TORONTO — For the past several years, Buffalo Bandits superstar John Tavares hasn’t given retirement much thought – except when it’s been brought up by others. The original Bandit has said he’d keep playing as long as he enjoyed it and was contributing to the team.
Now, the subject is on his mind. The disclosure came after he sat out last week’s game in Minnesota.
“I was a healthy scratch for the first time in my career,” Tavares said, adding that retirement popped into his head. “I wondered about my lacrosse career. I’ve struggled a bit lately, and maybe that’s why I didn’t play.”
The 45-year-old is expected to be back in the lineup tonight when Buffalo tries to end a five-game losing streak when it plays the Rock (9:30 p.m., nll.com, Radio 930 AM).
Bandits’ management has talked about giving Tavares a bit of rest during the season.
“We go into every season thinking that we want JT to play about 12 games, but we never seem to be able to do that,” Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich said. “Last week we decided to sit him. He is a consummate professional. He understands that we are trying to make it better for him.
“He wanted to play. He always believes he can be a difference-maker. He was disappointed, but he’ll be ready to go this weekend.”
Tavares could be a little frustrated. He has 21 goals, second on the team, but has only three scores in the past four games.
“It puts a question in my mind,” he said about his output. “It hits you in your confidence. At 45, the writing is on the wall that you can’t go on too much farther.”
No matter when that career finally ends, Tavares will be remembered as the greatest player in indoor lacrosse history. He holds all the National Lacrosse League’s scoring records by a wide margin. Consider this: Tavares would still be the NLL’s all-time leading goal scorer if he had retired after the 2009 season.
Bob Hamley was a Bandit teammate of Tavares when the team was formed in 1992 and a witness to goal No. 1.
“It was the whole package,” Hamley said about Tavares’ game. “His compete level was unbelievable. We’d play one-on-one in basketball, and he was competitive. Now, his lacrosse IQ has really kept him going. He understands the game so well. He knows when to pick his spots. I marvel at what he’s done. We all do.”
Tavares was bothered by a calf injury in 2013, which forced him to miss four games and play with reduced effectiveness in others. When he skipped summer play in Ontario, some thought that was a sign of impending retirement from the Bandits. But Tavares said he didn’t come close to giving up the game. When he turned up in Buffalo for training camp, he found that the summer off was a mixed blessing.
“Physically it did help with recouping from the injuries,” said Tavares, whose “day job” is a math teacher in suburban Toronto. “I’m 45 and I’m going to have injuries – pulled muscles, previous injuries like the calf. The time off seemed to help a lot. By the same token, I was a step behind in terms of my skills. The game was a lot faster. I was a step behind in my decision-making.”
Tavares started the season by scoring 12 goals in the season’s first five games, including a five-goal game against Philadelphia on Jan. 12. Hamley, who lost his job as coach of the Colorado Mammoth earlier this season, said any team still has to account for Tavares in its pregame thinking.
“Absolutely. More than anything, you want to play him five-on-five. You don’t want him to be on the power play. You can’t give a guy like that a four-on-three or five-on-four situation,” he said. “He’s going to set someone up or make a great play to score. If you try to have a young athletic guy chase him, he’ll let someone else carry the ball.”
Along the way this season, Tavares scored the 800th goal of his National Lacrosse League career. It was a nice round number, but it’s not the milestone he’ll remember. Tavares has his 597th goal in the front of his memory book – the one that allowed him to pass Gary Gait as the NLL’s all-time leader on Jan. 20, 2008.
“That was more monumental than hitting 700 or 800. Those just happened to be ones with two zeros on the end,” the 23-year Bandit said. “When I get close to milestones, I put added pressure on myself. … I want to get them out of the way, and I do feel that pressure. The milestones don’t mean that much to me. I think it means more to fans. … If you went down the list, I couldn’t remember anything about 100 or 200.”
On the subject of retirement, Hamley said Tavares would start to feel the urge to retire in an odd place – his car.
“When I got to the end of my career, I asked myself, “Do I really want to drive two hours to a practice or game? You get to that point,” said the ex-Bandit, who retired after the 1995 season at age 30. “John doesn’t seem to want to quit. He’s one of a kind.”
Dietrich made the same point to Tavares last year in a slightly different way.
“He said, there are three stages. At first you love going to the rink,” Tavares recalled. “In the second stage, you don’t want to go, but when you get there, you enjoy it. In the third stage you don’t want to be there at all. I think I’m still in the second stage. I still enjoy it.”
Hockey’s Wayne Gretzky once said he knew it was time to retire when opposing players would apologize for hitting him on the ice.
“Nobody is saying that to me,” Tavares said.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m getting in the way. I’m getting knocked down more. I don’t know if it is a mindset, but sometimes I feel like I’m a pushover. I definitely tense up when there’s a ground ball.”
A decision about summer lacrosse may come first for the veteran. Tavares has talked to some teams, but he won’t make any decisions on that for the time being.
Tavares’ most immediate concern is tonight’s game. Dietrich said the team has been hit by the flu bug and some minor injuries lately, and he’s not sure what the lineup will look like tonight as well as Saturday night in Rochester.
Not only do the Bandits want to end the current losing streak, but they want to clinch second place in the East and the home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
“It would be nice to get a home playoff spot,” Tavares said. “The fans have been so supportive. We had a great turnout for Calgary. It would be nice to get a win.
“Obviously, we’re in a slump. We got off to a good start, including myself. The last five games, I’ve struggled and the team has struggled. … I feel like I’m at the same pace the team is. I’m part of the problem.”