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Bandits lacrosse legend Tavares retires, and reflects

John Tavares looked like a man at peace as he announced his retirement from the Buffalo Bandits and National Lacrosse League after 24 seasons in the First Niagara Center on Wednesday morning.

As about 30 fans, Tavares’ family and teammates waited to hear from the lacrosse legend, the emotions building in the room became apparent. It was a chance to honor one of the greatest and most accomplished Buffalo athletes one last time, as he sat with Bandits Director of Lacrosse Operations Scott Loffler on his right and head coach Troy Cordingley on his left.

The entire room knew what he was going to say. But nobody seemed more ready for it than Tavares, just two days shy of his 47th birthday.

“It’s been a great ride and everything has got to come to an end,” Tavares said. “As much as I want to play, my mind is like ‘go, go, go’ and unfortunately my body’s not following anymore. It said it’s time to let go and start a new chapter in my life.”

That next chapter will be in Buffalo. Tavares will serve as the team’s offensive coach next season. “You can’t completely get rid of me,” Tavares jokingly said.

“I’m excited to have John on the bench,” Cordingley said. “He is a very intelligent person, very intelligent lacrosse player as we all know he’s a teacher. He teaches real well. And the big advantage is how can the offensive guys not give 100 percent game out, game out, practice when he’s behind the bench when they know what he’s made of.”

Tavares holds NLL record for games (296), goals (815), assists (934) and points (1,749). The forward and face of the Bandits franchise for 24 years.

The Bandits traded for Tavares in October 1991, and won championships in the team’s first two seasons (1992, ’93) and another in ’96. They had the league’s only perfect season in 1993. Buffalo won its next title in 2008.

Tavares won league most valuable player three times and won championship game MVP in 1992 and ’93.

Tavares thanked nearly everybody he could Wednesday, including the Buffalo organization, former and current players, coaches, general managers, player directors and even lawyers. Of course, he had special words for his fans and family.

“I think that’s the hardest part of letting go is not being able to perform in front of all my fans,” Tavares said. “Buffalo fans, my fans, lacrosse fans. The game of lacrosse has been my blood since I was 4 years old and it’s definitely hard for me to let go.”

He remembers being asked about retirement as early as age 32. Tavares was in a sport dominated by younger athletes, but the veteran continued to prove he could play with the best of them.

Even at 46, Tavares was sixth on the team in points (32) last season and scored four goals in what ultimately was his final regular season game of his career. He had five assists in Buffalo’s 14-11 playoff loss to Rochester, his final game.

But he had his moments this season when he knew it may be time to hang it up.

“I think it hit me probably a couple times last season when I was standing on the offensive end and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah I think I should have cut there’ and I didn’t really move anywhere,” Tavares said. “When that starts happening, it’s hard not to think about retiring.”

Cordingley said “he’s the face of the NLL. The best athlete bar none, and that’s in any sport. What he’s done for our league and our sport and our franchise is unbelievable.”

Tavares said that criticism motivated him to succeed, particularly early in his career.

“I think the other thing, too, is my will to want to try to prove people wrong,” Tavares said. “You know, ‘he’s too old, he’s too slow,’ I got that early in my career, ‘he’s too small, too slow.’ So I think the challenge of proving people wrong and trying to be the best I can be.”

Tavares grew up in Toronto. He was happy when he was traded from Detroit to Buffalo, because it meant he was less than two hours from home. Tavares said he had a “great” relationship with Buffalo and “never had any reason to want to leave.”

Loffler said Tavares’ No. 11 will be retired in Buffalo sometime next season. It’s only a matter of waiting for the schedule to be released and the organization finding a day that works best for Tavares and his family.

When Wednesday’s ceremony was complete, Tavares posed for pictures with his family. After, he met with the fans, posing for more pictures and signing autographs. The strong relationship between Tavares and Buffalo is evident.

“I love playing in Buffalo,” Tavares said, “and I’m lucky that I played here for so long and what better way to end my career than right here in Buffalo.”