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Buffalo Bandits open season with heavy hearts; lift each other in difficult times

Mitch de Snoo was in San Diego, a continent away from his family, when he learned his dad had been transferred from his nursing home to a hospital in Ontario.

Casey de Snoo had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 12 years earlier, and now he had pneumonia. Mitch, a defenseman for the Buffalo Bandits, hurried home after the team’s regular season finale to join his mother and sister at his father’s bedside.

Casey died nearly two weeks later, on May 9, two days before the Bandits defeated the Toronto Rock in the National Lacrosse League East Division final at KeyBank Center. He was 69. De Snoo, who’s studying neurodegenerative diseases at the University of Toronto, including the malady that afflicted his father, decided to play, helping the Bandits advance to the league championship series for the second time in four seasons.

“Had he still been in the hospital, I don’t know if I would have,” de Snoo said this week. “But that was such an important game and I think that’s something that he would have wanted me to play. So it was an easy decision to play at that point. It was a very emotional game.”

The Bandits, who were swept by the Calgary Roughnecks in last season’s NLL finals, are poised for another emotional game when they open the 2019-20 regular season against the San Diego Seals, featuring former Bishop Timon-St. Jude attackman Connor Fields, on Saturday at 7 p.m. at KeyBank Center.

Bandits coach John Tavares, who left last week’s training camp practice before it concluded, is mourning the loss of his mother. The funeral was Friday.

“He’s struggling,” Bandits General Manager Steve Dietrich said. “Any time you go through a loss, it’s devastating. And anytime you lose your mother, it’s always tough … He’ll be at the game on Saturday, so it should be all systems go, but I’m sure he’ll be doing it with a heavy heart.”

Tavares was understandably unavailable for an interview.

But he already knows what de Snoo learned last season.

“It’s something that we’ll get through together as a group,” said defenseman Kevin Brownell, “and we’ll help him in whatever way he needs help. I know he’s not the type of guy who’s going to let that affect what he does as a coach. But by all means, we’ll be there for him and whatever kind of support he needs, we’ll be there to offer it.”

De Snoo, who described himself by saying, “I wouldn’t say that I’m an open book,” at first didn’t tell his teammates about his father’s deteriorating condition.

“I didn’t even know what he was going through for most of that time,” said defenseman Justin Martin, de Snoo’s roommate the last two seasons. “He kept it to himself.”

But Martin was the first to learn about de Snoo’s father’s death when his roommate opened up to him the next day, once they arrived in Buffalo for the division final. After the game, the team awarded de Snoo the team’s “heavyweight belt.”

“The recognition afterward was something that I appreciated,” de Snoo said. “It was a very nice gesture.”

But soon came a far grander outpouring of support.

Four days later, on May 15, the de Snoo family hosted a celebration of life reception at Brock Street Brewing Co. in Whitby, Ontario.

They planned for around 100 people, but 250 showed up, including every member of the Bandits.

“It’s tough to describe to people that haven’t experienced it,” de Snoo said, “but that camaraderie and support is hard to come by sometimes in this world.”

Being teammates means far more than simply practicing together and playing games.

“Guys were driving from four, five, six hours away, just to show support,” Brownell said. “He never asked us to go or to be there, but there was no real question whether or not every guy would be there. We all wanted to be there for him and to help him through the process. It was an amazing turnout. It was an amazing night.”

De Snoo was drafted by Calgary with the 13th overall pick in the second round of the 2015 draft, traded to the Bandits before the start of his first season and has recorded 12 goals and 40 assists in 67 career games.

He played college lacrosse at Drexel University, where he earned a degree in biomedical engineering, and has since earned a master’s degree in laboratory medicine and pathobiology from the University of Toronto. He’s now in his first year of medical school, having begun an eight-year program to obtain a M.D. and Ph.D.

“It’s pretty common to see him cracking a book and studying in between shootaround, before game time, and even on a plane he always has a book in his hand,” Martin said. “He’s always working hard. It shows how committed he is to his medical ambitions and to lacrosse, and it’s pretty amazing to see.”

De Snoo said he’s working to become a clinician scientist, a doctor who treats patients but also does research, with his ultimate goal to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease, a nervous system disorder that affects movement.

“What we do know at this point is what goes wrong with the brain in a specific area where you have neurons that produce dopamine, and those die off, but it’s not known what causes them to die off,” de Snoo said. “Right now, you can’t even slow it down, never mind cure it. The drugs that people take for Parkinson’s disease are only for symptoms of the disease and they do nothing to halt the process of those brain cells dying off. Starting down that pathway would be good.”

De Snoo’s studies are fascinating. His ambition is noble.

He cherishes his family and has a greater appreciation for his teammates.

And he’s learned that something as seemingly trivial as playing lacrosse, in the big picture, can mean a great deal. He’s excited to begin a new season Saturday.

“There’s definitely a lot of unfinished business from last year,” de Snoo said. “Very disappointing end to the season. We had a really good opportunity there (in the NLL finals against Calgary) and we wasted it. We lost to a very good team, but I don’t think we played as well as we could have, so that’s very frustrating.

“For this season, it’s time to make amends. We have a long way to go. … We have to be prepared to work hard and come together as a team.”

With this group, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Fields playing in Buffalo

Former Bishop Timon-St. Jude attackman Connor Fields of the San Diego Seals is scheduled to play professionally in his hometown for the first time.

Fields, an East Amherst native, was a two-time All-American and helped Timon win state titles in 2012 and ’13 and set a state single-season record for goals (129) in his junior year. He then went on to the University at Albany and was a three-time finalist for the Tewaaraton Award – the Heisman Trophy of lacrosse. He graduated second all-time in Division I history in career points (364) and tied for fourth all-time in career goals (199).

He was selected 10th overall in the National Lacrosse League Entry Draft in 2018, despite being only months removed from knee surgery. Fields played half his senior season at Albany on a torn ACL, sprained MCL and injured meniscus. The ACL injury goes back to his junior year at Albany, but wasn't diagnosed until he had his MCL assessed.

He returned in time for two regular season games last season with the expansion Seals with two goals and three assists and also scored in a playoff game.

He spent the 2019 outdoor season with Chaos LC of the Premier Lacrosse League, posting 22 goals and 11 assists in 10 games.

Despite playing for a team based in San Diego, Fields primarily lives in the Buffalo area and works in pharmaceutical sales.

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