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No place like home for Tavares ; Forward, Bandits to reach milestone

It almost wouldn't be a home opener for the Buffalo Bandits unless John Tavares was involved.

Tavares and the Bandits will start their 20th home season tonight when they host the Toronto Rock in HSBC Arena (7:30, TWC 13, Radio 1520 AM).

The veteran forward has seen 19 of these nights, but he still gets a thrill out of taking the field in front of the home fans for the first time in a new season.

"I do get excited and I'm always a little nervous," the forward said. "In this case it's kind of a nice buildup to have a couple of games on the road first. It makes you look forward to playing in front of our own fans."

Tonight, Tavares will put on a special 20th season throwback uniform, which will closely resemble the one he put on for the team's first home opener in Memorial Auditorium on Jan. 4, 1992.

"I still remember that one. It was against the New York Saints," the 42-year-old said. "We had a half-decent crowd for the game. The start of the game got delayed because people were waiting to come into the arena. There was a line of tickets that went out the door and went around the corner.

"I was not surprised, but I guess I am a little biased because I like the game so much."

Now Tavares will wear No. 11 once again tonight and hear the roars of the Bandits' faithful, which will include many more fans than the 9,052 that turned out in 1992.

"We still have a lot of the same fans," he pointed out. "I bump into people who tell me they watched the team when they were 10 years old, and they're still watching now. They're almost 30 and they bring their kids to the game.

"That's not weird, but it puts my age in perspective. It's great we've had fans following us for so long."

Milestones like tonight's can test his memory bank. This one reminds Tavares of one of his teammates on those first few Bandits' teams.

"Bill Gerrie was one of our first goalies," he said. "He was 34 our first year. I was like, 'I want to be like him.' Back then, there weren't a lot of athletes that played that long. There were a few guys like Gordie Howe, but some players retired at 31 or 32. Bill was playing and he was older than that. It made me realize that I wanted to keep going and going.

"When I turned 30, people started to ask me, 'When are you going to retire?' I said I wanted five more years. All of a sudden, I'm in my 20th year. It's been a great ride."

Tavares owns the three major National Lacrosse League records for offense -- goals (694), assists (781) and points (1,475). In terms of the record book, he's in the proverbial class by himself.

"In my opinion, he's the best of all time," said Terry Sanderson, general manager of the Rock. "I know, age is coming, but some nights you wouldn't know it. He's the best guy who ever played. It was a pleasure to go against him. There's been so much said about J.T. that I don't know what else can be said."

"The main key is that he's kept himself in shape. I don't know if he's missed five practices over the years," said Bandits coach Darris Kilgour, a former teammate. "He's never taken any nights off. He's proof that hard work gets you to where you want to go. I don't know when he's going to retire but I hope it's not too soon."

Any nostalgic feelings from Tavares need to end as soon as the pregame ceremonies are over, because the Bandits have a big task in front of them tonight. Toronto is 3-0 after beating Boston, 15-14 in overtime on Friday night.

The Bandits, meanwhile, rebounded last week against the Wings in Philadelphia after an opening loss in Calgary. If the Bandits had lost last week, the Rock would have had a chance to almost bury the Bandits in the standings with a sweep of the home-and-home series between the teams that concludes next Saturday night in Toronto.

"Before the Philadelphia game, Darris was talking about last year's team, how it got off to a bad start," Tavares said. "The game in Calgary, they played a great game but it could have gone our way. A lot of people pressed the panic button, but we played a good second half there. Then we played a great defensive game in Philadelphia."

e-mail: bbailey@buffnews.com

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