By: Passionate Buffalo Bills fan Patti Bax
Originally Posted on 9/4/23
Hello sports fans, and welcome back to the IE Sports Radio Blog. In Part 1 of this post, I covered the history of lacrosse, which hopefully piqued your interest to learn more about the best-kept secret growing sport. If you are not a member of the Buffalo Bandits fan-base, Banditland, you are more than welcome to join, or you can find a lacrosse team in your area.
Knowing the history of lacrosse sets the framework for understanding the love of the game here in Western New York. The Buffalo Bandits, a professional box lacrosse team in the East Division of the National Lacrosse League (NLL), were founded in 1991. The Bandits play at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York and are owned by Hockey Western New York LLC, a division of Pegula Sports and Entertainment led by Terry Pegula who also owns the Buffalo Sabres and the Buffalo Bills.
According to the Bandits history (bandits.com), Buffalo was experiencing a resurgence in growth downtown in the early ’90s, and the Buffalo Sabres organization started to investigate options to fill dates inside the original home of the Bandits, Memorial Auditorium. Former Sabres vice president George Bergantz, Steve Donner, former executive director of sales and marketing for the Sabres, and assistant to the president Seymour H. Knox IV are all credited with bringing Buffalo a lacrosse team.
“Opening night (January 4, 1992) was quite memorable (a 21-17 loss in front of 9,052 people). The last 5,000 tickets were sold that night before the game. There was a line across Terrace Street going up the block and into downtown,” Bergantz said. “We had to hold the start of the game for 40 minutes because the lines were so long with people purchasing tickets and getting into the building.” The Bandits played their inaugural season in 1992 and became the first expansion franchise in MILL/NLL history to win a championship in its first season and repeat as champions in their second season.
After their 1996 championship-winning season, the Bandits returned to the NLL Championship game on three separate occasions (1997, 2004, 2006) only to lose each time, including twice at home. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Bandits would win their fourth championship, a 14–13 triumph over Portland. The Bandits would lose in the finals three more times before securing their fifth championship in 2023.
On June 3rd, a Saturday night to remember in Buffalo, forward/midfielder and team leader Dhane Smith had a game-high nine points and seven assists. Matt Vinc made 46 saves to backstop a dominant defensive effort as Buffalo beat the Colorado Mammoth 13-4 in Game 3 at KeyBank to win the franchise’s first championship in 15 years. “Banditland, we did it!” Dhane said following the game. “We’re champions. The banner’s going up. We’re champs. Let’s go!” Dhane was named Finals MVP after recording nine goals, 14 assists and 23 points in the three-game series to set a new league record for points in a single postseason with 49.
“I don’t care about anything but this championship,” said the two-time NLL regular season MVP and three-time First Team All-Pro who also set a new league record for assists this season with 96. “I’ve said it before, you don’t get recognized for your accolades, you get recognized for those banners. And we finally did it.”
Launching his NLL career with the Bandits in 2013, Dhane has always demonstrated his grit, team spirit, and desire to bring a championship to Buffalo. It was my honor to meet Dhane at a “716 Day” celebration, where he took pictures and signed autographs for the Bandits loyal fan-base. I would be remiss if I failed to mention how that day, Dhane rented a car after his flight was canceled, and drove from Detroit to Buffalo to assure he was available to show his appreciation to his beloved fans. Dhane, you are truly an inspiration and role model for all athletes.
Dhane shared with me that he first got interested in lacrosse when he was 3 years old. “My dad played and so did my cousin Billy Dee Smith, who played for the Bandits.” When asked what he loved most about playing lacrosse, Dhane replied, “My favorite thing about playing lacrosse is the team aspect getting together with a group of guys, getting really close with them, becoming a family, and of course winning!”
At 716 Day, Dhane was appreciative of the fan-base, creating envy for other teams. “The response Banditland has given us is incredible. I haven’t seen anything like it. They have been our backbone every year no matter win or lose. It’s incredible to finally bring a championship because they deserve it.” Dhane encouraged anyone who is interested in lacrosse to follow this advice: “For someone who wants to play lacrosse, I’d say watch the game, try your best to understand it, ask questions, and work hard. Nothing comes easy. I promise you it will be frustrating at first, but the result will be worth it.”
