The Buffalo Bandits of 1993 were the perfect team.
It was 20 years ago today that the Bandits completed the only undefeated season in the history of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, which became the National Lacrosse League in 1997. Buffalo defeated Philadelphia in a classic championship game, 13-12, in Memorial Auditorium on April 10, 1993, to finish 10-0.
“We’re not the 1972 Dolphins. We don’t get together and crack open a bottle of champagne every year [when the last unbeaten team has lost], but it’s something everyone likes on their resume,” Rich Kilgour said. “That team refused to lose that year.”
The 1993 Bandits team was built on the success of the ’92 squad, which won its last five regular-season games and three playoff games to take the league championship in its first year.
“We had a talented team, so it was just a matter of learning the league,” Derek Keenan said. “It was a different style of lacrosse for a lot of the Canadian guys, especially. It was fast and it was physical.”
The Bandits were ready from the first faceoff of the 1993 season. John Tavares, Keenan, Bob Hamley and Darris Kilgour led the offense, while Jim Veltman scooped up loose balls by the dozens and Kevin Alexander and Brian Hall were good at the dirty work. Ross Cowie and Bill Gerrie divided goaltending duties. The team mixed Canadians, Americans and Natives, youngsters and veterans, into one big lacrosse melting pot.
“We could win in different ways,” Tavares said. “We could use a defensive style, an offensive style, a rough style, a transition style. We were a loaded team. Back then there weren’t as many games, but they seemed more intense. You got away with more physical play. It was a lot of fun.”
The game was played differently then than it is today. Coaches sent out lines that played at both ends of the floor, as opposed to today’s platoon system. The team seemed more interested in the offensive end of the floor. The Bandits averaged almost 18 goals per game, peaking with 23 goals against Baltimore on Jan. 23.
“We could score goals like nobody’s business,” Keenan said. “We weren’t great at defending. We just outscored teams. But when it came down to crunch time, I thought we were actually very good at defense. We had a group that could adapt to what we needed.”
Even so, coach Les Bartley wasn’t content to roll the balls out on the floor and call out line changes.
“He was an innovator,” Keenan said. “Prior to that, the game was very much a read and react game. You didn’t prepare as much as we do now. He was the first guy to do that. I remember, he’d come to practice and he’d have film from the Empire Network. We’d be like, ‘We’re going to watch film?’ ”
The Bandits had only a couple of close calls that season. On Feb. 20, Alexander scored in overtime to give Buffalo a 19-18 win over Baltimore. The next week, the Bandits edged Philadelphia, 13-12, at home. The team completed the perfect regular season with a 20-14 win against Detroit on March 20.
Buffalo defeated Boston in the division finals on April 3, setting up the title game against Philadelphia at home. The teams had a combined record of 17-1. That game might have featured more talent than any indoor lacrosse game in history.
“I’m sure someone could argue that,” Hamley said. “It was second to none at the time. ... It was an honor just to be a part of it.”
The Wings were led by brothers Paul and Gary Gait, then the two biggest names in the sport, and goalie Dallas Eliuk. Five of the six members of the first team MILL All-Pro squad in 1993 played in that game, and the league’s Hall of Fame is filled with people associated with that matchup.
The game lived up to the hype. A competitive, nasty tone was set right at the beginning, when Paul Gait’s initial goal only 1:15 into the game was wiped out by an illegal stick challenge from the Bandits bench. Wings General Manager Mike French described it then as “the cheapest call I’ve seen in seven years.”
“I thought it was brilliant that Les pulled the illegal stick challenge,” said Bruce Wawrzyniak, who was the team’s public relations director. “To do it against a Gait was almost an insult.”
Gait must not have happy about the call. He came out of the penalty box and promptly fought Tavares.
Neither side led by more than two goals as the Wings and Bandits took turns making runs. Philadelphia took a 12-11 lead with 1:58 left, but Buffalo still had some life. Darris Kilgour was at that point about 90 seconds from scoring one of the most famous goals in team history.
“I never would have been in that position if Kevin Alexander hadn’t made a one-handed catch and shot to the short side, top corner, to tie it up,” he said. “Then they took a bad penalty. Derek Keenan drew it from Chris Flynn. Without the hard work of my teammates, I never would have had the opportunity.”
With 30 seconds left in regulation, Kilgour – who once dented Gerrie’s mask with a practice shot – took one of the hardest shots of his life from outside to the goaltender’s right.
“I was actually lucky. My stick hooked. Dallas was all over it, but he jumped so hard that he lifted his arm and it went under his arm,” Kilgour said.
Keenan added, “He loved to shoot the ball hard. I remember how Kevin and I were always telling him, ‘You don’t have to try to kill the guy.’ Sure enough, that goal, he put it through Dallas. He hit him, and it was too hard for him to stop.”
The fans, who had filled every single seat for every single home game that season, let out a roar that is still remembered as one of the loudest in the Aud’s long history. Buffalo killed off the final seconds on a steal by Tavares (Game MVP with four goals and three assists) to win its second straight championship.
“That building was very intimate, a great place to play – a fire hazard, but fun to play in,” Tavares said. “The fans were right on top of you. … I loved playing at the Aud.”
The legacy of that undefeated team lives on today through the “coaching tree” of Bartley. Of the nine teams currently in the NLL, four are coached by ex-Bandits of 1993: Darris Kilgour, Keenan (Edmonton), Hamley (Colorado) and Troy Cordingley (Toronto). Others, such as Rich Kilgour, Veltman and Alexander, have been on NLL coaching staffs. Johnny Mouradian, the Bandits’ general manager in 1993, now serves as coach and GM of the Philadelphia Wings. Randy Mearns, the current coach at Canisius College and the Bandits’ radio analyst, also played on that team.
“I remember him [Bartley] saying to Kevin Alexander, ‘You guys are great players, and I can’t really teach you how to play the game. But I can help you in what we want to do against other teams, and what we can do to break them down,’ ” Keenan said. “He was really good at that. … I think the guys learned a lot from him in those terms.”
Keenan believes that 1993 team would do quite well if it came back into today’s NLL. He doesn’t see another perfect season coming soon, particularly in an era of a nine-team league and 16-game seasons.
“I think we’d need more teams for that to happen,” he said. “It’s so competitive. A .500 record is a good record now. Three or four games above that is a great record.”
The undefeated season still means a great deal to all who were a part of it. Rich Kilgour still gets goose bumps when the subject is raised.
“As soon as it comes up, the hair on my arm goes up,” he said. “My mother-in-law has that game on tape. Once in a while, my kids like to see it. I pull it out, and you can see the camera shaking when Darris scores. I can remember it like it was yesterday. It’s so vivid.”