Dhane Smith says it’s funny to think he’s one of the old guys now. Hard to believe, but he has been with the Bandits for 10 years. He remembers being a shy 19-year-old rookie, looking up to established stars like John Tavares, Mark Steenhuis and Shawn Williams.
Smith is now 30, the veteran leader and superstar on a Bandits team that has its sights set on an elusive National Lacrosse League championship. He desperately wants to win another title for the city’s avid fans.
“I think we have the team to do it,” Smith said last week in the Bandits locker room. “And I’ll do whatever it takes to bring a championship to Buffalo, because the fans deserve it.”
Smith is a native Canadian, from Kitchener, Ontario, but he now lives downtown, owns a home in Hamburg is and has plans to build another in the Hamburg-Eden area. He’s become the sort of athlete the locals take to heart: A Buffalo guy.
“It’s weird that you say that,” Smith said with a laugh. “In 2012, I came here and the downtown was nothing like it is now. I was like, ‘Oh, There’s no way I’d live here.’ My first two years, I didn’t live here. My next year, I lived here and I’d go back home during the summers.
“Then I ended up staying. The summers are fun in Buffalo and now I’m pretty much a Buffalo guy now,” he said. “It’s definitely grown on me a lot.”
He’s grown a lot as a player, too. That’s saying a lot when you consider that Smith owns the NLL records for points (137) and goals (72) in a season, established when he was the league’s MVP in 2016.
But head coach John Tavares, who was still playing at 43 when Smith broke in with the Bandits, says Dhane has become a more complete, cerebral player and a team leader since that historic season six years ago.
“Dhane has been great this year, and he’s been great in the past,” Tavares said. “I think he’s definitely become a better player as he gets older. He is a great team guy; he is very coachable, a leader on and off the floor. He’s experienced a lot of success and he’s happy for other guys to have success as well.
“He scores from the outside, he scores from the inside, he sees the ball, he runs back and plays defense if he has to,” Tavares added. He’s definitely an all-around player and a great guy to lead our team.”
Smith says the guys around him are making him better. The statistics say it’s working both ways. In Saturday’s loss, he had a goal and eight assists, giving him 87 helpers on the season and breaking the NLL record of 84 set by Mark Matthews in 2018.
With two games left in the regular season, Smith is on pace to break his own league record of 137 points, set in his MVP season of 2016. He’s up to 126 points, leaving him 12 short of the record. He has 21 points in the Bandits’ current two-game losing streak, which dropped their record to 13-3, still the best in the league.
“I don’t know if I’m necessarily a better player,” Smith said, “but I’m more of a leader. That takes a lot of responsibility. I take a lot of responsibility on myself as far as the offense goes. I’m very vocal and try to lead by example.”
Tavares said Smith has become a more creative offensive player, able to see possibilities unfold on the field and take advantage of opposing defenses.
“I think being a great athlete only takes you so far,” Tavares said. “Your speed can only take you so far. Your size can only take you so far. I think decision-making is what keeps you in the game for a longer period of time.
“That’s what Dhane has. He has a great combination of size, speed and smarts. He has a high IQ. A lot of guys with his athleticism don’t have that IQ. So he just seems to be a complete package. It’s showing in the statistics, it’s showing from our team wins and losses. It’s showing everywhere.”
That intangible quality, the ability to rise above sheer physical skills and play lacrosse at a higher intellectual level, is reminiscent of another Bandit great — his coach and former teammate, Tavares, who played 25 seasons and remains the leading scorer in NLL history.
“He’s just about twice as fast as I was, though, and about five inches taller,” Tavares said with a laugh.
“No, there’s a lot of similarities between Dhane and me, for sure. Even our personalities. I find we’re very similar. That’s a big compliment, to compare me to a player we talk about as a potential MVP.”
Imagine that, the NLL’s all-time scoring leader, a three-time MVP, a Hall of Famer, being flattered by comparisons with his star player.
“I don’t know about that,” Smith said. “That’s high praise. We get along. We have a great relationship. Getting to play with him was unbelievable. Getting coached by him, I’ve learned a lot. I think what I learned most is outsmarting people. You don’t have to use your skills as much as you think you do. You have to slow the game down and let it come to you.”
Smith said the game does slow down as you get older, as most great athletes will attest. After 10 years, you get more savvy about the sport’s nuances. After suffering various injuries over his career, he has also taken better care of his body. He’s lost 15 pounds and seems ever faster on the field.
He’s also become a more vocal leader, which Tavares says makes his job as coach easier. Tavares defined himself above all as a great teammate, and Smith does as well. When he was named league MVP at the 2016 NLL awards ceremony — the same night Tavares went into the Hall of fame — Smith read off the names of all his teammate and called them onto the stage.
Smith stands alongside Josh Allen as Buffalo’s two pro sports superstars. Like the Bills’ quarterback, he is still chasing that elusive first championship. The Bandits lost in the NLL final in 2016 and again in 2019, the last time there was a postseason. The league shut down halfway through 2020 and canceled the 2021 season due to the COVID-pandemic.
“It’s been a long time,” Smith said. “I felt like 2016 we had a really good team, and 2019 I thought we had the team to do it and we fell short. We were young at that time. Now we have the same players and we’re a little hungrier.
“We know what it takes to win a championship, and (general manager) Steve Dietrich has done a great job of bringing in the pieces around us. We have that core group we had in 2019, so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Smith said it was tough having the NLL shut down for a year and a half. He also plays for Chaos in the outdoor Premier Lacrosse League, so he wasn’t entirely idle.
“But not playing in the thing I love the most was crazy,” he said.
His heart is with the indoor game. The Bandits loom as the favorite. With two games left in the regular season, they have a two-game lead in the East and can clinch home-field advantage Saturday against Georgia.
Smith and Tavares both want a title for the loyal fans at KeyBank Center, who top the NLL in attendance at around 9,000 a game. Smith says it will only get better in the playoffs, when the arena truly rocks for the indoor spectacle.
Buffalo is Smith’s adopted home, after all. He wants lacrosse to thrive in the city, which is why he has done clinics to expose city kids to the sport. After the George Floyd murder, Smith — the only Black player to win the MVP award in the NLL — spoke out on Twitter about racial injustice and his struggles growing up as one of the few Black players in a largely white sport.
“I’m pretty soft-spoken person,” he said. “But when the George Floyd incident came up, I wanted to use my platform to the best of my ability. I could use my social media for kids and everybody else to look up to and understand a little bit better.”
That includes trying to get more minority kids involved in the sport he loves.
“Once COVID slows down even more, we’re going back to the inner-city schools and teach those kids lacrosse,” Smith said. “Scott Loffler (the team’s director of operations) had a school program set up for us. At first, they didn’t know what lacrosse was, but by the end of the gym class or assembly they loved it and wanted to pick it up.”
Smith said he’ll do anything he can to give back to a special community. You’d expect nothing less from an old Buffalo guy.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.