Old Team Tuesday: The Buffalo Gamblers

Old Team Tuesday is a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. This week’s edition takes an extensive look at a team loaded with historic greats that tried to make summer lacrosse stick in Buffalo.


Loganberry, the drink locals in Western New York proudly claim as their own, actually originated in Canada. Summers weren’t complete without a trip over the border to Crystal Beach, until the 101-year-old park was closed down in 1989. But on the flipside, is there something Buffalonians took from Canada that neither side of the border wants to lay claim to anymore?

There certainly is: The Gamblers. Not the kind you’ll find crowding the Fallsview Casino or Seneca Niagara. The lacrosse team that represented the region briefly yet brilliantly in the late 1990s.

--- Canadian heritage ---

The Ontario Lacrosse Association’s top senior circuit, Major Series Lacrosse, had undergone some hefty changes between 1985 and 1996. 1985 season saw six teams compete in a 20-game season. The following year, half of the league’s teams stopped competing, leaving Peterborough, Brooklin, Brampton with a reduced slate of 12 regular-season contests. In 1987, Brampton dropped out, but Fergus, Orangeville, and Sarnia-Lumley were added to the ranks while Owen Sound and Scarborough returned after a one-year hiatus.

A steady decline in membership through the 1990s saw the 1996 season played with just five teams. The perennially hapless Fergus Thistles never reclaimed the success they found in their back-to-back 17-win seasons of 1987 and 1988, so they bowed out following a last-place finish at 4-20.

Rather than contesting the 1997 season with four teams, the OLA put a Major Series team in Niagara Falls for the first time since the one-and-done Scobies lost 21 of their 24 games in 1961. The new team was given the moniker “Gamblers” as a reference to the city’s vast number of casinos. They were a talented team that blitzed the league in their inaugural season, boasting four of the league’s top 10 scorers and earning a first-place finish with a 17-3 regular-season record.

The Gamblers drew the Brooklin Redmen in the semi-final round of the playoffs, and easily dispatched them by sweeping the series four games to none. The finals, however, proved to be a far more difficult affair.

The Brampton Excelsiors took the first game of the series 9-8 at Niagara Falls Memorial Arena. The Gamblers leveled the series at 1-1 four days later in Brampton. A 10-9 home victory by Niagara Falls in game three was followed by a 9-7 home victory by Brampton in game four. Game five was the most lopsided of the postseason for either team, as the Excelsiors put the Gamblers on the brink of elimination with a 17-4 demolition on enemy turf. However, Niagara Falls posted 10-8 and 10-6 wins in games six and seven to come back and end Brampton’s season.

Through the 11 games in the OLA playoffs, Darris Kilgour led the Gamblers in both points (16g, 24a) and penalty minutes (43). Randy Mearns was second on the team with 28 points (14g, 14a) as both players sought to become the first OLA players to ever capture six Mann Cup titles.

The Mann Cup, Canadian lacrosse’s most prestigious challenge trophy, was held in British Columbia in 1997. Niagara Falls faced the Western Lacrosse Association’s champion Victoria Shamrocks in the finals. Despite a $1,000 grant from the City of Niagara Falls to alleviate the cost of travel, the Gamblers fell in the series four games to one. Kilgour had 11 points (5g, 6a) in the five-game series to lead the team in scoring yet again.

A program and ticket stub from the 1997 Mann Cup. 

--- An American gamble ---

Not two months after their triumph in the OLA finals, an announcement was made stating that the Gamblers had signed a letter of intent that would relocate the team to Marine Midland Arena in downtown Buffalo for the 1998 and 1999 seasons. For the second time, OLA Major lacrosse was gone from Niagara Falls after just one season. For the first time, an American city would be home to the OLA.

The reason for the move was purely financial. Team officials figured up to 40 percent of the fans at their home games were coming from the United States. Since they had so much appeal on the other side of the border, the thinking was that they could capitalize on it further by playing in the same building the three-time champion Buffalo Bandits used. The Bandits had drawn in over 161,000 fans for 11 regular-season home games in their first two seasons at Marine Midland Arena. With the Gamblers, summer box lacrosse was brought to Buffalo with the hope it could complement the appetite Western New Yorkers had developed for the game in the winter months by watching the Bandits. The only other summer sports that they had to compete with were Roller Hockey International’s Buffalo Wings, and the Buffalo Bisons, 1997 champions of the American Association.

Much of the roster from their successful expansion run remained intact. Mearns, Jason Luke, Derek Graham, Steve Fannell, Steve Toll, and Bob Watson were several familiar faces that suited up again for the Gamblers. The team was further bolstered by acquisitions that included Paul Gait, and Curt and Derek Malawsky.

The Kilgour brothers – Darris, Rich, and Travis – returned to the Gamblers after sharing the turf in Bandits uniforms the previous four seasons. However, two of the brothers had expanded roles for 1998. While all three would still suit up and play, Darris was named the team’s head coach and Rich was also appointed general manager.

--- Streaking Buffalo ---

Buffalo opened the season on May 23 at the Six Nations Chiefs, whose roster contained five Bomberrys (Cam, Cory, Trevor, Tim, and Tyler) and seven Squires (Dallas, Rod, Chad, Cory, Clay, Rick, Todd, and Kim). In 1997, the Gamblers had swept the season series by winning all five matchups against the Chiefs.

