It seemed like every silver lining was accompanied by a dark cloud this summer as far as the Buffalo Gamblers were concerned.
The Gamblers, who became the first American team to play in the Ontario Lacrosse Association's Major Division, fell short of their goal -- a return trip to the Mann Cup championship series.
Buffalo went 12-5-1 in the regular season, in second place and seven points behind the Brampton Excelsiors, who ended the Gamblers' season with a 4-1 series victory in the OLA finals. The summer was filled with highs and lows:
Gait balls of fire
Hit side: It was truly a treat for Buffalo fans to watch Paul Gait score goals for their team instead of against it, as he so often does vs. the Buffalo Bandits in the winter. Gait was the team's leading scorer in the playoffs and indeed showed flashes of brilliance. Even when he's not 100 percent physically, at 31 years old he still clearly rates among a handful of the world's top players.
Flip side: Gait's commitment to Team Canada for the World Games kept his regular-season appearances to just five games. In the playoffs, first Brooklin and then Brampton continually hounded him with two and three men every time he touched the ball. "If you did to Paul out on the street what opposing teams did to him in the playoffs, you'd be put in jail," said Gamblers president Lincoln Fannell. Gait's frustrations reached a boiling point in the playoff finale Thursday night when he fought Excelsiors agitator Kevin Dance at the end of the second period.
The mighty Quinn
Hit side: Ryan Kells, who began the year as a backup, proved himself as one of the division's top starting goaltenders. When the team faltered around him in the playoffs, the Gamblers uncovered a future gem in 21-year-old Corey Quinn, a television and radio communications major at Toronto's Ryerson University. Quinn was called up from Junior A St. Catharines and made his first Major Division start with the Gamblers facing a 3-0 playoff deficit against Brampton. He beat the Excelsiors that night, then held them to just two goals in two periods of Game Five before Brampton came back to win. His only concern regarding his first start: "Playing here (Marine Midland Arena) is great because I don't have to worry about my passes hitting the scoreboard." In Game Five, the lanky Quinn was booed in Brampton as he danced to the music playing over the public address system during breaks, even after surrendering a score. "He got in our heads, that's for sure," said Brampton's Jim Veltman after the playoff finale.
Flip side: It took a horrifying injury to starter Bob Watson for Kells and Quinn to get their chances. Watson was struck in the left eye through his facemask by a shot in mid July. Though his eye suffered no structural damage, he's facing plastic surgery this week to repair his shattered cheekbone and broken nose. Like teammate Jason Luke, he faces an uncertain future in the National Lacrosse League next winter. Luke, who also plays for the Bandits, suffered a knee injury for the second straight summer and faces more surgery. He may miss part of the NLL season.
The playing coach
Hit side: Darris Kilgour assumed his new role as player/coach and the player was as dominant as ever. Associate coach Les Wakeling calls him, "a coach on the floor when he's playing," even without the title.
Flip side: Fannell, Wakeling and even Kilgour all admitted that playing and running a team may be too difficult for anyone. Wakeling came aboard at the end of the regular season to help ease the burden, but the Gamblers were penalized for having too many men on the field far too often.
Home sweet home
Hit side: The Gamblers were almost as dominant at home as they were as the Niagara Falls (Ont.) Gamblers in '97, when they were unbeatable. Buffalo was 8-1 at home in the regular season and 4-1 in the playoffs. The air-conditioned comfort of Marine Midland Arena made it the division's mecca.
Flip side: Attendance was way below expectations, around 2,000 for much of the regular season, then around 500 or so for the Brooklin series and only slightly higher against Brampton. The team signed a two-year deal with the MMA and Fannell said he anticipates the Gamblers will play in the MMA again next summer. The comforts of home were replaced by the ravages of road away from the MMA, however. Buffalo went 4-4-1 away from home in the regular season and a miserable 1-4 in the playoffs. That ultimately sealed their fate.