Three of the Buffalo Bandits four championships have been decided in the final seconds. The exception was 1996, a season capped by a decisive decision that the players still remember fondly 20 years later.
“We were pretty dominant,” said Jim Veltman, a key part of that ’96 team and a National Lacrosse League Hall of Famer. “We had such talent on that team. It was unbelievable how much talent we had. It seemed all year that we were going to be unstoppable. It was hard for other teams to match our talent, to be frank. It was fun to go on the floor and be let loose.”
The Bandits, who defeated Philadelphia, 15-10, in the final, had John Tavares as their leading scorer with team-highs of 41 goals and 40 assists for 81 points. Troy Cordingley, the current Bandits coach, was second with 52 points. Ted Dowling finished with 39 points, Veltman added 33 and 125 loose balls, and Rich Kilgour had 26 points.
Some of the other familiar names on that team were Rich, Darris and Travis Kilgour, Mike Hasen, and goalies Pat O’Toole and Ross Cowie.
“I can remember that I knew we had a very solid team,” said Dean Cecconi, who had the winning goal in the championship contest. “It was the strongest team I’ve ever played on. We knew we had a job to do. We knew that if we played the way we were capable of, it would be very tough for anyone to beat us. I was fortunate to be on that team.”
Les Bartley was the coach, as he was for the first two titles, and all the players will say he played a big part in the team’s success.
“The thing I remember the most about Les is that he was a real people person,” Veltman said. “He let you believe that you came up with the ideas he tried to implement. He made you buy in. He made you think you were contributing, but he had in the back of his mind how he wanted to steer the conversation. He made us feel like we had a big part in what happened on the floor. That speaks volumes. Players like to be heard, just like coaches like to be heard.”
“He was a friend, he was everything to the team,” Cecconi added. “Everyone who had the opportunity to play with Les and for Les were fortunate to have that opportunity.”
That 1996 team made a statement right at the start of the season. It beat defending champion Philadelphia, 15-12, in the Wings’ building on opening night. Philadelphia had knocked Buffalo out of the playoffs the previous year. There was no looking back after that, as the Bandits won their first seven games.
“I remember having big battles with Philadelphia all the time,” Veltman said. “It was us and them. We had Darris Kilgour and Troy Cordingley, the intensity they would bring. The finesse of a John Tavares − those guys were a lot of fun to play with. Each and every shift was a good model for everyone.”
Buffalo took its foot of the gas pedal in the final weeks, losing two out of three games to finish the season at 8-2. That was good for a tie for first place in the overall standings but the Bandits had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Buffalo beat Rochester, 18-10, in the semifinals and then won the championship in a sold-out Memorial Auditorium. Cordingley and Jason Luke had three goals each, and O’Toole was the game’s most valuable player. It was the team’s last game in Memorial Auditorium.
“I’m sure I kept my stick, helmet and gloves,” Cecconi said. “It was a very special feeling − irreplaceable.”
Just when it looked like Buffalo would have a dynasty for years to come, the championships stopped. Bartley left after the 1997 to coach an expansion team in Hamilton, Ont., which later moved to Toronto. Players went their separate ways, too. Veltman’s last game as a Bandit was the ’96 championship contest.
“You think you’re the best team in the world when you win three in five years,” he said. “You think it’s going to happen every year. But eventually you realize that you go through dry spells, and it’s not as easy as you thought. The talent is almost even among all the teams now. On any given night, you could be the loser of the winner. But that’s what makes winning so special.”
The Bandits had to wait 12 years until their next championship. The memories have lasted 20 years.
“I still wear the championship ring,” Cecconi said. “It’s a memento of the best time of my life.”