I asked about his thoughts and feelings headed into next year. “I’m excited for next season. Hopefully, we can bring the same team back. I honestly feel like we can do it again now that we know what it takes to win.”
This blog would not be complete without hearing from one of best fans in Banditland. Zach Jezioro, is a rabid fan I met on X (previously known as Twitter) and who was a guest on my podcast. Zach’s enthusiasm is contagious. “Being a member of Banditland is awesome. Putting that black and orange jersey on, going to the game, saying those chants. It’s just awesome. I truly do believe there’s no place like Banditland and I’m dying on that hill.”
When asked what recommendations he would give to someone who doesn’t know much about lacrosse but might be interested in going to a game, Zach was quick to describe the “real game” experience. “I think it’s a very good sport to watch. The play is back and forth, it’s exciting seeing the teams bringing the ball up and down the field/turf. The best games are the high scoring games, sometimes they’ll be 20 goals scored in a game. It’s nerve-racking but it keeps you on the edge of your seat. When it comes to going to a game, the music is always going and it’s entertaining to see the players battle.”
Knowing I had talked with Dhane Smith, I asked Zach to share his feelings on the Bandits MVP. “Dhane is everything you want in a MVP candidate. He’s a blue-collar athlete and is such a good guy in general. He’s that kind of player who you just can’t hate. Not only can he score goals, but he gets assists. The fact that he broke HIS OWN assist record should say it all in my opinion.”
Like my husband and me, Zach was at the Championship game, and had many highlights to share. “Obviously, the celebration stands above the rest but honestly, everything about the game was awesome. The intros when they run out of the tunnel, the way they dominated Colorado who beat them last season in the Bandits home arena. And of course, the atmosphere. Seeing the building sold out for them in the biggest game of the year was great to see. They deserved it.”
What are Zach’s expectations for the upcoming season? “I think it’s pretty simple, win it again. Especially since they have the pretty much same team as last year, they will still be good, and I think they’re on a mission to win it back-to-back. They’ve been good for a while, so I expect them to be in the finals again. It’ll be difficult but they are still a great team. It seems like the game of lacrosse is growing and I’m glad the Bandits are champs. Hopefully, they can do it again next year so we can have another parade!”
Special thanks to Dhane and Zach for their time and sharing their amazing responses to my questions. Like both of you, I’m ready for another (even bigger) parade in June of 2024. All the best to you Dhane and the entire Bandit team. In closing, I have included the poem I wrote in celebration of the Bandits championship.
This Winning Feeling
You could feel it in the air the moment news broke Josh Byrne was going to play.
Banditland sensed then, it was going to happen, today was the day.
The frenzy started hours before, with hope-filled fans dressed in their orange and black.
The Bandits’ loss in the second game was in the past and it was time to get back on track.
This was a new team, players, and coaches on a mission to finally get the win.
From the first goal scored by Tehoka Nanikote, fans cheered, let the party begin.
Each moment, each goal, each save, each defensive play left the passionate fans in awe.
The championship feelings slowing filled the arena…so genuine, so moving, so emotionally raw.
And in the final moment, it became clear that the elusive championship was now real.
Banditland cheered as one, embracing the long-awaited championship feel.
Thank you for taking time to read my blog. I welcome your thoughts and comments, and feel free to tweet me at @BuffaloHudl_IE. I also encourage you to follow the Bandits (X: @NLLBandits and Instagram: @nllbandits), Dhane Smith (@dhanesmith92) and Zach Jezioro (ZachJ13_). For more sports content, don’t forget to listen to our IE Sports Radio family. Join in the fun by listening to all the podcasts. Huddle up with me on Tuesday nights at 7pm EST, for The Buffalo Huddle W/Patti Bax! Shout out to all of our loyal listeners and readers who continue to help make IE Sports Radio your direct feed for ALL that sports. See you soon!