TAMPA, Fla. — In late August, Vinny Lecavalier drove around the only city he had known as an NHL player, a sentimental farewell to a place that shaped him as a professional and a man.
At one point, he approached Tampa Bay Times Forum, his home office for so many years, a building tucked among water, skyscrapers and high-priced condos that produced memories in a hockey paradise. In this town, he became so many things: A Stanley Cup champion and a four-time All-Star, a humanitarian and a beloved ambassador, plus much more.
A different life awaited, though, a new beginning with the Philadelphia Flyers after the Tampa Bay Lightning bought out the remaining seven years of his 11-year, $85 million deal on June 27. He was packing to leave this place for good, his home since the Bolts took him first overall in the 1998 draft, and the weight of the transition struck him.
“That’s when you realize, ‘I’m here, but I’m moving tomorrow,’ ” Lecavalier said Tuesday. “‘And I won’t be back.'”
A significant face of Tampa Bay’s history was back at the old rink for the first time on this morning, a day before the Flyers play the Lightning in an intriguing Eastern Conference matchup. But the change was obvious, even somewhat jarring, when Lecavalier spoke about the past, future and how he has come to peace with the present.
A black Flyers backdrop was placed behind him. A slight smile crept across his face when he said, “I can’t predict how I’m going to feel tomorrow.” Later, he skated onto the familiar surface and led stretches at center-ice, with his blades sprawled over the Lightning logo.
He wore orange and black, not blue and white. Once, the Bolts were his life. Now, they’re a memory.
“I was here for a lot of years,” Lecavalier said. “One of the first things I looked at when we got the schedule this year was when we played Tampa. It’s very exciting.”
There are so many recent examples of once-cherished stars returning home in different colors. Expect Lecavalier’s reception Wednesday to be more like Peyton Manning’s reunion with Indianapolis as part of the Denver Broncos than LeBron James’ first trip back to Cleveland with the Miami Heat.
Lecavalier’s departure was a business reality, one as cold as the air in the Forum when the puck drops. The Lightning deemed Lecavalier’s annual $7.727 million cap hit too much of a dent. Instead, they were willing to pay him $32.67 million over 14 years not to be their captain anymore.
“I knew the possibilities,” he said. “I knew it was a possibility for those three, four months. And then (Lightning vice president and general manager) Steve Yzerman told me a couple weeks before that there might be something going on. They did everything the right way. It was classy, everything they did.”
Lecavalier wasn’t without a home for long, of course. He spent the early days of the buyout process in Montreal, where he charted a future course. On July 2, the Flyers signed him to a $22.5 million deal over five years.
The star center has made the predictable impact on and off the ice. He has eight goals, tied for a team-high, and 13 points in 19 games. He sustained facial injuries in a fight with the Washington Capitals on Nov. 1, but for the most part, he has stayed healthy.
His teammates and coach, Craig Berube, have noticed a healthy adjustment made possible by staying true to what made him a star with Tampa Bay. His consistency has been an asset.
“I don’t think he has changed,” Berube said. “I think he still is the same player. He’s a scorer, and he’s working hard right now. Obviously, it’s a different system that he had to get accustomed to. But for the most part, I don’t think his game has really changed that much.”
Those close to him know Wednesday won’t be another anonymous road game, one that joins the blur of the NHL lifestyle after a short time gone by. This is a moment when Lecavalier will reconnect with his past, perhaps earning some closure along the way. This is a moment when he will take the final step in the journey from a Lightning staple to a Flyers newbie, a difficult but necessary process.
He will be cheered. He will be honored. He will perform and leave again, back to Philadelphia for a game against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, Tampa Bay once more in his rearview mirror.
“It’s an adventure,” said Flyers winger Adam Hall, who played for the Lightning from 2008-2013. “That’s the way you’ve got to look at it. You may not have expected something or asked for something, but you find yourself in certain situations. You make the best of it and grab it, and you run with it. Obviously, everybody in here is incredibly happy to have him here on our side, because we know how good he is.”
Tampa Bay’s loss is Philadelphia’s gain. Change is a reality for most players, lessons inseparable from the experience.
“It’s part of the game,” Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn said. “There are very few guys that stick in one place a long time. He was here for a long time. Understandably in this game players have opportunities to go different places. We’re glad to have him in Philly.”
Wednesday night, though, Tampa Bay’s hockey community will have a chance to show how glad they were to have Lecavalier those many years.
Late Tuesday morning, at the arena that made him famous, Lecavalier spoke about possibly retiring in Tampa one day, reuniting with the place that provided comfort and prosperity. He likes the sound of coming full-circle. He likes the thought of returning home.
“It’s a big city, but it’s small,” Lecavalier said. “It’s great for sports.”
It was great to him for so long. He’s back now as a passerby, but this place remains part of him, the good feelings secure beneath a new uniform. FOX Sports Florida’s Erin Brown contributed to this story.