Saturday night’s game between the Buffalo Bandits and the Saskatchewan Rush that opened the National Lacrosse League finals was something of a reunion for the coaches.
Derek Keenan and Troy Cordingley were both members of the 1993 Bandits’ championship team. Now, 23 years later, they are coaching against each other for another title.
“He was a really good player,” the Rush’s Keenan said about Cordingley. “He had an impact on games; he was feisty. His personality hasn’t changed much since then. He’s a fun guy.”
Cordingley was a rookie in that 1993 season, while Keenan was playing his last professional season.
“He and Kevin Alexander were the veterans,” said Cordingley, the Bandits coach. “I learned a lot from that year, especially about leadership. Derek won on every team he played on.
“I remember my first goal. It came on a quick stick on the power play from Derek. He set me up, and I just had to drop it in. He was a great player. He didn’t get to play as many years as he should have because the league was just getting going, but it was just a lot of fun to play with him.”
The coach of that Bandits’ team was Les Bartley, who won seven championships in his career: three with Buffalo and four with Toronto. John Tavares and Rich Kilgour, the assistant coaches for Cordingley now, also played on that ’93 Buffalo team. That’s a total of four coaches in this series who are part of Bartley’s “coaching tree.”
“It’s funny how it worked out,” Cordingley said. “We’re all involved in the game somehow now, competing against each other.”
Cordingley has a chance this year to win championships with three different franchises as a head coach, as he previously guided Calgary and Toronto to titles. Bartley and Chris Hall (Calgary and Washington) won titles in two different cities. Cordingley is second behind Bartley in league history with 14 career playoff coaching wins; Bartley had 18.
Anthony Cosmo waited a long, long time for the chance to play in the NLL finals. The Buffalo goalie broke into the league in 2001, but Saturday was his first appearance in the battle for the Champion’s Cup.
Cosmo accredited himself well, making 41 saves on 52 shots.
“It’s not really nerves, it’s anxiety,” the veteran said about the buildup to the game. “My belly hasn’t felt great the last three days. I don’t know how many hours of sleep I got. But that’s the great thing about sports - the opportunity to play this game in front of fans and family. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in my life.”
Aaron Bold was even better statistically for Saskatchewan on Saturday. He finished with 43 saves on 52 shots
It’s relatively rare for the top offensive team in the league (Buffalo) to play the top defensive team (Saskatchewan) in the final. This year’s matchup is only the fourth time it has happened in 25 years.
Buffalo was involved in two of the three previous games. In 2006, the Bandits’ top-rated defense lost to Colorado in the final, while the 1993 Buffalo team – which led the league in scoring – defeated a stingy Philadelphia squad. In 1998, Philadelphia was first in fewest goals allowed and beat Baltimore for the championship.
The 2016 playoffs mark the second time that the NLL has used a best-of-three series for its final. Cordingley, who has won championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach, believes this is a fair way of determining the best team.
“You win the first game, and you wish it were one game, but I like the format,” he said. “I’ve been in championship games where you play a stinker, and you don’t get a second chance. We’re just trying to focus on the game in front of us.”
The NLL had used a single championship game through 2013. Then in 2014, Calgary and Rochester played a best-of-three but with a mini-game immediately following Game Two if each team had won a game. The league switched to a full best-of-three in 2015. Edmonton, which moved to Saskatchewan in the offseason, took the title in two straight games over Toronto last year.