Neil Stevens Canadian Press
Gordie Howe scored 801 NHL goals and they called him Mr. Hockey. Wayne Gretzky came along and scored 894 NHL goals and they called him The Great One. John Tavares, a superstar in Canada’s other officially designated national sport, joined them in an elite echelon of athletic achievement by scoring his 800th pro indoor goal on Saturday.
“He’s the epitome of lacrosse as a player and as a person,” says Buffalo Bandits teammate Anthony Cosmo, who has been reunited with Tavares after sharing Mann Cup triumphs while keeping in shape with him in summer amateur play.
“He’s Mr. Lacrosse to me. He’s an amazing leader, an amazing lacrosse player. It’s been an absolute pleasure playing with him.”
Tavares is 45 and in his 23rd season with the Bandits of the National Lacrosse League. He’s originally from Toronto, he’s in a classroom weekdays teaching high school math in Mississauga, and he is an uncle of the NHL player of the same name.
He scored his 800th goal in Buffalo on Saturday at 13:49 of the third quarter. He’s also amassed in excess of 1,700 points. All of his numbers are NLL career scoring records.
“I really don’t care for milestones but, obviously, it’s a huge achievement to score 800 in the league for the number of games (293) that I’ve played,” he says.
Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium, where he scored his first two goals in a 1992 game against the defunct New York Saints, was razed long ago but Tavares is playing as if he could be around for a while yet. His 2014 season has been inspiring to everybody who has watched. He’s scoring as frequently as he was 10 years ago.
“I’m not trying to beat Gordie Howe’s record,” he replies when asked if he could play until he’s 52, like Howe. “No way. I have to run. I’m not wearing skates out there.”
Tavares has been a key contributor this season. The Bandits are 8-6 so far in their 18-game schedule.
“It makes it a lot more fun when you’re winning,” he says.
Edmonton GM-coach Derek Keenan was a teammate of Tavares on that first-year Bandits outfit back in ’92. Tavares showed exceptional talent right from the start of his rookie season as he was helped along by veteran teammates such as Kevin Alexander.
“It was jaw-dropping how talented he was,” says Keenan.
Still is. The other night, he leapt with one hand on his stick in an attempt to score from behind the net and just missed.
“John always morphed his game to suit his age or injuries,” says Keenan. “He was an exciting inside player who dove the crease 10 times a game and played in the dirty areas. He rarely missed around the net when he had a chance in tight. He did that for a long time. Now his outside shooting is just unbelievable.
“That’s been going on for 10 years. That started in his late 20s.”
The intensity level has never diminished.
“He’s a competitor,” says Keenan. “He can be nasty. He’s as tough as nails, and fearless. You won’t come across a tougher competitor.”
Tavares pondered quitting after the disappointments of 2013 but opted to forge ahead.
“My kids are always telling me, ‘Daddy, one more year, one more year,'” he explains.
The brass urged him to continue, too.
“People like (GM) Steve Dietrich still felt I had something left in me so I came back.”
New coach Troy Cordingley gives him plenty of minutes on the green carpets of the NLL.
“He’s the ultimate team player,” says Cordingley. “He’s not worried about his goals or assists, he’s worried about wins.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s a great leader in our dressing room. He is not one bit worried about any individual stats. He’s just concerned about wins and that’s the best kind of leader to have on your team.”
Cordingley was an assistant coach with the Bandits when they last won the NLL championship in 2008, he was a defenceman in Buffalo during his playing days, and he coached against him when he stood behind benches in Calgary and Toronto, so he knows Tavares well.
“He’s a smart player,” says Cordingley. “You have to try to outsmart him, which is pretty difficult. He knows where to go in open spaces. He’s a little bit slower than he was but he’s so smart. He does other things off ball, too, to create space for other guys.”
Jim Veltman was a pro teammate of Tavares from 1992 through 1996, when they won a third title together. Veltman then captained the Toronto Rock to five championships in seven years through 2005. Meanwhile, they were summer teammates winning Canadian amateur titles with teams in Brampton, Ont., and in Victoria, when they last played together in 2003.
“It was a thrill I’ll never forget,” Veltman says of hoisting the Mann Cup with Tavares in ’03. “Just to be able to play with John again was a big reason why I played that year in Victoria.”
They shared a lot of laughs.
“He makes the game fun,” says Veltman, who retired in 2008. “He sees the game in a whole different light than most players.
“He’s one of those guys you play with and you see him do something special and you think, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that before.’ He’s like a kid in a playground. Most guys never tried some of the stuff he tried because they’d be afraid the coach would yell at you, but not John.”
Veltman recalled a trick Tavares used early in his career. A teammate would carry the ball behind the opposing team’s net. Tavares would manoeuvre to the front of the crease and fall to his knees as if he’d been hit. He’d hold his stick up in front of his chest. The teammate behind the net would hit the target with a pass and Tavares would score from his knees.
Some of his antics off the floor were hilarious. During that ’03 Mann Cup series, “We’d lost one of the games and everybody was feeling the pressure,” Veltman recalls. “Guys were saying, ‘We’ve got to win, we’ve got to win’ and John came to the rink in women’s underwear or whatever it was to loosen things up.”
Longtime NLL coach Bob Hamley was another ’92 teammate.
“He has been able to do what he has done because of his lacrosse IQ and his compete level,” says Hamley. “I consider lacrosse players to be competitive people but John was and is at another level when it comes to competing. You combine this with his on-floor intelligence and it made him what he is today. His drive and intelligence are unmatched.”
Paul Day was on that ’92 Buffalo team too. Day grew up in Peterborough and played against Tavares in his youth.
“John already had an unbelievable stick when he was 12 years old,” recalls Day, who is an assistant coach with the Rochester Knighthawks. “I remember slashing him a few times in junior, trying to get under his skin, and he wouldn’t even look at you because you couldn’t rattle him.”
There is much more to Tavares’ game than piling up scoring points. Day remembers a game when they had just turned pro in which Tavares laid out an opponent.
“He hit a guy at centre, an open-floor hit that was one of the best ones I’ve ever seen in lacrosse,” he recalls. “What can you say about him now? He’s the best of all time, the best I’ve ever seen.”