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Was There Another Tavares Destined for NLL Greatness?

John Tavares is one of the most accomplished athletes in Canadian sports history – actually, both of them are.

Current Buffalo Bandits’ head coach John Tavares is considered the greatest box lacrosse player of all time. He holds the record for the most points in NLL history with 1,749 (244 more points than the next player on the list, Dan Dawson) and also holds the record for the most goals scored in NLL history with 815 (147 more goals than the next player on the list, John Grant Jr.). He is a four-time NLL champion as a player and an NLL champion as a head coach.

Tavares’s nephew, John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is an Olympic gold medalist, a World Cup of Hockey winner, a six-time NHL all-star and a member of the NHL’s 1,000-point club. Tavares was also the first overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. What you may not know about the younger Tavares, though, is that in his youth, he was a talented lacrosse player.

While hockey was his first love, nephew John first picked up a lacrosse stick before he was five. His uncle Danny, the older Tavares brother, introduced him to the game. His uncle Peter also played lacrosse, and in fact, was a teammate of uncle John’s on the 2003 Bandits. With lacrosse running in his blood, it’s no surprise that nephew John had an affinity for Canada’s national summer sport.

“I remember going to [Uncle Danny’s] house one spring or summer day, and he put a stick in my hand,” Tavares said. “We started playing, and I was naturally drawn to it, as I was with a lot of sports. As I started to play, I just enjoyed it… As I got older and started to become more and more aware of the sport and the levels of the sport with my Uncle John playing professionally – and not just playing professionally, him being arguably the best player in the world – it was really cool. It obviously helped inspire my passion [for] the game as I got to be around it a lot and see it at its highest level.”

John Tavares, head coach of the Buffalo Bandits, with his daughter Breanne, nephew John of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and wife Katrina. (Submitted photo)

Even before he began playing the game, nephew John would go with his parents, Joe and Barbara, to watch his uncles play for the Bandits. He would later become a ball boy for the team. Uncle John remembers hearing stories about his nephew’s excitement about the game.

“I remember when he was about four or five years old, and his parents would bring him to Buffalo,” uncle John said. “Unlike most four or five-year-olds, who would tire watching a lacrosse game, I remember his mom telling me how focused and interested he was in watching the full game.”

Nephew John joined Oakville’s minor lacrosse program and became a member of the Hawks when he was five years old. It wouldn’t be long before he challenged the six, seven, and eight-year-olds as one of the best players on the floor. He developed fond memories of competing in the hot, musky arenas (sometimes three or four games in a day during tournaments), enjoying barbecues with his teammates and being consumed by lacrosse culture.

“I think that most kids in the [lacrosse] community know that bringing your stick everywhere is one of those things that you always do. Especially in Canada, in the spring and summertime, being able to throw the ball around outside at any moment’s notice,” Tavares said. “It was always something we did, but certainly at family gatherings, it was extremely common that we played a ton of lacrosse in one of our basements, or, if it were that time of year, we’d be playing outside.”

What was particularly enjoyable for Tavares was that he lived in two sporting worlds during the year. It was always lacrosse in the summer and hockey in the winter.

“It was a great way to put my hockey equipment away for the summer, pack that stuff up, pick up a lacrosse stick, and enjoy that for a couple months,” he said. “I really just enjoyed the whole dynamic of playing lacrosse in the summer – it was a change of pace.”

Within a few years of being around the game (and excelling at it), being around uncle John and the Bandits, and often playing in the backyard or a basement with his lacrosse-centric family, his interest in wanting to pursue a career in professional lacrosse grew.

“When I was around seven, eight, nine years old, I dreamed about playing both sports professionally and trying to make that work,” Tavares said. “But, knowing that’s not possible, as you get older, you eventually have to make that decision [to choose which sport to play professionally].”

By the time he was in his early teens, Tavares was having impressive careers in lacrosse and hockey. In 2005, the Oshawa Generals took him first in the OHL Priority Selection Draft. At age 14, he was the first player to be granted exceptional status to enter the draft a year earlier than usual. On the lacrosse front, he was now playing with the Mississauga Tomahawks in the Ontario Lacrosse Association’s Jr. A circuit.

During his 2005 Jr. A campaign, Tavares posted 25 goals and 28 assists for a team second-best 53 points (he was two points shy of leading his team). In 2006, Tavares finished junior lacrosse by putting up a league seventh-best 79 points – his 4.16 points per game was the third-best in the league. That season, Tavares was joined on the Tomahawks by his cousins Simon DeSousa and Ryan Tavares. He also got to play against current NLL players such as Cody Jamieson, Kyle Rubisch, Ryan Benesch and others.

John Tavares playing for the Buffalo Bandits

As you would imagine, Uncle John had kept tabs on his nephew’s box career. He was always impressed with what he brought to the floor. He said you can see his nephew’s lacrosse skills on display when he’s out on the ice playing for the Maple Leafs in the NHL.

“He is very cerebral, gets to the middle of the ice, and gets to the middle of the net,” uncle John said. “He is a big strong kid who makes great decisions and puts himself in great positions. He relies on his decision-making and can put [the puck] in the net. If he played professional lacrosse, I’d imagine his career would probably parallel his hockey career.”

Tavares was incredibly appreciative of having had the chance to play with the Tomahawks during those two seasons. Despite being drafted by the Generals in May of 2005 before the summer lacrosse season had even started, Tavares’s new hockey team decided they would allow him to keep playing lacrosse.

However, after that great 2006 OLA season, Tavares had to make the difficult decision of choosing between lacrosse and hockey. Unfortunately for lacrosse, the writing was on the wall. The decision, although he feels it was the right one, was a challenging one to make.

“I would say it was bittersweet,” Tavares said. “I felt that my trajectory (the way things were going in those two or three years with hockey) to play in the National Hockey League was really growing. My potential to be an impact player and to have a long career [in the NHL] was really there.”

Nearly 20 years after his final season as a player, Tavares still follows the sport closely. During the NLL season or in the summer, the younger Tavares supports his uncle’s teams (the Bandits and Major Series Lacrosse’s Six Nations Chiefs). He is also very excited to see how lacrosse is growing and that the game will be included in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

He has also just enrolled his two boys in minor lacrosse, so there may end up being more Tavares’s in the NLL down the road – uncle John’s son, Justin, played with the OJLL’s Mimico Mountaineers last summer, and he is committed to playing for Denver University in the NCAA.

The Tavares’s have a rich history in lacrosse, and their family’s unwritten future will cement them as one of the game’s most legendary families.