Look at all the relatives!

Derek Malawsky (1g, 3a) and Luke (1g, 3a) led the way for the Gamblers while the two teams combined for 317 penalty minutes and several ejections. Graham, Curt Malawsky, Mike Ladouceur, Grant Johnston, and Orchard Park native Chris Clark rounded out the scoring to deliver a 10-4 road win.

June 6 was the Gamblers’ first game in Buffalo – and the first OLA Major Series contest ever outside Canada. The team moved to 2-0 with a 25-3 pounding of the expansion Ohsweken Wolves. Just two Gamblers failed to tally a point while Toll (5g, 3a) and Luke (4g, 4a) posted eight points apiece. Gait recorded three points (2g, 1a) in his team debut.

The next contest was a championship rematch against the Excelsiors, who also entered the game unbeaten at 2-0. Brampton edged Buffalo 12-8 following a seven-goal outburst in the second period.

Back-and-forth play saw the Gamblers reach the halfway point of the season with a 5-3-1 record. However, a definitive 11-1 triumph over the 1-10 Wolves on July 5 proved to be a turning point for Buffalo, who reeled off seven wins in their next eight games to clinch second place in the association for the playoffs. The lone loss in that stretch came against Brooklin on July 15, when Watson, the starting goaltender, suffered a gruesome injury after a shot from Redmen forward Ken Millen hit him directly in the facemask, bending the bars and seriously hurting his nose and left eye.

After a seven-game series to decide the Ontario championship in 1997, Brampton and Buffalo continued to butt heads in 1998, as the Excelsiors were out for blood the following year. Their 14-0 start to the season evaporated when the Gamblers won 9-7 in overtime on July 20. In the regular-season finale, Brampton exacted their revenge by serving the Gamblers their first regular-season home loss ever in a tightly-contested 8-7 decision. Darris Kilgours’ game-tying attempt clanked off the iron with three ticks left in the final period.

--- Rivalries, redux ---

Just as in 1997, the Gamblers and Redmen squared off in the semi-finals of the OLA Major Series playoffs in 1998. Backup goaltender Ryan Kells continued his hot play, recording 32 saves in a 12-5 win in the opening game. Gait tallied 10 goals in the series to help dispatch Brooklin in five games.

Brampton, meanwhile, throttled Peterborough in their series to earn a shot at redemption against the Gamblers in the finals.

In the opening game, the Excelsiors used a 7-1 second-half push to come back from an early deficit and win 9-6 at home.

In the second game, Gait brought Buffalo to within a goal just 35 seconds into the third period before Brampton snuffed out Buffalo’s attempt to level the series by closing out an 11-7 victory. Buffalo took 11 penalties in the contest, and the physicality of the game nearly spilled into the stands, when Brampton fans spat on Gamblers players on the bench.

After another 11-7 loss in game three, Buffalo showed signs of life by rallying behind goaltender Corey Quinn in a narrow 8-7 win in game four. Quinn was called up from St. Catharines (OLA Jr. A) for his first-ever career start at the Major level. As had happened in the teams’ final game of the regular season, the losing team had a chance to tie things up late, but rang the last desperate attempt off the goalpost with three seconds to play.

The Excelsiors wrapped up the series at home the next game with an 8-5 win, getting payback on the team that beat then in seven games to play for the Mann Cup the previous season by winning six out of eight matchups, including four in the postseason.

--- Unsettling conclusions ---

Despite loading up their already-talented roster in the offseason, the Gamblers failed to realize their quest of hosting the Mann Cup in a second-straight showing. 

Gait led the team in playoff scoring, despite only playing in five regular-season games due to obligations for the Canadian national team.

After Watson’s injury sidelined him for the season, Kells fueled the team’s second-half charge and the run to the finals. When the team opted for a goaltending change to find some help drowning in a 3-0 deficit, young Quinn solidified the crease for the team yet again.

Though Darris Kilgour began the season as a player/coach, the burden proved too much to handle, and Les Wakeling was added to the staff to help guide the team. The turnaround was markedly evident, as a 7-2 second half gave the Gamblers home-field advantage for their first-round series against Brooklin.

An eBay auction featuring a Gamblers' jersey made noise on Goose's Roost in March 2009.

Attendance at Marine Midland Arena was far below what team and facility officials had hoped for. Though the 300 level was blacked out to reduce capacity to 10,000, the team barely averaged 2,000 spectators for their nine regular-season home games. Playoff attendance plummeted afterward, with only 2,000 total fans coming through the gate during the two series against the Redmen and Excelsiors. The inability to bring in fans led to the team terminating their agreement with Marine Midland Arena early, as the Gamblers folded prior to the 1999 season.

Darris and Rich Kilgour took the following summer off from the OLA, while Travis was taken in by the newly-promoted St. Catharines Athletics. Curt and Derek Malawsky also opted to not go back to the OLA in 1999. Mearns returned to the rival Excelsiors, with whom he’d won titles in 1992 and 1993. Watson recovered from the facial injury and also earned a roster spot in Brampton, while Toll was acquired by Brooklin.

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