NLL debuts as Thunder, five others grab sticks

January 02, 1998|By Steven Kivinski | Steven Kivinski,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The National Lacrosse League, which is billing itself as a "stronger and bigger professional indoor league," will get a chance to prove it tomorrow night when six of its seven franchises face off in the United States and Canada.

The Baltimore Thunder, one of the original four teams in the now-defunct Major Indoor Lacrosse League, will take on the Syracuse Smash, one of the NLL's two expansion teams, tomorrow night at 8 at the Baltimore Arena.

The other expansion entry, the Ontario Raiders, will play host to the Rochester Knighthawks at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario, in a game that will mark the debut of professional indoor lacrosse in Canada.

"We have a new entity formed by two visions," said NLL co-founder Steve Donner, who also owns the Knighthawks. "This new league should provide the best version of the game yet."

The league was formed last summer when the owners of the established MILL agreed to join forces with the fledgling NLL. Under the agreement, teams were guaranteed local ownership, and measures, including a supplemental/expansion draft, are being taken in an attempt to divide the player pool and create parity.

Each of the seven NLL teams will play a 12-game regular-season schedule, facing each of its six opponents at home and on the road. At the end of the regular season, the top four teams will advance to the playoffs. Under the playoff format, winners in the single-elimination semifinal round will advance to a best-of-three championship series.

Baltimore Thunder

Arena: Baltimore Arena (12,142)

Last season: 2-8; last in the MILL.

Coach: John Tucker, second year.

Key players: Gary Gait, F; Paul Cantabene, C; Tony Millon, F; Bob Martino, A; Jeff Klodzen, A; Jeff Wills, A; Doug Knight, F; Matt Shearer, F; Kip Fulks, F; Chris Panos, F.

Outlook: The arrival of Gait, a seven-time All-Pro, has transformed the Thunder into a playoff contender. Baltimore had only two winning seasons in the MILL, the last one in 1991, and the team hasn't made it to the playoffs in four years. The Thunder will try to win a championship that has eluded the franchise since the MILL's inaugural season in 1987. In addition to Gait, the team's attack includes Shearer, its top draft pick, and veterans Cantabene, Martino, Klodzen, Fulks and Panos.

Buffalo Bandits

Arena: Marine Midland Arena (18,500)

Last season: 6-4; lost to Rochester, 15-12, in championship game.

Coach: Les Wakeling, first year.

Key players: John Tavares, A; Darris Kilgour, F; Troy Cordingley, A; Pat O'Toole, GK.

Outlook: In its six seasons as a member of the MILL, Buffalo captured three championships and made five championship-game appearances. Leading the Bandits has been Tavares, a five-time MILL first-team All-Pro selection. He is Buffalo's all-time leading scorer, racking up 185 goals and 155 assists in 52 regular-season contests from 1992 to 1997. The Bandits' success, both on the floor and at the gate, has been largely credited to the mix of Americans and Canadians. Wakeling takes over from Les Bartley, who took over the Ontario Raiders after leading Buffalo to two titles.

New York Saints

Arena: Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y. (16,259)

Last season: 6-4; lost to Buffalo, 19-10, in semifinals.

Coach: Vinnie Pfeifer, third year.

Key players: Tom Carmean, F; Sal LoCascio, GK; Vinnie Sombrotto, F; Mark Millon, F; Eric Seremet, C; Brian O'Keefe, A; Roy Colsey III, F.

Outlook: With LoCascio in goal and All-Pro Millon at attack, New York is a team to be reckoned with. LoCascio is a five-time MILL All-Pro and has been named the Saints' MVP six of his eight years. Millon, whose older brother, Tony, is now with the Thunder, was the league's fifth-leading scorer last season with 27 goals and 22 assists. The Saints, like the Thunder, are itching to get back to the title game. In their 11 seasons in the MILL, they made just two championship-game appearances, the last in 1989.

Ontario Raiders

Arena: Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario (17,500).

Last season: No team.

Coach: Les Bartley, first year.

Key players: Jim Veltman, F; Terry Bullen, F; Bob Watson, GK; Chris Gill, F; Rob Williams, F.

Outlook: Bartley, who led the Bandits to three MILL championships and five title games in his six years in Buffalo, will try and repeat north of the border. With 15 rookies and only two players with more than one year of experience, it won't be easy. Veltman, a five-time All-Pro selection for Buffalo, returns to his birthplace and will be called on to provide leadership for the inexperienced Raiders.

Philadelphia Wings

Arena: CoreStates Center, Philadelphia (19,000)

Last season: 7-3; lost to eventual champion Rochester, 15-13, in semifinals.

Coach: Tony Resch, fourth year.

Key players: Tom Marechek, F; Kevin Finneran, A; Scott Gabrielsen, C; Dallas Eliuk, GK; Brian Voelker, F; Paul Deniken, F; Jake Bergey, F.

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