FORESTVILLE - Buffalo Bandits' all-time great Johnny Tavares was on-hand Saturday and Sunday at Merritt Estate Winery's annual Strawberry Festival to meet fans, sign autographs and raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
"I want to thank Merritt Winery for having me here at the festival," Tavares said Sunday. "It's been a great two days here. It was nice to have some nice weather and they have the Bella Rosa with my label on it. It's pretty cool that they did that for me."
Tavares, the National Lacrosse League's all-time leader in points (1,547), goals (724) and assists (823), has been playing for the Bandits since 1992, and he's noticed a growth in the sport in Western New York.
OBSERVER?Photo by Gib Snyder III
Pictured is Buffalo Bandit great John Tavares, right, with Jason Merritt, co-owner of Merritt Estate Winery, Sunday, during the winery’s annual Strawberry Festival. Tavares was on hand to sign autographs and meet fans. The National Lacrosse League’s all-time scorer has accumulated 1,547 points on 724 goals and 823 assists, helping the Bandits win NLL?titles in 1992, ‘93, ‘96 and 2008. Pictured below is a bottle of Merritt wine with a especially-made “Johnny who?” label.
"It's been growing a lot," Tavares said of the Western New York lacrosse scene. "Going back to 1992, a lot of people were asking, 'what is this?' And they were just coming out to find out what lacrosse was all about. And to my understanding, field lacrosse is taking off at the high school level and even the college and university level, which is great to see."
However, Tavares would like to see the game developed at the youth level, noting that he got his start at the age of four.
"My older brother Danny actually played lacrosse where we lived in downtown Toronto," Tavares said. "I picked up his stick, got in the box and started throwing the ball around."
Growing up in Toronto, one would think as a youngster that Tavares would have drifted toward the sport that's played on a sheet of ice with a stick and a hard, rubber disc, rather than the one that is played on a hard surface with a stick and a ball.
"I grew up in a neighborhood that was maybe a lower-class neighborhood and not a lot of us could afford to play ice hockey, because it's quite an expensive sport," Tavares said. "I played a lot of street hockey. I'm a really good street hockey player, but there's not much to be said about my skating. I love hockey, but the sports I played were ball sports."
If you've never been to a Bandits' game, one thing you need to know is that the fan base is as passionate as you will see in any sport.
"I know this is a cliche, but we do have the best fans in the league," Tavares said. "They're very into the game, they get dressed up, they have their chants and they're always there supporting us.
"This year we actually had an off year and they continued to support us," Tavares added. "They have a lot of trust and belief that we were going to win regardless of how bad the season was going. They're really important to us. Over the years playing in Buffalo, we've definitely been a better team at home. We have those fans to keep happy and play harder for."
When asked how the crowds vary across the nine cities that have teams in the league, Tavares noted that only Colorado had home crowds that were on par with the ones he and his teammates play in front of at the First Niagara Center.
"Us and Colorado probably have the best (fan support)," Tavares said. "Across the league, the league average is probably nine or 10,000 (fans per game). We're getting 14, 15,000, so we're above the average, but league-wide it's not too bad."
The beginning of the 2012-13 season will mark Tavares 22nd as a Bandit and playing professionally for this long is something he never thought possible.
"No way," Tavares said of whether or not he thought he'd play professional lacrosse for as long as he has. "I'm still kind of in disbelief that I'm still playing. It's pretty much, when am I not going to be able to produce as much as I have been. I would say that if you were to ask me a few years ago if I would be playing today at 43, I would've said no way. My wife motivates me to play and a few other things, but she likes that I play and it makes it a lot easier when your wife is a big part of it and your family."
Like any athlete, Tavares relies heavily on the health of his legs. Tavares will be 44 during the next NLL season and even he doesn't know how much longer his legs will be able to hold up.
"They're getting weaker and weaker every year," Tavares said half jokingly. "I always tell people now that I don't know. I think it's going to be sometime near mid-season and I'm going to be like, 'guys, I just can't do it anymore.' I want to play as long as I can, but obviously my age is catching up to me, so I'm going to try and milk it for as much as I can, because I love playing and I know one day I won't be able to play."
Of his 22 seasons, Tavares' teams have missed the playoffs just three times, with the Bandits winning titles in 1992, '96, '98 and 2006, making them the only professional team besides the Buffalo Bills (1964, '65 AFL champions) to win titles for the Queen City.
"People remind us of that," Tavares said of being the only professional teams to win a championship over the last 50-plus years. "And as much as people do say that, I think we all understand that lacrosse is still not on the same level as the NFL or NHL, so I think people are just happy to have a championship team in their city."
Like professional athletes of yesteryear, Tavares has had to find work other than playing professional lacrosse to provide for his wife Katrina, six-year-old son Justin and four-year-old daughter Breanne, and for the past 15 years, he has taught high school mathematics at a high school in the Toronto area.
"I went to university and tried to figure out what I wanted to do," Tavares said. "I always like coaching and teaching and I had the opportunity to get a high school teaching job and I always liked mathematics. It was a good combination to allow me to play lacrosse and teach. One complements the other and I was just an full-time teacher all of a sudden and I've been doing it for 15 years now."
When he's not playing lacrosse or teaching his students the Pythagorean theorem, he enjoys following the Sabres and his nephew, John Tavares, the No. 1 overall pick by the New York Islanders in the 2009 National Hockey League Entry Draft. He also, almost reluctantly, admitted to being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.
"I am a Leafs fan," Tavares said. "Blue and white. I grew up watching the Leafs Wednesday and Saturday nights religiously. I'm a big Leafs fan. I still can admit that. And I'm an Islanders fan now, or maybe a John Tavares fan, and yes, I'm a Sabres fan as well. So I've got three teams to cheer for."