PHILADELPHIA — There were colorful lights on the floor and the ceiling and the glass. There was an enormous chrome letter W. It had lights, too. And four flamethrowers sat adjacent. In the lower level, men in kilts blared bagpipes. A third musician drummed between them. A youth lacrosse team stormed the field after a video animation played on the same surface. Hot tubs bubbled upstairs.
Halfway through all the commotion that came with lacrosse’s jubilous return to the Wells Fargo Center, the home team was introduced. They bumped fists. They pumped up a crowd of 11,023. They watched their predecessors trickle out of a tunnel to the sound of roaring applause. Then, with helmets on and sticks in hand, they stood and watched as banners honoring their franchise’s championship history — and the three players who most contributed to it — ascended to the rafters.
“It was like Philly never left,” rookie forward Chris Cloutier said.
Later, Wings head coach and general manager Paul Day acknowledged the idle time might have played a part in the quick three-goal deficit in which his team found itself at the onset of an eventual 17-15 loss to the Buffalo Bandits (1-0) on Saturday afternoon.
But the celebration, he said, was worth it.
“It was fantastic to see the banners go up and all the old guys I used to play against and coach against,” Day said, “I’m not going to use that as an excuse, that’s for sure.”
Minutes before all the pomp and circumstance, the Wings’ arena host interviewed a fan on the jumbotron. The fan, clad in a red and black jersey representative of an era now gone, answered questions about his favorite favorite lacrosse team’s return with excitement. But when he was asked about what would make all of this excitement worthwhile, the fan offered a one-word reply.
“Winning,” the fan said.
As assistant captain Jordan Hall and young forwards Cloutier and Matt Rambo answered questions after the game, that was the reality to which they continuously came back. The Wings lost. The intensity of pregame festivities evaporated before Philadelphia could even touch the ball, because the Bandits took 30 seconds to turn the opening faceoff into a Thomas Hoggarth goal. A quiet crowd fell nearly silent after Corey Small added one of five first-half goals a little more than a minute later.
But that intensity didn’t wane in the Wings. Despite not beating Buffalo goalie Matt Vinc once in the game’s first nine minutes, Josh Currier leveled a Bandit over the boards and into the visitor’s bench. Wings goalie Doug Buchan made some impressive saves. And when transition Vaughn Harris scored to make it 3-1, the scoreboard showed the signs of life that the Wings never fully lost.
The two teams mostly traded goals for the remainder of the half. Cloutier and Currier notched one goal each. Defenseman Steph Charbonneau popped a surprise goal in transition. Hall set a firm off-ball screen and rolled to the crease for an easy goal of his own. But when Buffalo defender Steve Priolo rolled a ball underneath Buchan for a 10-7 Bandits lead midway through the second quarter, Day opted for Davide DiRuscio, who stopped five of six shots on net before halftime, several of which came in a five-on-three situation.
“It’s great just to change the momentum,” Day said. “We’ve got two young goalies. Twenty-four and 26. They’re both going to play a lot this year. We’ve said this: we’re going to score by committee, we’re going to defend by committee and we’re going to goaltend by committee. We don’t have any NLL all-stars from last year or the year before, but that’s good. We’re going to grow.”
The Wings showed signs of that desired maturity in the second half. With a 13-9 deficit, Matt Rambo emerged from a timeout, buried his first career goal and appropriately pumped a celebratory fist. Minutes later, Cloutier and defender Frank Brown coupled two goals in a 30-second span. The Wings won the quarter. They took a man-up situation into the final period. Then, after 10 minutes of flirting with a tie game, Currier won a ground ball in the corner of the offensive zone and dove straight at the net for some unassisted heroics to knot the contest at 15 goals apiece.
Every time Philadelphia secured the ball, its fan base howled at the prospect of a go-ahead point. It never came. Shawn Evans reclaimed the Bandits’ lead with a minute left. He lept into the boards and jawed with a disgusted home crowd. But when insurance goal got wiped away after video review showed a crease violation, the Wings — yet again — had a chance to tie. They couldn’t convert after pulling DiRuscio for an extra offensive asset. The frustration came out when Wings defender Chet Koneczny and Buffalo defender Mitch de Snoo dropped gloves in the final seconds, renewing the passion that has defined this heated rivalry for decades.
“I kind of think Buffalo is one of the teams to beat,” Day said. “They could be the best team in the east. We’re a very young team and we made some young mistakes, but it’s a great learning experience for us.”
That is the solace in an 0-1 record for a franchise that is still rightly celebrating existence. Hall, the assistant captain, missed training camp and just Friday night introduced himself to most of the guys on the team. Finnish defender Joakim Miller flew in from his home country a few hours earlier, but he and the injured Blaze Riorden should be available in two weeks. And neither assistant coach, Tracey Kelusky or Ian Rubel, were present for the season opener. It will take time to find an ideal form.
“We just had Pauly running around with a clipboard and yelling at refs and trying to coach us,” Hall joked. “You never want to lose, but I think we got better throughout the game, and that’s at least good to build on for our next one against Rochester.”