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No. 11 exits as No. 1

In the end, it turns out that I'm a member of an exclusive club.

I saw John Tavares' first goal as a Buffalo Bandit. It was on January 4, 1992, in Memorial Auditorium against the New York Saints. I was helping out in the press box, serving as a statistician. We didn't know how many people would show up that night, but so many lined up for tickets that the game's start had to be delayed. As John said later, the scalpers made more money than the players ($100 each, I believe) did.

I also saw John Tavares' last goal as a Buffalo Bandit. It was on May 2, 2015, in the First Niagara Center. He had four of them, along with an assist, in a 20-10 win over New England in the final regular season game of 2015. The last was number 899 of his career, counting the playoffs.

How many others can say they saw both of those goals?

In between, Tavares had hundreds of more goals and assists - setting league career records along the way. I had the chance to see many of those scoring plays in the final seven years of his career as a reporter. I also had the chance to do at least one story a year that consisted of me asking Tavares if he was ready to retire yet, and him answering that he wasn't sure. However, I missed the final story of his playing career - the one about him announcing his retirement last week. That will teach me to go out of town on vacation.

Tavares was a standout for the championship Bandit teams of 1992 and 1993, great collections of talent that I watched from the press box. I didn't see much of the team after that until I started covering the Bandits in the 2009 season. It was oddly comforting that he was still on the field, one of two names on the active roster that I knew (Rich Kilgour was the other). Tavares was 40 at that point, but he still led the league in goals with 51 - tying a career high. More years went by, and Tavares was still a key member of the team. For example, he had 41 goals in 2012 - second in the league at the age of 43. He wasn't the most spectacular player in indoor lacrosse; the Gait brothers probably had that distinction. But Tavares was always in great shape, showed up almost every night for about two decades, and was usually the smartest player on the floor. Would he ever slow down? Yes, mostly due to injuries, as this most durable of athletes finally broke down a bit in the final few seasons.

Tavares said he wasn't playing to set records or satisfy his ego. He liked to play the game, and did it as long as he could. He exited with 1,749 points in 306 games in the regular season. That record may be broken someday, only because the NLL's seasons are 18 games now. Tavares didn't play more than 10 games in a season until 1999, so it's easier now to pile up the career points. Even so, I don't expect anyone to be as good as he was for as long he was he was.

Everyone connected with the Bandits wanted to see Tavares go out as a champion, but that wasn't meant to be. More importantly, though, he exited the game completely in character.

It was right after the playoff loss to Rochester in the first round of the playoffs. Tavares had five assists in that game. That meant he had a total of 16 points in his final three contests. After Tavares answered questions about the loss to the Knighthawks, I asked him if he gained any personal satisfaction from playing well in those final three games after what was a difficult season for him. No, he said in reply with something of a snarl, because the team didn't win so those statistics were meaningless. That was John, competitive until the end.

It isn't easy to try to capture what Tavares meant to the franchise and to the sport. For those who knew little about lacrosse, I described his career this way - he was Gordie Howe without the elbows. There should be a long celebration of his excellence, because athletes like this don't come around very often.

--- Budd Bailey

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