This is the second in a series of stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2015.
By Budd Bailey
News Sports Reporter
When John Tavares heard in June that he had been selected for induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, his reaction was unusual.
“When I got the word, I said, ‘Does that mean I have to retire? Do they know something I don’t?’ That was my first thought,” he said.
Perhaps the hall’s directors had a flash of extra-sensory perception in picking Tavares more than two months before he announced his retirement on Sept. 2. However, it’s more likely that Tavares’ career was ridiculously over-qualified for the area’s biggest honor, and there was no point in waiting any longer. After all, Tavares set new standards for excellence during his spectacular indoor lacrosse career. He certainly is a candidate for the title of the greatest player in the sport’s history.
The forward spent 24 years playing for the Bandits. No pro player has had a longer association with a Buffalo team on the field. It’s a rather unlikely story, since Tavares’ knowledge of Western New York as a child was limited to what he saw on a television set in his Toronto-area home.
“I grew up following the Maple Leafs, and saw them play the Sabres,” Tavares said. “And getting the Buffalo news stations, you did see a lot of house fires.”
Tavares originally was supposed to play lacrosse for the Detroit Turbos. But he was traded to the newly formed Bandits in October 1991 for Brian Nikula. To show what sort of stir that caused, there are no records of the exact date of the deal in media reports of the time.
“Living in Mississauga, it was a lot more convenient than driving to Detroit all the time,” Tavares said. “I was more than happy, just because of the geography.
“It turned out to be a lot better move for me. It wasn’t just convenient. It was great for my career and longevity. Detroit is no longer in the league.” The Turbos folded in 1994.
Tavares’ first-ever visit to Buffalo was for the start of training camp. He doesn’t remember anything about it, but he remembers the first game – a Jan. 4, 1992 loss to the New York Saints.
“We had a lot of good lacrosse players from Ontario, and a lot of good field lacrosse players from New York State,” Tavares said. “I didn’t know the New York guys. There was a limited turnover of players on the roster then. Once you were on a team, you stayed there. That helped getting to know a lot of the guys.”
The Bandits won three championships in their first five years of play – 1992, 1993 (a perfect season, the only one in league history) and 1996. That proved a tough standard to match in the years since then.
“Our team was dominated by Canadian players,” Tavares said. “We were limited to 10 Canadians, but we had an advantage in numbers compared to other teams. Having experienced box lacrosse players gave us an edge.”
Tavares was a star attraction for the Bandits right from the start, and he continued to be, game after game, year after year. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 1992 and 1993 championship games, and was the league’s MVP in three separate seasons.
“I never pursued going anywhere else, and teams never pursued me,” he said. “I don’t know what year it was, but I heard a rumor that a coach, Ted Sawicki, wanted to trade me. That was pretty much the closest I ever came to leaving.”
Sawicki coached the Bandits from 2000-2002.
Tavares eventually became the National Lacrosse League’s all-time leader in goals, assists, points and games played. At the age of 46, he had four goals in his last regular-season game of 2015, running his career totals to 815 goals, 934 assists and 1,749 points in 306 games.
“I’ve seen the same kids go from age 5 to age 20,” Tavares said. “There’s a girl named Emily. She’s been taking pictures with me every year since she was 5. She’s now in college. I’ve developed a good rapport with the fans in Buffalo. Whether I was 22 or 42, I’ve given the game all my energy.”
Tavares’ retirement set off a wave of tributes from everyone in the lacrosse community, including past and present teammates and opponents. Even so, the call from the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame fell into a special category.
“It’s a great feeling to be inducted,” he said. “Buffalo has been my second home for 24 years. It’s been my home away from home – I’ve spent Friday to Sunday in Buffalo several times a year. I was very fortunate to have been traded to Buffalo.”
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony is Nov. 4 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Tickets are $95 each, $850 for a table of 10 and includes a 25th annivesary commemorative book. RSVP by Oct. 19 at www.gbshof.com.