By Budd Bailey

John Tavares’ streak ended last winter. He had been coming to Buffalo for lacrosse season every year since 1992, but the pandemic took care of that and the Bandits season in 2020-21. Now the ex-player and current coach is back on the job, and he’s thrilled about it. Tavares talked about training camp and the upcoming season earlier this week:

Buffalo Sports Page: What have the last 20 months been like for a coach who has no one to coach?

John Tavares: Obviously, it was very quiet for many months – just like everyone else, I’m sure. It seems like we’ve gone from 0 to 100 in the last couple of months. We’ve gone from having nothing to do at home, to driving my kids to hockey and lacrosse, to now practicing with the Bandits. I much prefer being busy than being at home. I’m happy to be back. I’m excited for the upcoming season, and excited to get going.

BSP: Can I assume you’ve gotten much better at Zoom conferences during that time?

Tavares: Definitely better than I used to be. It was a nice resource to have to keep people together. Even though we didn’t get to have practice together, we did manage to have some Zoom meetings with the team in that time. It was a nice way to communication without being able to see each other (in person).

BSP: How did you keep track of things like physical fitness of the players?

Tavares: Initially, Matt Vinc, our goalie who is in phenomenal shape, had guys doing workouts. That was happening in the case the season happened. Then the season didn’t happen, so everything got pretty quiet. Once the season was announced for this year, I contacted the players and had them send me a timeline of the activities – “I ran three miles.” They reported every week for seven weeks, just to make sure they were active. I didn’t want them to come into training camp to get in shape. I wanted them to come into training camp in shape. I didn’t want to be a step behind; I wanted to be a step ahead of everyone else.

BSP: (General manager) Steve Dietrich said you’ve already had some pulled muscles already. Under the circumstances, I assume that’s to be expected.

Tavares: It’s so hard to simulate a game situation. Lacrosse is a very dynamic sport. You’re sprinting, you’re stopping, you’re turning, you’re running backwards and forwards. It’s hard to have a workout that simulates a game. I think looking back, I had guys running five kilometers. In retrospect, I probably should have had them do some sprinting as well. That’s why we are getting banged up. We’re trying to pick a team, but at the same time we’re trying to get our guys in shape for the season. We’ve had a lot of quad pulls, hammy pulls – a lot of that because the sprinting.

BSP: Coaches always have questions at this time of the year about their team. Did your list double under these circumstances?

Tavares: The main questions are – who is going to make our team? Who is going to be on the roster and on the practice roster?  We’ve had two years of players who have been drafted or free agents that we picked up. So we have an overabundance of players, and a limited amount of spots. So, with all the injuries, it’s made our job a little easier in terms of who we’ve had to let go. Right now, that’s our toughest job. Who to let go when everyone is healthy? That remains to be seen. As it turns out, I have a lot of confidence in our roster. We have a very strong offense, a very strong defense, a threat with transition, and a great goalie. I feel good about our team. It’s just a matter of performing on the floor.

BSP: I’d usually ask if any draft choices have surprised you, but they probably have all surprised you because you haven’t seen any of them.

Tavares: I can’t really say much about them until I see them in a game. Right now, they all look good. (Tehoka) Nanticoke (first round in 2021) looks great, (Brad) McCauley (first round in 2020) looks great. But it’s tough to come to conclusions on anyone until we start playing games, particularly on offense. It takes time to adjust to the speed of the game and to teammates. It’s hard to judge just yet, so let’s see when we can get there. Then I can answer the question better.

BSP: Steve told me how it was difficult to make trades in the offseason. It must be good to work with the new guys.

Tavares: Yes, Connor Fields has been looking really good. He’s going to add a lot to our left side. Kyle Buchanan is a very smart, high IQ lacrosse player. He never stops moving, gets a lot of rebounds. He’s not a big in stature, but he’s got a huge heart. He works hard, and he gets guys open. He also has a way of getting other guys open. He does a lot of great things, and he’s going to be a fan favorite.

BSP: Everyone around the league has added players, and no one has seen them play together. As a coach, are you going to be flying blind about the opposing teams for the first few weeks?

Tavares: A lot of the answers I just gave you – I’m sure every team feels the same way. We’ve got a lot of players. We don’t know who we’re picking, and don’t know what they look like. Our team looks great on paper, because we’ve had two years to build a team. Everyone is happy with what they have, and they should be. It’s a matter of getting this thing started. There are a lot of new variables. What are some guys going to be like after not playing for a year and a half? Will the break not help some veterans, because they are out of shape? He might be in better shape, and he might have lost his touch. There are so many questions, more for the veterans than the younger guys. The young guys are here to get going. The veterans who have taken care of themselves for 20 months have nothing to worry about. We have to deal with the big gap between games.

BSP: Can opening night (December 4) come soon enough?

Tavares: I’m looking forward to it. I hope we have our hard-core Banditland fans come out to support us. I know the Sabres have been doing better than many thought from the start of the season, but they haven’t been drawing well. So some people are worried about our crowds, since they generally draw better than we do. I can’t let that bother me and the players. We have to go out and do our jobs.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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