January 12, 2016
NLL's all-time leading scorer John Tavares enters his first season with the Buffalo Bandits as an assistant. (Bill Wippert)
NLL's all-time leading scorer John Tavares enters his first season with the Buffalo Bandits as an assistant. (Bill Wippert)

Tavares Sports a Suit – Not Pads – to Bandits' Home Opener

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter 

During Buffalo's home opener against the Calgary Roughnecks, there were times John Tavares felt like ripping off his suit, pulling on his No. 11 jersey, strapping on a helmet, grabbing a stick and rushing onto the First Niagara Center floor to help the Bandits win.

After announcing his retirement in September, Saturday's victory was the legend's first regular-season NLL game leading the offense from behind the bench as an assistant coach, instead of being on the green carpet like he has since 1992.

"It's a lot different, that's for sure," said the league's all-time leading scorer. "From getting to the arena to the end of the game, it's a completely different scene. Usually, I'm here two hours before the game, getting a massage or stretching or warming up my stick. As a coach, you're pretty much here for two hours, sitting around waiting for things to happen. You talk to the guys, but it's a long two hours. When you're a player, those two hours go by very quickly."

"During the game, I kind of wished I was on the floor," he added. "I have to try to help now from the bench as opposed to what I used to do on the floor, so it's a big change for me. I thought it went well for the first game and, hopefully, I get used to it. I definitely still miss playing. I'd see things opening up in the game and I'd go, 'Get there, get there, get there.' The challenge for me now is to translate what I see into getting across to the players what they should be doing."

With 70 seconds remaining in the match, Dhane Smith's goal broke a tie to hand the Bandits a 10-9 win. As the 14,286 in attendance erupted in celebration, Smith returned to the bench where Tavares was waiting, extending an arm to bump fists with the Bandits' outstanding fourth-year forward.

"We had some chats," said Tavares. "I thought he'd been trying to pick the corners [of the net] too much. I told him to try to relax and shoot for an area. I was telling him, 'You don't have to shoot for a particular spot. You don't have to give the goalie too much credit.' When you're trying to put the ball between the crossbar and the post, you start missing the net or hitting the goalie in the shoulder. Just shoot it and hopefully it goes in. Thank God the last one went in."

Smith soaks up every word of advice Tavares offers.

"He's young and he's very coachable," said Tavares. "He's a star player, but he's not some guy who's like, 'Yeah, whatever.' He's listening and actually doing what I'm telling him."

"I have to try to help now from the bench as opposed to what I used to do on the floor, so it's a big change for me," said Buffalo assistant John Tavares. "I'd see things opening up in the game and I'd go, 'Get there, get there, get there.'" (Bill Wippert)

With the season-opening win, Tavares was in a much better mood than he'd been after an exhibition loss last month.

"I went home and I told my wife, 'Wow, I felt responsible for us losing,'" he explained. "It was weird. I'm an assistant coach of the offense, so it's not like I'm out there, but I felt more responsibility."

Maybe he could have done something to better prepare the forwards. He should have told them this. He should have told them that.

"As a player, unless you have a last-minute opportunity to score and miss, you don't always feel a loss is your fault. You feel as if you could have done more, but in my playing career, I didn't come out of an exhibition game saying, 'That was my fault.' But I came out of that game thinking, 'Man, that was my fault'."

That certainly was not the case Saturday.

"I can enjoy this," he said in the corridor outside the dressing room. "It's a nice way to start a coaching career."

Billy Dee Smith, who took over as captain, recalled that exhibition game. He was with his brother-in-law, forward Mark Steenhuis, when they saw Tavares approaching.

"I said to Mark, 'Where's JT's stick?' He was just comin' with a suitcase. He didn't have his equipment or his stick. That's kind of when it settled in – that he would not be playing that night.''

The players are elated he's still very much part of the team instead of being a former teammate they might bump into now and again.

"He's such a good leader," said Smith. "We're lucky to have him here in this new capacity."

When a couple offensive plays did not work, head coach Troy Cordingley could see Tavares becoming frustrated. But other plays were successful, as will many more in the future. The ups and downs are simply part of coaching. 

"He just sees the game at a different level than anybody else," said Cordingley. "He's such a calming influence. How can you not run hard to the bench, how can you not go through the middle and a high hit to make a play with JT watching? He was simply the greatest. He's a very good addition on our bench."

Even Calgary coach Curt Malawsky, who once played against Tavares, witnessed the impressive transition for the Bandits' new assistant.

"I've had so much respect for John Tavares," said Malawsky. "He did a great job on the floor as a player and it looks to me as if he's doing a great job off the floor. The way their offense moves the ball, he's got some great structure there. He ran some good set pieces. It's hard to say if he'd ever be better than he was on the floor, but he's going to be pretty darn good as a coach."

"He was such a special player to our league," added Malawsky. "He was a pioneer, a big part of the NLL. When somebody like that retires, it's tough, but I'm glad he's doing something he loves and is back in the game."

"It's huge for us," Smith said. "If he was just gone, I think there would be a huge hole. We picked up Daryl Veltman as a really good lefty but there's no replacing John Tavares and the fact we have him on the bench telling guys what to do is invaluable. We're lucky."

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