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Bandits’ Tavares keeps options open on playing another season

As usual, it’s the time of year when John Tavares faces questions about his future. When you’re playing indoor lacrosse in your 40s, it comes with the territory.

“Is this it? Are you going to retire after the season?”

And as usual, the Buffalo Bandits’ legend doesn’t know yet. Tavares will think about it over the summer and then decide.

“That’s kind of where I am,” he said. “This year, compared to other years, it’s easy to look at the statistics and say, ‘Yeah, the guy’s done.’ Who knows? I definitely need encouragement from the coaching staff, which I got last year. I’m not sure if I’ll get it again. But that’s OK. I’m happy either way.”

Therefore, Tavares could play in his last regular-season game as a Bandit on Saturday night when his team hosts the New England Black Wolves at First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., Radio 1520 AM). Then again, it could be just another game in a storied career.

The Bandits will play in Rochester next Friday night to open the playoffs.

Tavares is 46, an age when all of his contemporaries are either part of coaching staffs or sitting in reclining chairs. Retirement has been looming for a while, even if it hasn’t arrived yet.

“It started 10 years ago,” he said about retirement talk. “This year surprisingly, with my health and statistics, I’ve had fun this year.”

On an individual basis, it hasn’t been a great year for the forward. He comes into Saturday’s game with nine goals and eight assists for 17 points while playing only nine of 17 games. Unless he scores five goals against the Black Wolves, he will set a career-low for goals in a season.

“It’s been frustrating because I haven’t been able to stay healthy,” he said. “I have really small calves, and I’ve been trying to figure out why they bother me. I can’t put it together. I think I’ve figured it out, and something happens. It stresses me mentally, because I never know when it’s going to happen.

“Last year, I was very successful at managing my health. This year, I’m back to where I was two years ago. … So I’m 46 and not healthy.”

It’s a relatively new experience for Tavares to sit on the sidelines and watch games for health reasons. This is, after all, someone who once went more than eight years without missing a game.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been very healthy and play the majority of the games during my career,” Tavares said. “I don’t want to be in a position where I’m hurting the team. I want to help the team. Because of how successful I’ve been in the past, people look at me and think, ‘He’s not doing anything.’ I do other things and have other goals. I try to be a leader, try to help the other guys get open. There are other things I can do, and I think that’s a reason why I was able to keep playing. I’ve said it before, I don’t need to be the number one guy.”

It’s not easy to make the transition from star to supporting cast member. Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat has seen many players try and fail to embrace a different role.

“That’s why John is one of those rare breeds,” Teat said. “Frankly he’s a phenom to be playing at this level at 46. He’s been very honest with himself and with us this season. He wants to play every game, and he’s wanted to do that every year. … But he knows it helps us move forward if he sits when we play on back-to-back nights and we put in a guy that’s 100 percent. He’s been great. He’s kept the group upbeat.”

Even without Tavares piling up the goals, the Bandits have been scoring frequently (49 goals) during their current three-game winning streak. Ryan Benesch, Dhane Smith and Mark Steenhuis are all in the top 11 among National Lacrosse League scorers, and Benesch has broken Tavares’ team record for goals in a season.

“I’ve been anticipating this year for years, not just the last couple of years,” Tavares said. “Ever since I got to my mid-30s, I’ve been just trying to help the team win and help produce a bit, be a leader on the team.

“I don’t know how old Dhane is (22), but I think he’s been alive for about the same number of years that I’ve played. It’s nice to see Dhane and Benesch take hold of the offense. That’s what I want to see in Buffalo, making sure the team is in good hands.”

Still, Tavares hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the sport. He is in no hurry to leave it all behind.

“We’re in a good state,” he said. “The coaching staff does a great job. Buffalo is the best place to play. It’s hard to give that up.”