Features | 12/28/2011 1:56:34 PM | Chris Ryndak
|John Tavares (Photo: Bill Wippert)|
For the past two decades, John Tavares has been the one constant on the Buffalo Bandits’ roster. As the National Lacrosse League’s all-time scorer enters his 21st season, he says that when he was growing up, he never imagined that he would have the opportunity to even play lacrosse professionally.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Wow I really want to play in that league,’ like growing up in Canada and saying, ‘I really want to play NHL hockey,” Tavares said. “There wasn’t like, ‘Man, I really want to play in a professional lacrosse league.’ There was no professional lacrosse to look up to.”
Tavares never gave lacrosse up though. He played through junior and found an opportunity to keep his career going when the Bandits were founded in 1992.
“It was one of those things where you kind of kept playing and kept playing and there just happened to be a league that was evolving in the States – the [Major Indoor Lacrosse League], which is now the National Lacrosse League. So it just kind of flowed with my lacrosse career, if you will,” he explained.
Tavares got his start playing lacrosse as a youth living in downtown Toronto. Tavares’ older brother Danny also played lacrosse and the sport was made affordable because St. Christopher House, a local youth center, provided equipment and use of a team van for $20 a player.
He was attracted to lacrosse not only because it was inexpensive, but because as a Maple Leafs fan, there were a lot of similarities to hockey. Like hockey, lacrosse was fast and physical. That lacrosse wasn’t played on ice helped, too.
“I was never a good skater so lacrosse was a good fit for me,” Tavares joked.
Since then, Tavares has recorded more goals, assists and points than any other player in NLL history. With Tavares, the Bandits have won three MILL titles and captured an NLL championship in 2008. His production hasn’t diminished with age, either. He led the Bandits in points last season with 78 and finished seventh in the league in scoring. He also was named an NLL Second Team All-Pro at the end of the season.
“Sometimes stats are deceiving. I didn’t get all those points by myself. I had teammates to help me with them,” Tavares said. “The goal of every team of every season in Buffalo in every sport has been to win a championship, so my most memorable years are the championship years. They’re not the years when I led the league in points or won an MVP. I don’t even remember those years. But I do remember the years that I won championships.”
The Bandits put an emphasis on strength and conditioning during this year’s training camp, pushing the players harder than in the past. At 43, Tavares is the oldest player on the team and sees staying healthy and in shape a top priority. He missed the Bandits’ playoff game against Toronto last season due to injury, but has been working out a lot more and is feeling healthy with the start of the new year.
“At my age, I have to do a lot of conditioning,” he said. “I think I can definitely improve from last year. Last year, I was fighting off some injuries, some nagging injuries, and when you’re hurt, it makes it tough to stay in shape and be as productive as you can. This year, my No. 1 goal is to stay healthy.”
Forward Luke Wiles, acquired in a trade with Washington in the off-season, said he’s looking forward to playing with Tavares. Wiles has played in the last two NLL Championship games and is hoping to win a second title with the Bandits this season.
“I want nothing more than to get Tavares to the championship here so he can go out on top because he deserves it more than anyone else,” Wiles said.
Tavares, however, isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
“I know that eventually, I can’t play forever, so eventually I’m going to have to give it up,” he said. “I’m trying to play as many years as possible without embarrassing myself, of course. There are a lot of different variables that push me to continue to play.”
One of those variables, he explained, is the communal atmosphere that comes with playing in Buffalo.
“It’s great playing in Buffalo. The fans are amazing there. It’s such a big family. [Head coach Darris Kilgour] has created that culture of putting the Buffalo Bandits as very family-orientated,” Tavares said. “Once you make the team, you’ve made the Buffalo Bandits family. It’s hard to give that up.
“I love being a part of that and I think also having younger kids in my life – a five and a four year old – I play lacrosse and they love the experience of going to Buffalo and watching me play there. So I want to continue to try to give them that.”
The Bandits open their season against the Toronto Rock on Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Niagara Center.