The Ironmen Voices of the National Lacrosse League
April 20, 2023By: Peter Schwartz
When you talk about longevity in sports, it’s not just about the players, coaches or the front office. There is also something to be said about a broadcaster who can stick around for a long time and represent the brand of their team.
In the case of the National Lacrosse League, there are two men who have set a standard for longevity… Craig Rybczynski of the Rochester Knighthawks and John Gurtler of the Buffalo Bandits. Two of, if not the longest, longest-tenured play-by-play voices in the NLL.
This Saturday night, Rybczynski, in his 23rd season with the Knighthawks and 21st as a broadcaster, will extend his NLL broadcast record to 382 games when the Knighthawks host the Georgia Swarm (7 p.m. ET ESPN+/TSN+).
“I’ve been very blessed to get to that point,” said Rybczynski who called his first game in 2002 and almost saw the streak end on two occasions.
“I’ve had the birth of my second child… I think it was the day before a home game. I had COVID and had to do a game with a mask. I think it’s just trying to stay healthy, taking care of yourself and just being very lucky that nothing has come along to derail that.”
Gurtler’s run with the Bandits is nothing to sneeze at.
This is Gurtler’s 19th season in Banditland and this Saturday he’ll reach a milestone calling his 350th straight game when the Bandits host the Toronto Rock (8 p.m. ET ESPNU/TSN+).
When he started as the voice of the Bandits in 2004, he never dreamed this gig would still be going.
“Not a bit, no,” said Gurtler. “But it’s gone so quickly that as part of the extended seasons we’ve had, it’s been a great honor to continue to do the play-by-play for the Bandits. You kind of lose track of time.”
Time doesn’t stand still but it certainly can punch you square in the face or it can also put you in a joyful and reflective mood.
Rybczynski, the 2020 Tom Borrelli Award winner for Media Person of the Year, has certainly seen a lot over his more than two decades with the Knighthawks.
“I think it’s been great,” said the man affectionately known as “Ripper.” “It’s been so much fun. It’s great to see guys like (current Knighthawks Head Coach) Mike Hasen go from a player to a coach.”
When Hasen was a player, his son Austin was always around the team and now he’s a Knighthawk playing for his father.
“I’ve known (Austin) since he was a little boy running around the turf and in the locker room,” said Rybczynski. “It kind of ages you a little bit. I’m very lucky to have found my home in Rochester.”
The landscape of broadcasting in the National Lacrosse League, formerly the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, has certainly changed over the years. From ESPN in the 1990’s with the likes of Leif Elsmo, to the epic 2000 Championship Game with Joe Bowen and Brian Shanahan on the call, to YouTube, NLLTV, B/R Live and now back to TSN and ESPN. As the sport has evolved and grown, so has the way the games are presented to the fans listening and watching at home.
Today, every NLL game is streamed on ESPN+ in the United States and TSN+ in Canada with many games also available on linear television. That was not the case back in the day.
“I did primary radio back in the beginning,” said Gurtler who has also broadcast for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
“There was still some archaic coverage with the league testing whatever they could do from a game transmission side. Back then, they were taking the actual arena feed and then transmitting it to whatever carrier was available like YouTube or some of the other sports carriers that would carry the NLL games.”
On and off the field, the sport of box lacrosse, specifically as it pertains to the National Lacrosse League, has grown by leaps and bounds. From the way the game is taught, coached and played to the markets that the league is in throughout North America, the NLL has enjoyed a substantial growth process over the last couple of decades.
Today, the NLL is in 15 markets throughout the United States and Canada with network television deals in both countries.
“It’s just crazy how things have evolved and the markets that we’re in now,” said Rybczynski. “We’re playing lacrosse in Las Vegas which I thought would never happen.”
On the field, the sport has changed dramatically to the point where the broadcasters have to continuously lean on the coaches and players for guidance.
“The game is superior to what it was,” said Gurtler who also learns a lot from his color commentator Randy Mearns, the Men’s Head Lacrosse Coach at St. Bonaventure.
“It’s just the athleticism of the game has changed and the implementation of systems. The game itself is very sophisticated these days. I do need the help of (Bandits Head Coach John) Tavares and (General Manager and Assistant Coach Steve) Dietrich on a regular basis to explain some of the systems that are being employed not only on offense but on defense.”
While Rybczynski and Gurtler are the voices of rival teams, they are very much friends and also like family. They developed their professional relationship two decades ago, but now they are, in a way, joined at the hip because the Knighthawks and Bandits are both owned by Pegula Sports and Entertainment.
You could call it a mutual admiration society.
“We’ve always kept on a nice relationship,” said Gurtler. “(Craig is) a great guy. His dedication to the game speaks for itself for what he’s done not only as a broadcaster covering the games.”
Rybczynski, who is also the Knighthawks’ Lacrosse Operations Manager, grew up in Buffalo listening to Gurtler call Sabres games so to have a friendly and professional relationship with him for many years is special.
“I had a ton of respect for him even before he joined the ranks of the NLL broadcasters,” said Rybczynski. “We have a great relationship. He’s always around the rink and we always help each other out at home and on the road.”
And Rybczynski will always remember a wonderful gesture bestowed upon him by Gurtler.
Rybczynski called his 300th consecutive game on January 21, 2018 when the Knighthawks played at New England. The following week, the Knighthawks hosted the Bandits and that’s when Gurtler and Mearns presented him with a ball that had “300” written on it.
“I thought that was something pretty special because he is very well respected in broadcasting,” said Rybczynski. “It really meant a lot to me for him to do that. I have a lot of respect for him and I think sometimes John’s work goes under the radar. He deserves a lot more recognition for the job he does with the Bandits because he does such a great job.”
The National Lacrosse League is comprised of many great people that continue to help grow the sport and that includes players, coaches, staff and broadcasters. Craig Rybczynski and John Gurtler are two of the best to ever call NLL games and they continue to raise the bar for all of the other broadcasters in the league.
As one of those other broadcasters, it goes without saying how much I appreciate and admire what they’ve done for the game.
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