Vinny Lecavalier completes first return against Lightning
NOV 27, 2013 10:45p ET
St. Louis, the Tampa Bay Lightning's new captain, relived the fun times. He spoke from the home dressing room Wednesday morning, less than 12 hours before Tampa Bay's 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Lecavalier's first game against the Lightning after living 14 seasons here.
"It's going to be weird, no doubt," St. Louis said.
St. Louis chuckled while chewing a small piece of gum, making memories of the ridiculous size difference between the two come alive. A moment like this made Lecavalier a valued friend, a beloved teammate and someone the Lightning were proud to call their own.
The former captain is long gone now, with Philadelphia since the Flyers signed him to five-year, $22.5 million deal on July 2. Because of hard financial realities, the Lightning chose to free themselves of the remaining seven years on his 11-year, $85 million deal on June 27.
Life has moved on for everyone in five months. But Wednesday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum, there was a chance to honor the past, to respect a legacy, before Lecavalier and his old team parted ways again.
"What he has done here on and off the ice, and what he has meant to this franchise for a long time," St. Louis said, before trailing off. "It's going to be weird."
This was a night many, including Lecavalier, had anticipated for some time. Much was made of his contributions on and off the ice in recent days. Such talk is reserved for players who transcend their place as athletes and become more: ambassadors, role models, gentlemen.
With 11:25 left in the first period, the Lightning displayed a video tribute for their former star center. It began with highlights of a promising 18-year-old taken first overall in June 1998. That day, he was potential but little more, everything that came after only a dream then: the four All-Star Game appearances, the Stanley Cup title in 2004, the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy in 2007.
"I'm going to go to camp in Tampa Bay and hope for the best," Lecavalier said the day he was drafted in Buffalo, N.Y.
From there, Lecavalier gave the Lightning his best often. Like with any career, though, there were low moments to go with the highs, cackles to go with the praise.
But only the good was recalled Wednesday. This was a time for nostalgia, to remember the full impact Lecavalier left here.
"It's going to be a little nerve-wracking," he said of his return Tuesday.
He received two standing ovations in the first period. The first came after the video tribute, one that ended with the message, "THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES." The second came after he was honored for his charitable efforts, which included a $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program to be given to the Vinny Lecavalier Foundation.
Those moments were no surprise. There's a theme of selflessness when hearing Lightning players speak about their former teammate. Take center Alex Killorn, who remembers when Lecavalier approached him after his first NHL game Feb. 10 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Killorn had an assist on Lecavalier's goal, and the veteran wished him well.
"He came up to me and said, 'Congrats,' " Killorn said. "It was really cool."
Center Tyler Johnson has a similar story. He recalls Lecavalier as a vocal leader, someone who tried to place a positive spin on most everything, even if it was hard to do so.
Lecavalier's leadership also soothed. Johnson made his NHL debut March 14 against the New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Times Forum. Some nerves were involved.
After the game, Lecavalier asked Johnson if he had jitters. The veteran could sense it. He offered sage advice.
"He said, 'Hey, it's just another hockey game. Relax, just play,' " Johnson said. "It happened the first game, and even after the second. It was good. He's one of those guys who's always there to help."
Those are the small moments the Lightning miss. Lecavalier has moved on, and so has Tampa Bay. There are new, exciting faces here like winger Nikita Kucherov and center Valtteri Filppula to complement an old standby like St. Louis. Lecavalier, meanwhile, is trying to leave his mark in Philadelphia.
One day, Lecavalier's return here won't feel strange. Wednesday wasn't that time.
"He's a good guy and a good teammate," said center Nate Thompson, with the Lightning since 2010. "The Flyers are lucky to have him."
Lecavalier has learned to let go. After Wednesday's game, he spoke about the odd feeling of returning to his former home, the mixed emotions that came with such a sentimental event.
This was no simple task. The experience was odd, as revealed by his reaction to playing before his old fans. He scored a power-play goal late in the third period, one that cut Tampa Bay's lead to 3-1, and the shot was greeted with more cheers than boos.
"It was very weird stepping out on the ice," Lecavalier said. "Obviously, we didn't win. I'm disappointed. But I had a great experience."
His change had come full-circle, here in a small room deep in Tampa Bay Times Forum. He held a gray sport coat in his right hand. An ice pack was fastened to his left. He'll always be remembered for what he did for this region, as a hockey player and a humanitarian. His achievements will live through his resume and powerful charity work.
But his life is in Philadelphia now, this place behind him. Saying goodbye is never easy.
"I was a little nervous, I guess, before the game, stepping out, butterflies, that whole thing," Lecavalier said. "Just being out there in warm-ups and seeing people with my jersey, the cards saying 'We miss you,' it really got me. It really meant a lot. I've got nothing but great things to say about the fans, about this organization."
Later, he ended the interview with a brief, "Thank you, guys. Appreciate it." He turned left into a hallway, toward another step in his new professional life, more distance placed between his past and present.
This place, in many ways, will forever be his home. For now, though, he belongs somewhere else, and those who cheered him will continue to remember.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.