Chris Cloutier is grateful for the fresh start he received when the Buffalo Bandits traded for him in February 2019.
The Philadelphia Wings had selected the forward, listed then at 6-foot-1, 227 pounds, with the second-overall pick in that summer’s NLL Draft.
By midseason, the Wings were ready to move on and sent him to Buffalo in exchange for defenseman Ryan Wagner and a 2021 first-round pick.
“I look at what happened in Philly as squashing my first chance. I really thought I ruined my only chance to live out my dream,” Cloutier said.
Fast-forward three years. Cloutier is a key piece of a franchise… just not the one that drafted him.
Once he got to Buffalo, he posted 22 points (12+10) in eight games and followed that up with 41 points in 10 games during the 2019-2020 season, which was cut short due to the pandemic.
And he’s off to a hot start this season. He’s third on the team in points (17), tied for third in assists (11), and tied for first in power-play assists (4) through four games.
However, the journey to get to where he is now wasn’t easy.
Before being drafted into the NLL, Cloutier was living out all of his lacrosse dreams. He was on top of the lacrosse world at the University of North Carolina, where the Tar Heels won the national championship during his sophomore season.
Cloutier was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and his 19 goals in four games – including nine against Loyola Maryland – is still an NCAA record.
After four years with the Tar Heels, Cloutier scored 111 goals in 50 games, making him one of the most sought-after prospects that would be turning pro in the MLL and NLL.
He was drafted by the Denver Outlaws with the 29th pick in the 2018 MLL draft and reported to Denver shortly after his last collegiate game. However, in his sixth game with the Outlaws, he tore his MCL, which should have put him on the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
While he looks back at it now and realizes it probably wasn’t the wisest decision, Cloutier played in the championship game to help Denver win their third championship. He also earned MLL Rookie of the Year honors.
Throughout the rehab process, as he was preparing for that fall’s NLL Draft, Cloutier realized that he was gaining weight. Initially, he credited it to not being able to do much cardio and the junk food in his diet. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a glaring concern for him since his top priority was getting his knee back to 100 percent.
A few months later, the newly established expansion Philadelphia Wings selected Cloutier with the second pick in the draft and head coach and general manager Paul Day hoped Cloutier would be a part of their core for many years to come.
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t turn out to be the case.
After registering 24 points (7+17) in seven games for the Wings, the organization saw his weight gain as a glaring issue. Even though he was still contributing offensively, they saw him as out of shape and not the elite-level goal scorer that they had scouted at UNC.
So after just seven games, they worked out a trade with Buffalo.
Cloutier experienced a roller coaster of emotions, but soon realized the fresh start would allow him to play for his favorite team growing up, as well as the opportunity to line up alongside forward Dhane Smith, a fellow native of Kitchener, Ontario.
“Heading into the draft, I told my buddies before I was selected by Philly that if I could go anywhere, I would pick Buffalo because I actually grew up a Bandits fan,” Cloutier said. “It was exciting to play with Dhane again because I did for most of my junior career, and I was really good buddies with his younger brother Drake.”
Knowing the type of talent Cloutier had in him, Smith and second-year player Josh Byrne took the initiative to motivate him to get back into shape.
“Before I got traded, I didn’t really love working out,” he said. “It was a struggle for me to get into the gym. Dhane and Josh made sure to come to my apartment to grab and peel me off the couch. They did whatever it took.”.
Cloutier started to emphasize working out to make the Bandits’ gamble of trading for him pay off. As he began to see the number on the scale decrease, it gave him more confidence and validation to continue to train even harder.
“I used to always think you could just get by with just good hands, and you don’t really need to be super fit,” he said. “They really changed my whole mindset. I owe that all to those two guys.”
Since arriving in Buffalo, Cloutier has seen a transformation in not just his physical health but also his mental health. He’s back to his pre-draft weight, but he has also embraced the team-first mindset instilled by Bandits head coach John Taraves.
“The biggest maturing thing for me was realizing anyone on the floor can go out for a huge night. I’m not having a good game, I can sit back and just be a facilitator and let someone else go off,” Cloutier said. “It’s way more fun when everyone on the offense can score.”
Cloutier views being a veteran for younger players like Brad McCulley as a beneficial process for him as much as it is for the rookie.
“In my mind, it just makes me more accountable,” he said. “If I want to take a day off in the gym, I know that Brad will be watching. If I take a day off he’s gonna think that’s OK.”
Holding himself accountable and not needing to be dependent on teammates anymore for motivation exemplifies the personal growth that Cloutier has undergone since the trade.
“Coming to Buffalo gave me a second opportunity,” he said. “I have some really good guys behind me in my corner who pushed me. It was the best thing for me. For lacrosse and for my own well-being.”