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Tavares still going strong; In twilight of career, Bandits superstar shines

John Tavares is supposed to be in the early winter of his career by now. He's playing as if it is late summer.

The 43-year-old Tavares, who with the rest of the Buffalo Bandits will play the Rush in Edmonton tonight (9 p.m., nll.com, Radio 1520 AM), is having another remarkable season in a career full of them. He has 36 goals and 33 assists for 69 points in 13 games. That ranks first on the Bandits and sixth in the National Lacrosse League.

Does that sound like someone who should be thinking about retirement?

Inevitably, though, the subject is going to come up. At some point, Tavares will tell us all that he's done and his uniform number will head directly to the rafters of First Niagara Center. We just don't know when, and Tavares doesn't either. The matter is still somewhere off in the distance.

The first clue about how close an athlete is to retiring usually comes with how the current season is going. For his part, Tavares isn't looking at his 69 points. He's more concerned with his team's disappointing 5-8 record.

"Yes, statistically it's OK. But when you aren't winning, how can you be happy?" he said. "I'm not the type of player that if I'm scoring and we're still losing, I'm happy. I'm not happy at all.

"I can obviously contribute in other ways. There are different ways to contribute than just getting points. There's the leadership role, making sure that the kids prepare for the game, and making sure other guys are producing. So I'm not happy with my personal play this year."

Tavares may be the only one who isn't happy with the way he's played in 2012. His coach certainly is satisfied with the work of No. 11.

"The adjustment was going to be that he wouldn't carry our offense, but that went out the window in the fourth or fifth game," Bandits coach Darris Kilgour said. "Our plan was to rest him through the year. He wasn't going to play every game. Well, he's the guy who comes through every game. We can't afford to sit him at all."

Tavares is playing on a Bandits team that is one loss away from clinching its first losing season since 1999. The veteran says in some ways this has been a trying year.

"It's always frustrating when you are working hard, thinking that you are doing everything right. And then we go out there and not be successful," he said. "It makes things more tense than they should be. It's not as much fun. Guys try to do much. It's a downhill battle. But, it takes one or two games in order to get out of that funk."

If the Bandits looked as if they were going to struggle in the next few years, would that make a difference in Tavares' thinking about when to retire? He says no.

"I'm not a guy who needs to retire on top," he said. "I don't have to end my season on a winning note, with a championship. It's nice, but I don't have to do that. As I've said before, when you get older you have to be strong mentally and physically.

"Overall, if I'm having fun, if the coaches want me to play -- I'm not going to lie. If I'm still producing, I think I can still play."

There were rumors around the trading deadline in March that Tavares might be dealt to another team, perhaps Toronto, in order to give him a better chance at a championship at a time when his career is at least winding down. It's a tribute to the amount of affection that others have for him, as they'd like to see Tavares earn another championship ring (he has four). For his part, though, the 21-year veteran wanted no part of that idea.

"I definitely said that I would rather be here and fix things here rather than try to go somewhere else and try to win a championship. We can still win the championship here. I don't know why people said that. I don't know how much trade value I'd have at this age. I think I made it pretty clear that I would rather stay here than go anywhere else."

Then there's the physical side of the game. The National Lacrosse League seems to get more athletic by the year, as big, strong rookies keep appearing on rosters. There aren't many 43-year-olds playing contact sports at the highest level.

Yet Tavares says he hasn't had any major issues with his health this season, outside of the usual bumps and bruises. A year-round conditioning program has helped.

"I have to [work out all the time] at my age," he said. "I play lacrosse in the summer and offseason. Usually September, October, November is when I work out as much as I can. I worked out pretty hard before the season, and I think it's paying dividends now."

Tavares has set up a routine for deciding what to do with his lacrosse career. He sits down after the Bandits' season ends, considers his mental and physical state, and talks to his family. If he returns to summer lacrosse in Ontario, it increases his chances of playing in the winter.

"My kids want me to play in Peterborough," Tavares said. "My kids love coming to the arena, whether it's Buffalo or Peterborough. I try to warn them and say, 'Daddy might be retiring.' One says, 'No, Daddy, you can't, you have to play one more year in Peterborough because of my friend Evan.' He's Tracey Kelusky's nephew, and my son Justin loves playing with him. They get on the floor after games, and shoot the ball around."

As for the Bandits, fans will be happy to know that the forward still enjoys the game.

"I definitely love playing," he said. "My family loves that I play. Even though we're not playing well, I'm still happy to participate with the team. I'm trying to help the team. I still enjoy what I'm doing. I try to do the things that I enjoy doing for as long as I can. If I finish this season strong, maybe I can play next year. But you never know at my age."

email: bbailey@buffnews.com