A trip to Buffalo brings back many good memories for Derek Keenan, but the upcoming journey is all about business, not pleasure.
Back in his playing days, the Saskatchewan Rush’s GM and head coach was a scoring dynamo with the Buffalo Bandits and helped them win back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993. This time around, though, Keenan will try to prevent the Bandits from winning it all so that the Rush can retain their grip on the Champion’s Cup.
Game 1 of the 2016 NLL Final goes down on Saturday at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, with the Rush and Bandits venturing to SaskTel Center in Saskatoon for Game 2 on June 4. If Game 3 is necessary, they’ll return to Buffalo for Game 3 on June 11.
Keenan’s first year in the NLL (then known as the MILL – Major Indoor Lacrosse League) came in ’92, and he helped the Bandits become the first expansion team to win the championship. He posted 42 points, including 26 goals, during the eight-game regular season, and then added another 16 points in just three playoff games. Keenan was named the league’s Rookie of the Year.
“I was a rookie but I was 31 years old,” said Keenan. “We had a lot of veteran guys who had played in a lot of Mann Cups and with the national team.”
One of the young players on the Bandits roster was John Tavares, the uncle of New York Islanders star John Tavares, who would go on to set the NLL record for career points (1,949) and become the only player in league history to notch 500 goals and 500 assists.
Buffalo would win the league title again the following season, Keenan’s last as a full-time player. Although it was just a short time, it was certainly a good time.
“It was very different back then,” recalled Keenan. “We played in the Buffalo Auditorium which was an amazing facility. You talk about loud and we filled the building. We played with three lines, five-man units. There was no specializing on offence or defence. We played at both ends of the floor. But a lot of guys are still around.”
Tavares is still on the Buffalo bench, though now as an assistant coach in support of Troy Cordingley, another ex-Bandit player from the original stellar lineup. Keenan also returned to Buffalo for a playoff matchup in 2008 when the Portland Lumberjax team he guided dropped the NLL Final to the Bandits, giving them their fourth and most-recent championship.
A Rush versus Bandits clash for the Champion’s Cup is a fitting end to the 2016 season as both teams finished atop their divisions with 13-5 records. Buffalo earned home-turf advantage over Saskatchewan thanks to a 19-18 overtime win in Saskatoon on February 26th – a game Keenan called “fun for the fans, ugly for the coaches.”
But the Rush rebounded immediately after that loss, recovering less than 24 hours later to pick up an overtime win on the road in Calgary which paved the way to a six-game winning streak for Saskatchewan.
The Bandits present a formidable challenge to the Rush’s throne atop the NLL especially with an explosive offence led Dhane Smith, who set a league record with 137 points during the regular season. Yet the Rush are a dominant force as well with a terrific combination of firepower up front and stifling defence at the back. As evidenced by their lone regular-season meeting, the two teams are evenly matched.
The Rush will rely heavily on what’s got them to the Final in the first place, and what was so prevalent during their strong-willed efforts against Calgary to win the West.
“Our focus level is really high and we’re just not making many mistakes,” said Keenan. “That’s the key now. It’s about the team that limits their mistakes and takes advantages of the other team’s mistakes.
“I still think we have another gear. We can be a little better in certain areas and we’ll have to be.”
It’s a serious time for all concerned, especially since the Rush have targeted a second consecutive Champion’s Cup and are returning an almost identical lineup to the one that won it all a year ago. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to savor the moments along the way.
“I embrace that. I want everyone to enjoy the moment,” said Keenan.
Story by SaskRush.com. Photo by Josh Schaefer.