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Love for game, competition continue to fuel Tavares’ motor

John Tavares will be in the lineup for the Buffalo Bandits when they open the 2015 season on Friday night at New England.

As usual.

Tavares is ready to begin Year 24 as a Bandit at the age of 46; he was on the original team in 1992. In other words, he’s been with the team for about half his life.

Yet the veteran came as close as he’s ever come to hanging up his lacrosse stick this past summer.

“I definitely leaned toward that,” he said. “I asked my family and my kids, and they gave me the answer, ‘Dad, you can’t retire. One more season.’ But they’d say that five years from now.

“This year, preparing for the season has been tougher than last year. Two years ago, I was hurt so I trained really hard. It’s harder to get in good shape now. I’m in good shape for my age, but I wondered if I was in good enough shape to play with 25-year-olds.”

Tavares’ mental argument started with some simple facts that haven’t changed in almost a quarter-century.

“I love the game of lacrosse,” he said. “I love to compete. I love playing in Buffalo. It’s been a part of my life for a long time. Playing in front of these fans is something I love to do.”

Yet there are reasons to put away the lacrosse stick if some are sought. He’s not the All-Star he used to be, and playing represents a good-sized commitment in time and effort. Tavares’ legacy is more than assured at this point. He’s the all-time leading scorer in the National Lacrosse League and a lock for the Hall of Fame. Tavares’ uniform number, 11, will be retired moments after he leaves the game.

The elephant in the room is whether the veteran could receive an honest opinion about whether it was time to go. After all, who wants to push the game’s best all-time player out the door? But Tavares believes he has gotten a fair appraisal of his skills at this point in his career.

“I talked to Steve Dietrich,” the Bandits’ general manager, “about coming back. They thought I contributed enough last year to want me back this year,” Tavares said. “They left the decision to me. They thought I could still help out – maybe not as much as I once did, but could help out in other ways as well – on and off the floor.

“That was ultimately the reason why I came back. I had that push from Steve and I thought that represented the coaching staff’s views. They encouraged me to think, ‘They believe in me. I’m going to do it.’ ”

Last season, Tavares had 24 goals and 27 assists for 51 points to rank fourth on the team in scoring. The days of 90 points in a season are over (the last one was in 2009), but the longtime Bandit isn’t too concerned with that.

“I’ve always said that I’ve lasted as long as I have for many reasons, and one reason is that I don’t have to be a top guy,” Tavares said.

“I don’t have to be the leading scorer. As long as I’m having fun, I will do things to help my team win. Last year, I was a healthy scratch halfway through the season. It’s hard to ignore that. But I still have the fire in my belly. Them wanting me back, was it a surprise? Somewhat. But it was encouraging. I’m looking forward to the season.”

Tavares has made one major concession to age – he has stopped playing in the summer in Ontario. The veteran loved the competition, although he admits he didn’t love driving to games through traffic on Route 401 from his home in suburban Toronto.

“I find not playing summer lacrosse definitely rests my body, but it puts me back mentally,” he said. “Things are happening a lot faster. People are all over me. It takes time to get that timing back. It’s like you’ve lost your legs. Last year, it took two or three games for me to feel more comfortable.”

Tavares also doesn’t want the end of his career to be a rallying cry for the rest of the roster. In other words, he is not merely interested in writing some sort of career ending straight out of Hollywood, featuring a championship in his final game.

“I don’t have to have the team win for me,” Tavares said. “It’s great if we win, but I’m not going to base the decision on winning a championship. I don’t know who came up with the idea, with the ‘going out on top’ thing. I want to go out on top every year, and not just the year I retire. I don’t think they corollate.

“Let’s have a great year. If I can produce I want to play. It I can’t produce, I’ll walk away.”