1996-1997, I was in my senior year of high school and struggling to stay afloat with that and personal issues at the time. I also backed away from the Tampa Bay Lightning despite the hold-over excitement from the 1995-96 playoff season. By the fall of 1997, I was personally laughing at the news about the Bolts follies and just outright dismissed the team.
Everyone has spans like that in their life as a sports fan where they do indeed give up. There is no hope for the future and you say "the hell with it."
And then a little trade happened that supplied the Lightning with the #1 overall draft pick for the 1998 NHL draft. A kid compared to Gretzky was expected to be the top overall pick. Things weren't rectified for me through that and they wouldn't be fixed for some time (unlike with fickle fans who can give up and jump back on the bandwagon very easily).
New ownership seemed to breathe some life into the walking corpse that was the Lightning in 1998, but more so was this kid out of Ile Bizzard, Quebec, who played for a team called the Rimouski Oceanic.
I didn't know it at the time, but with the selection of Vincent Lecavalier (and multiple other choices in the 1998 draft - Brad Richards, Dmitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak, namely), the ground was being lain for a future championship roster.
It was invoked in a story earlier today on Raw Charge how then-owner Art Williams dubbed 18-year-old Lecavalier as "The Michael Jordan of Hockey". He was doing what he could to sell the excitement. It was marketing, even if it was a bit goofy. Goofier still was handing Lecavalier a T-shirt at his introductory press conference that was emblazoned with a catch-phrase Williams employed during motivational speaking.
"I Am A Stud."
It honestly wasn't until the winter of 1998-99 when I got back on board with the Lightning. This was after Phil Esposito had been fired as general manager of the Lightning, and after then-coach Jacques Demers was named interim general manager... Demers went out and re-acquired a former Lightning standout and young-star, the under-performing Chris Gratton who had departed for the Philadelphia Flyers just a year-and-a-half earlier. Part of the reason for my renewed interest was because of Vinny, part of it was because it looked like the organization was going to build for the future instead of shuffling cards and retooling an expansion team roster.
The oddest part of this was that, even being lukewarm to the franchise's re-emergence and unsure of the future at the time, a unique thing was to happen over the next 14 years: I was going to grow up with Vinny Lecavalier. I'm only about 7 months older than Lecavalier, and the age similarity gave a different kind of approachability to him. I could see vulnerability early on (something I was likely misreading) from a kid who seemed out of his element and far from home playing in the sunshine state.
That's not a knock on Lecavalier. That's saying that anyone that young who jumps into vastly different circumstances than those they had known before are not going to fit right in. That's just how life goes.
I grew up with Vinny; I grew up with his team. He was the face of the franchise that Esposito had long sought but couldn't secure in his tenure as GM. Lecavalier was a core figure for Demers, then Rick Dudley, and then Jay Feaster to build around and find complimentary players to join him.
It was Vinny's pal Brad Richards who came into the NHL and helped further bolster the Lightning's future. Good fortune fell on Tampa Bay in trade when acquiring left-wing Fredrik Modin from Toronto and then signing a unwanted free-agent now known as the dynamo-that-makes-the-Lightning-go -Martin St. Louis.
That's not to say the past 14 years were a bowl of cherries with regards to Vinny and Tampa Bay. His tumultuous relationship with former coach John Tortorella is part of team folklore, As is former GM Rick Dudley being trumped by team executives and ownership after he reached a deal in principle with Toronto to trade Lecavalier. That trumping would lead Dudley to resign shortly after.
I can also cite the more recent history of the Lightning, with Rick Tocchet dogging Lecavalier for not playing Rick's way; I've seen the whole team deflate with the loss of Lecavalier in the lineup (or demoralized as Vinny played demoralized).
I've also seen fans turn on Enzo; softy, not worth his contract, he doesn't do this-and-that enough, he doesn't score enough. Lecavalier always had that target on his back because of expectations and later because of the contract he signed in 2008...
The contract that's become his downfall in Tampa.
That's something we're seeing more and more of; a realization coming from those mega-deals that players had been signing in most sports: they come with strings. Unless you play at a capacity well beyond expectation, you're not worth your money. Tampa Bay fans that follow baseball might see this logic being employed more recently in press coverage of the Rays and lost Rays free agents; players who went after opportunity and money and other markets and have since struggled.
Today, I lament. I mourn as a Lightning fan, though I understand the decision. The entire amnesty buyout clause in the new CBA was to rid the NHL of bad contracts, and Vinny's - the one put together between Lecavalier's camp and former owners OK Hockey - was the epitome of a bad contract: Too long and too rich for sustainability.
It's not like we couldn't see the potential of this buyout coming. It's just always harder to take when something like this arrives - a grand event that rids you of a long time personal connection to something you love. That's why a lot of stories I'm seeing about Vinny's buyout almost read, one and all, like an obituary.
I'm going to close this post out with a song, which I was coincidentally musing about with Raw Charge staff members just a few days ago. It's a Beatles song that I was arguing wasn't as gloomy and sad as some people see it as. Though some fans at this point are filled with sorrow for the moment, look at the bigger picture - a light still shines on the fortunes of the Lightning. Accept the end. Let it be. Yes, I realize this is a little sappy, I do think it's fitting though.
I'm curious to read about other people's personal stories tied to Lecavalier's time in Tampa. You may have already shared them in other stories on the site today, but if you haven't -- please do so here.