It’s only logical that the deeper the Islanders advance in the postseason, the more the players will hear comparisons with franchise heavyweights such as Nystrom, Bossy and Trottier.
But that shouldn’t bother John Tavares. He knows a thing or two about living up to big names. Long before Tavares ever donned an Islanders uniform, he already had a name to live up to in his own family.
The Islanders’ captain shares his name with his uncle, who often is referred to as the greatest indoor lacrosse player ever.
The elder Tavares, 47, made his pro lacrosse debut with the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League in 1992 when young John was only 2 years old and learning how to walk, let alone skate.
By the time Tavares finally stopped playing lacrosse professionally last year, his name sat atop all the notable records such as games, goals, assists and points, both in the regular season and postseason. And the players behind him aren’t even close.
“It’s really easy to throw around comparisons to what Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby have been to hockey, but to lacrosse, that’s basically what John has been,” said Steve Dietrich, the Bandits’ general manager. “He’s got every record this sport has to offer.”
Added Bandits coach Troy Cordingley: “There will never be another lacrosse John Tavares as far as I’m concerned. He was just a special, special player.”
And even though his name didn’t become well known until his nephew started playing hockey, Uncle John has his share of dedicated fans. When the Bandits retired Tavares’ No. 11 jersey in March, they drew a sellout crowd of 18,690 at First Niagara Center (also home to the Buffalo Sabres).
Perhaps Tavares’ biggest fan is the Islanders’ John Tavares, and he posted a video message on his Twitter account that night in which he referred to Uncle John as “the greatest lacrosse player ever.”
“Seeing how hard you worked and how much you cared about your teammates and playing for the Buffalo Bandits, it really meant a lot to me to be around and look up to and have that inspiration,” the Islanders’ Tavares said.
He should know. Long before he played for the Islanders, Tavares was a ball boy for the Bandits, his first inside look behind the scenes at a professional sports setting.
Of course, the elder Tavares is quick to point out that the life of a professional lacrosse player is not exactly akin to being in the NHL. The most he ever made in a season was about $50,000.
“We often laugh about it because ‘Hockey John’ made more money in his first year in NHL than his uncle did in his entire lacrosse career,” Cordingley said.
For most of his professional lacrosse career, Tavares made his living teaching high school math outside Toronto. Still does. He called being a pro lacrosse player “a fun part-time job.”
“I consider it more of a weekend warrior type of thing,” Tavares said. “You work a job Monday to Friday, head to Buffalo on Friday, have a game usually on Saturday and then head back to work on Monday.”
In a league best known for its revolving door of franchises, Tavares playing in Buffalo has been one of the few constants. Surely that’s helped Buffalo become the league’s standard- bearer for franchise stability.
NLL spokesman Jeff Baker estimated that 20 cities have come and gone during Tavares’ 24-year career, including Long Island, which had the New York Saints playing home games at Nassau Coliseum until 2003.
Yet throughout that time, Tavares always played for Buffalo, winning championships in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 2008. Maybe that’s why Buffalo always has been among the league leaders in attendance.
This season, Tavares’ first as an assistant coach, Buffalo averaged a league-best 15,833, far above the league average of 9,152.
And even though he’s not on the field scoring goals — as he had been in almost every game since 1992 — many fans still wear their Tavares jerseys to games, longtime Buffalo News beat reporter Budd Bailey said.
Part of his connection to the fans grew out of the Bandits’ public address announcer’s quirky tradition of announcing his goals by saying, “Bandits goal scored by Johnny who?” And the crowd would yell, “Tavares!”
“Most of the times he’s pretty anonymous, right? Just another math teacher, and the kids don’t really know what he does,” Bailey said. “That’s the real funny part of it. It’s like he has a secret identity in Buffalo.”
Despite his prowess as a professional lacrosse player, Tavares never really got attention outside of Buffalo. That speaks to the limited reach of indoor lacrosse as a professional sport. It wasn’t until his nephew became an NHL star that people outside lacrosse started recognizing his name.
The elder Tavares doesn’t mind. He likes to think that sharing his name with his nephew is another avenue for him to help bring attention to indoor lacrosse, which he described as a marriage between the physicality of hockey and the strategy of basketball. (It differs from field lacrosse, popular on Long Island, because it’s played on a smaller surface and with fewer players.)
“A lot of people say if you played hockey, you could be a millionaire, but I don’t think of it like that,” Tavares said. “I don’t have any regrets playing the game I love and getting paid whatever I got paid throughout my career.
“As old as the game is, I still consider myself a pioneer. I’m trying to grow the game. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is.”