
Mouradian, Kilgour and Tavares were just three of the several Bandits alumni to return for Champions Night on Feb. 6 at First Niagara Center, a celebration of the organization’s for championship teams.
Mouradian: It’s teary-eyed memories. It’s teary-eyed memories because we’ve lost some guys, we’ve lost Buff, we’ve lost Les. I know we’re going to be raising a glass to our friends, that’s for sure. You think of all the guys that went to battle for you. They went to battle for you day in and day out. The guys drove through storms up in Canada to get to Buffalo to practice. Guys sacrificed a lot, their families sacrificed a lot. You think of all those things, you think of the bonding we did with the Kilgour family and the native families who were huge supporters and still are.
Kilgour: It’s the best because every year you’re retired your playing career was a little bit better. There are going to be some guys I haven’t seen in a while but back then we were just young, dumb kids playing this game and no one knew what it was ever going to lead to or if the League was still even going to be here at this point. To be part of championship teams is something special. I played lacrosse a lot of years, won some championships here and there but you really have a special bond with those guys. You have a special bond with everyone but when you win that last game of the year, those guys even have a little more of a bond.
By Jourdon LaBarber for Bandits.com. Photo by Bill Wippert.