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Whose house? Steenhuis takes over as elder statesman among Bandits’ scorers

For his first 13 seasons as a member of the Buffalo Bandits, Mark Steenhuis was far from the oldest forward on the team. There was always someone much, much older around.

Then John Tavares − who is 12 years older than Steenhuis − announced his retirement. That moved Steenhuis much closer to “elder statesman” status on the team. He’s 35; only goalie Anthony Cosmo (38) is older.

“I miss what John brings, on and off the floor,” Steenhuis said as he prepared for Saturday night’s game between the Bandits and the Toronto Rock at First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., Radio 550 AM). “The younger guys would see his work ethic, his understanding and intelligence. He was always there and knew what to do.”

The game goes on, of course, even without Tavares on the floor. Still his departure has a ripple effect throughout the team. For example, Steenhuis now might be more likely to talk to some of the young players about how to become a professional in the National Lacrosse League.

“I think in my position, I would love to give back, share what I’ve learned with others about what to expect in the league on and off the field,” he said. “For example, Anthony Malcolm,” the team’s first draft choice last fall, “is new to the team. I spent a few minutes before a game to settle him down. He’s young and talented and unbelievably athletic. I told him to slow the mind down.”

Steenhuis need only look at the record book for a reminder of his longevity. In 2002, he was a rookie with the Columbus Landsharks, a franchise that lasted from 2001 to 2003 before it moved to Phoenix.

Since coming to the Bandits in a trade for goalie Ken Montour, Steenhuis usually has been a huge part of the team’s offense. Last year, the forward had 36 goals and 95 points − the second-best total of his career in both categories. By the end of the season, he joined with Dhane Smith and Ryan Benesch to form one of the more dangerous offensive combinations in the league.

“I think the big things were familiarity and comfort,” Steenhuis said about the trio’s success. “You didn’t see that at the beginning of the year. We were more hesitant, not playing as much together. But in the second half, we understood what the other guys wanted.

“Working with Dhane, he’s an unbelievable player in this league. I try to set him picks and get him open in a two-man game. Every practice, we try to see what is going to work in games. And when you have a guy that can shoot like Benny, that’s huge for us. If you give him a nice pass, he’ll put it in seven out of 10 times. Those guys had incredible years. They did a fantastic job.”

Last summer, Steenhuis suffered a knee injury while playing box lacrosse in Ontario. The damage wasn’t as bad as first thought, but he still spent some of 2015 idled.

“That probably was the worst injury of my career,” he said. “I came into camp still in not-quite-great shape. But the last couple of weeks have been huge for me. I’ve felt 10 times better. I’m getting back to my normal workout routine, and hopefully I’ll get better and better.”

In the meantime, Steenhuis hit another milestone. He became the ninth player in NLL history to score 400 career goals in the loss in Colorado as part of a four-goal game. The ball was saved, but such memorabilia usually ends up being just another toy in the Steenhuis family collection.

“I throw it with the kids,” he said. “The balls are around the house. Some of them still have the cellophane with the nice printing on the ball. I think my motto is, I worry about what I can accomplish next. I’ll worry about looking back on the milestones when I retire.”

Toronto (0-3) comes to town on Saturday night in desperate need of a win. Offense has been a problem. The team is averaging only 6.3 goals. The Rock will get Kevin Ross back Saturday to help the attack, but top defender Jesse Gamble has been placed on injured reserve.

“They’ve had three games of frustration,” Steenhuis said. “I’ve been on the other side, and I know what it’s like. They’ll panic, rush shots, do things they don’t do normally if we stick to our game plan.”

By January standards, this is an important game for the Bandits (1-1). They have a chance to push the Rock deeper into their hole.

“I can relate to what they are going through, but it’s exciting for us,” Steenhuis said. “They are our bitter rivals. Often times, it’s hard to dig yourself out, especially the parity in this league. It’s our job to do well.”