Two people have been involved with the Buffalo Bandits for all 25 years of their existence.
You may have heard of one of them: John Tavares.
You may have heard the other one: Chris Swenson.
Swenson, the team’s popular public-address announcer, arrived in January 1992. Unlike Tavares, who retired from playing last season and became an assistant coach, Swenson is still doing the same job after all these years.
“He’s just as much a part of the organization as the players and coaches,” said Scott Lofler, the director of lacrosse operations for the Bandits. “To many, he is the Buffalo Bandits.
“I think he’s the best PA man in the league. I may be biased, but I think he may be the best in sports. There aren’t many guys who can get a crowd so excited.”
The Bandits will have to get by without Swenson’s work on Friday night, when they play the Rock in Toronto (8 p.m., Radio 550). But he’ll be leading the fans on Saturday night when the teams finish the home-and-home series in the First Niagara Center.
Swenson had been doing some work for the Buffalo Sabres’ in-game presentation before the Bandits came along. John Gurtler, who was the Sabres’ public relations director at the time and is now the radio voice of the Bandits, brought him in for that job.
Sabres executive “Stan Makowski asked me if I wanted to do the Bandits,” Swenson said. “I knew nothing about lacrosse. I don’t think anybody in the city knew what the Bandits were. They said, ‘Come in and give it a shot.’
“I asked the league what to do, and they said, have fun with it. There’s no set format. See what you can do to develop the crowd.”
Swenson had a little experience at that sort of task. At the time he did some work as a disc jockey at weddings, parties and events, so he knew about interacting with crowds. His first thought was to use the players’ names to build a relationship between the Bandits and their fans.
That led to a call-and-response between announcer and crowd that has continued throughout the 25 years. “Johnny ... Who? Tavares!” “Who’s house? Steenhuis!” And so on.
“For sure it’s trial and error,” Swenson said. “A couple of years ago, when Ryan (Benesch) came in, I tried, ‘Hit the net Benesch.’ That one died quickly. The fans didn’t react, and Ryan gave us feedback that this one wasn’t going to stick. Troy Cordingley was tagged ‘The Hammer.’ People liked that. It fit his personality. He was a rough and tumble guy. He’d mix it up in the corners, and he wasn’t afraid of popping someone.
“’Johnny Who?’ was one who came naturally because he was going to be the star. He’s somebody you knew had a name that would be said often. I just wanted the fans to respond to it and say his name.”
The Bandits’ early success caught everyone by surprise. Not only did it take only a month for the team to start winning regularly, but the Bandits were watched by sellout crowds in Memorial Auditorium.
“For me, it was a ton of fun,” Swenson said. “I went through those first couple of years and didn’t understand the game. ... I was just trying to survive – keep up with the game, keep up with the rules. ... If you mispronounced the names or if I did something wrong, people understood. It wasn’t as serious as those other sports.”
The Bandits won three championships in their first five years, and then moved down the street to what is now called First Niagara Center. It’s nice, but it’s not the same.
“I definitely miss the Aud,” said Swenson, whose full-time job is in sales with Ingram Micro. “Maybe it’s because we had so much success so early there. But while the fans are amazing here at First Niagara Center, those early days were something special. ... It’s like your first date. Everything was so new, so fresh. We were building so many things with that team.”
The Bandits went through some tough times after Les Bartley left as head coach, and the crowds sank below 10,000 per game on many nights. Swenson wondered if the team would win another championship, and if the league as a whole would survive much longer.
But the franchise did bounce back. After a few merely good seasons, the Bandits claimed their fourth title 12 years after the previous one in 1996.
There have been no championships since then, but the crowds have been large by National Lacrosse League standards. The fans respond to Swenson warmly during personal encounters − treating him more like a friend than a rock star.
“It’s not like Jack Eichel or Rob Ray walking through the hall, but there are plenty of fans that do recognize me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be half as successful as I’ve been without them. They high-five me. They ask for an autograph or a picture. They connect with the sport that way. My kids are always surprised.”
During timeouts, the Bandits often have a little fan contest in which two people will try to do their best impression of Swenson’s catch phrases, which also have popped up on t-shirts.
At this point, Swenson has such a good reputation around the NLL that the league has “borrowed” him to work preseason games at neutral sites.
“He’s got such respect around the league,” Lofler said. “They told him to be neutral when he goes to exhibition games. He needs to say what he says here to generate excitement. He doesn’t need to be pro-Bandits, but he needs to get respect.”
Swenson added, “It’s definitely weird. I’m used to cheering for the Bandits. It does put me out of my element a little bit.”
As for the future, the now-veteran announcer isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be on the job. Swenson isn’t going anywhere for the time being, though. His son, Brett, who has special needs, is frequently seen around First Niagara Center on game days. It’s obvious to all how much he enjoys being close to the team.
“My son is 13, and he loves the sport,” Swenson said. “He’s one of their biggest fans. He lives and breathes the Bandits. When the season’s over, he doesn’t understand the season’s over.
“The guys embrace him, and so does the team. To me, that loyalty goes a long way. It keeps me coming back to the barn each year. I know how much he loves it; I know how welcome he is.”
In the meantime, Swenson is celebrating a silver anniversary right along with the team.
“It’s so unexpected,” he said in looking back. “I never anticipated it being what it is today, 25 years later.”