Skip to main content
Buffalo Bandits star Josh Byrne leaps into the boards toward the adulation of fans at Key Bank Center.

Weekly Cover: There's No Place Like Banditland

June 12, 2024
Jack Goods
Ben Ludeman/Buffalo Bandits

It started out as a throwaway thought.

What if we tried dog masks?

Inspiration struck on a trip to Rochester, New York, in 2016, when Andrew Cottrell and Zach Trunzo were visiting Andrew’s brother Nick and prepping to watch their Buffalo Bandits battle the rival Knighthawks.

Trunzo, who the Bandits named their fan of the year four seasons prior, wasn’t afraid to stand out from the crowd. He previously suited up as a luchador, mask and all. It wasn’t a leap to consider honoring one of Buffalo’s star players, the “Great” Dhane Smith, by moonlighting as a group of canines. 

They’ve been donning the masks ever since, sporting the look of a Great Dane, pug and Labrador retriever in the stands. After numerous appearances on the jumbotron and television broadcasts, they’ve even developed a social media following.

“Usually when I tell people about it, I just say, ‘We’re the idiots wearing dog masks,’” Andrew Cottrell said.

But hey, that’s what Banditland is all about. And after Smith scores, they’re far from the only ones woofing at the two-time NLL MVP.

“At first, hearing you guys bark at me was weird. Adults shouldn’t be doing that,” Smith joked at last year’s championship parade. “But throughout the years, it’s pretty damn cool. And you know what? I brag about it.”

The masked fans of the Great Dhane Gang support Bandits star Dhane Smith.
The masked fans of the Great Dhane Gang support Bandits star Dhane Smith.
Ben Ludeman/Buffalo Bandits

Banditland — the name affectionately given to Buffalo’s unparalleled National Lacrosse League fanbase — has seen its fair share of characters over 32 years. Look up from the centerline and you’ll spot a trio wearing boxes on their heads spelling B-O-X, the chant jeered at opponents after taking a penalty. There’s plenty of face paint, including that adorning the face of one man who’d fit right in with KISS. Almost everyone incorporates bright orange into their outfit.

NLL commissioner Brett Frood conferred lofty praise on the more than 19,000 fans who eagerly watched Buffalo claim its sixth title at KeyBank Center in May: “This is the greatest arena in sports.”

Those who’ve been around the team long enough know that wasn’t an overstatement. In a league and sport which has struggled to find continuity in franchises, Banditland has endured.

“We’re fortunate that we have the best fans. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true,” said Bandits coach John Tavares, who has been with the team in some capacity since its very first game. “We have the best fans in the league.”

Whatever's happening, it's selling tickets.

Robert J. Summers, Buffalo News

First hitting the floor in 1992, the Bandits were an instant success. More than 9,000 people packed Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium for the team’s first game against the New York Saints on Jan. 4, 1992. The opening faceoff had to be delayed to accommodate all the fans who walked up looking for tickets. Attendance jumped above 10,000 in subsequent contests, with two sellouts.

“Their players make no cheeseburger ads,” wrote Buffalo News sports reporter Robert J. Summers on Feb. 27, 1992. “Radio call-in show people never argue about their goalies. And most Buffalo-area sports fans don’t know if a Major Indoor Lacrosse League ball is blown up, stuffed or injection-molded.

“Whatever’s happening, it’s selling tickets.”

Backed by an influx of youthful Canadian talent, the Bandits won back-to-back titles in their first two seasons, bucking Buffalo stereotypes in an era when Western New Yorkers endured four straight Super Bowl defeats. A third banner was raised a few years later in 1996, and the team now sits in a tie with the Philadelphia Wings and Toronto Rock for the most championships (six) in league history.

“We don’t have the luxury of other championships here,” said Nick Cottrell of Great Dhane Gang fame. “The Bills are a good team, but no Super Bowls. The Sabres, no Stanley Cups. The Bandits are really the only major team that has brought any sort of title here.”

A rustbelt town built on the power of the Erie Canal, Bethlehem Steel and the mighty grain elevators that now sit dormant along its river, Buffalo was uniquely suited to idolize the everyday man who suits up in the NLL — players like Tavares, who was a math teacher.

Buffalo Bandits announced Chris "Swennie" Swenson interviews Josh Byrne.
Buffalo Bandits announced Chris "Swennie" Swenson interviews Josh Byrne.
Bill Wippert/Buffalo Bandits

The rough and tumble nature of the sport additionally endeared it to an already hockey-crazed city.

And if that wasn’t enough to get you fired up, there was always Swennie. Buffalo’s public address announcer since day one, Chris “Swennie” Swenson is just as iconic as any of the team’s players. A hype man, play-by-play broadcaster and DJ all mixed into one, his booming voice and crowd-stirring calls have become synonymous with the Bandits.

Lines such as “WHAT’S HE GOT?” “WHOSE HOUSE?” and “JOHNNY WHO?” have echoed in homes across Western New York. He even came up with the term “Banditland.”

But at the start, he was just trying to learn the sport like the rest of the Buffalonians in attendance. Swenson had been with the Sabres for about a year when the team, which operated the Bandits, inquired about his interest.

“It’s not like the Sabres where you have specific NHL rules or guidelines to follow,” Swenson said. “You could do whatever you wanted to do, and for them, the more entertaining the better. The more I got the crowd involved, the better.”

Come for the party, stay for the lacrosse.

“It’s easy to become a member of Banditland,” said Steve Bermel, the Bandits color commentator and a longtime NLL scribe. “Once you’re a part of it, especially when they’re successful like this, the atmosphere is so addictive.”

There’s a great love affair between the fans of Buffalo and the Bandits.


Buffalo Bandits fans cheer at jam-packed Key Bank Center.
Buffalo Bandits fans cheer at jam-packed Key Bank Center.
Ben Ludeman/Buffalo Bandits

More than 206,000 people walked through the turnstiles at KeyBank Center this season, an average of 17,167 per game. That’s by far the highest total in the NLL. Many franchises would be happy to reach half that number.

Prior to Game 1 of the NLL Finals, the Albany FireWolves issued a challenge to their fans — buy our tickets, before the Bandits fans do. A large contingent made the five-hour drive anyway.

A crowd of 19,070 watched Buffalo secure a 15-13 win in a series-clinching Game 2 a night later on their home floor, and plenty more watched from home. CW23, which airs Bandits games locally, averaged a 4.1 rating, peaking at 6.9 in the closing minutes. The Sabres, for reference, averaged a 4.6 rating this season.

As was once stated on an ESPN2 broadcast back in 1996, “There’s a great love affair between the fans of Buffalo and the Bandits.”

“There are people closer to my age who used to go to the early games, which was kind of bedlam and crazy at The Aud,” Swenson said. “It’s now their kids, and their kids coming to the arena. It’s something that’s been handed down generation to generation in the 32 years of families.”