I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the building for numerous great games. Raptors/Sixers Game 7, Doc’s no-no, 2008 NLCS Game 4 and 2008 World Series Game 5 to name a few. To be honest, I don’t know which one is the best.
But I wanted to call attention to a game that remains near and dear to me 25 years after it occurred: the 1995 Major Indoor Lacrosse League Championship Game between the Philadelphia Wings and Rochester Knighthawks.
As a kid, I adored the Wings. We had season tickets and I loved going on a Friday or Saturday night as Gary Gait and company racked up win after win. You just never knew what you might see.
One night, it might be a 20-goal game. The next, it could be five or six fights. In fact, the first Wings game I ever went to had to be postponed in the 3rd quarter because of a brawl that involved players and fans. I was immediately hooked.
In my 10-year old mind, Gary Gait was on the same level as Mario Lemieux and Michael Jordan. One-half of the famed Gait twins that dominated the college landscape at Syracuse University, Gary served as the lacrosse version of Jordan combined with 'Pistol' Pete Maravich. He was so much better than 99 percent of the league that he would regularly try shots and passes others couldn’t even conceive, let alone execute. I’ll never forget one time on a breakaway when he placed the stick over his head and down his back before flipping a shot from between his own legs. He was a walking YouTube compilation before we knew what that was.
The 1995 MILL championship game was played on a Saturday afternoon at The Spectrum. (Weird time for a game. Felt like a bad omen.) The Rochester Knighthawks were the Wings' opponent. After years of the Wings battling with the Buffalo Bandits for the title, I hoped that the expansion Knighthawks would be nothing but a speed cushion on the way to a championship.
That wish went unfulfilled. Gary’s brother Paul led the way for Rochester in a game that was tight throughout. The Wings held a one-goal lead with just over 30 seconds left. After a Dallas Eliuk save, the Wings had a chance to manage the game to its end by maintaining possession. But a sloppy turnover behind the Wings' net led to an easy Knighthawks goal from the edge of the crease.
Now keep in mind, this is 1995 and I am 10. The most common emotion I know as a Philly sports fan, in that moment, is a cocktail of resignation and dread. Philadelphia sports teams do not come back from a calamity like that and win a game, let alone a championship. As I slunk back into my seat in the dimly lit corner of America’s Showplace, I recall the absence of sound in the building. A packed house completely silent. The noise vacuumed out of it.
The game went to overtime. I don’t know how it got there. I was still in a stupor. The Knighthawks won the faceoff to start sudden-death overtime because of course they did. It would be a matter of seconds before they’d score and ruin it for me. But then a funny thing happened. The Knighthawks didn’t even get a shot off. Shot clock violation. Wings ball.
My eyes immediately went to the Wings bench. Gary Gait came out the bench door and jogged at about three-quarters speed down the boards to the extended goal line area.
I never watched the ball. I only watched Gait. Even a 10-year old knew where the ball was eventually going. The “22” on the back of the jersey bounced up and down as Gait rolled off a down screen.
And there he was. All alone. The best lacrosse player in the world about 15 feet out straight on with goaltender/human roadblock Steve “Chugger” Dietrich.
The pass floated to its desired destination, the netting of Gait’s stick. He received and fired all in one motion. By the time Dietrich lunged, the shot was past him.
I don’t remember what I said or did as rubber hit net. But I’ll never forget the emotions I felt in that moment. First, relief. The investment of my 10-year old heart in a bunch of guys that played lacrosse as a part-time profession paid off.
Then, vindication. That was my guy that made the play. Gary Gait. My hero was THE HERO.
Lastly, jubilation. The Wings were champs. Philadelphia had a winner and I was there to see it. W-I-N-G-S, WINGS.