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Our friend Vinny: Vincent Lecavalier’s 4 hangs high over Tampa Bay Lightning ice

Lecavalier’s jersey retirement ceremony tonight was emotional and perfect.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Tampa Bay Lightning retired the first number in franchise history: Martin St. Louis’s 26. Statistically, he is the best player the Lightning franchise ever had. However, St. Louis’s departure from Tampa Bay was rife with controversy and bad feelings. This led to Marty’s jersey retirement ceremony splitting the fanbase as to whether he deserved the honor of being the first player to have his jersey hung in the rafters of Amalie Arena, or the second.

Many believed another beloved Lightning icon deserved the honor of being first, Vincent Lecavalier. The first-overall pick of the 1998 draft was the first homegrown star Tampa Bay ever had (with all due respect to Roman Hamrlik). Before Martin St. Louis signed as a free agent the Tampa Bay Lightning was Lecavalier’s team. Lecavalier wasn’t without his own controversy, though it was aligned with the coaching staff rather than the fanbase. Nonetheless, Lecavalier was drafted as the first true face of the franchise.

This evening at Amalie Arena, we celebrated the career of the most beloved player to ever wear the Bolt.

The Ceremony

The ceremony immortalizing Vincent Lecavalier into Lightning lore was an emotional and joyous event this evening. Rick Peckham was the master of ceremony for the event, and the following people were speakers for the ceremony:

  • Jay Feaster
  • Jeff Vinik
  • Phil Esposito
  • Brad Richards
  • Vincent Lecavalier

Each brought their own small story about Lecavalier, but none were as interesting as Brad Richards detailing how he and Lecavalier had been teammates for the better part of their teenage years and as young adults. It’s rare to see two players have the opportunity to play with each other for that long (which makes Richards’ trade even more depressing).

Lecavalier’s speech wasn’t as emotional as Martin St. Louis’s last season, but it was every bit as eloquent and meaningful (besides, Lecavalier has always been more reserved than St. Louis). Lecavalier and his family deserved every second of our time this evening. Without them, the Lightning isn’t the Lightning.

The Beginnings of a Star

June 27, 1998, was the day the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise changed from a middling expansion team to an organization driven to win. Drafting Vincent Lecavalier first overall provided the Lightning with their first franchise player and a cornerstone for building a championship team.

Lecavalier’s first season in the NHL wasn’t a spectacular one (28 points in 82 games), but he displayed the attributes that would make him a star in the NHL: his shot, his size, his ability to battle, and his drive to win. He was awarded the captaincy during his sophomore season, although it was perhaps too early for him, and produced 67 points in 80 games, cracking 20 goals for the first time (a feat he accomplished 13 times in his 18-year career). He established himself as a future star on a franchise that was still struggling to find its way.

Tampa Bay knew what they had in Lecavalier (including young stars Brad Richards and Pavel Kubina) and during the 2000, 2001, and 2002 seasons the organization made trades or signings to bring in the players that would help raise a championship banner a few seasons later.

Dave Andreychuk, Martin St. Louis, Nikolai Khabibulin, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Dan Boyle (among others) joined the organization to surround the Lightning’s star player. Leading up to that championship season, Lecavalier shook off his loss of the captaincy and became one of the top forwards in the NHL. From 2000 to 2004 Lecavalier scored 232 points (108 goals, 124 assists) in 305 games (injuries limited Lecavalier’s 2000 and 2001 seasons, but the 2003 and 2004 seasons saw Lecavalier become a dominant force).

A Champion

Lecavalier contributed 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists) in 23 games on his way to his only Stanley Cup championship, but the biggest memory everyone has of Vinny is this.

Game 3, series tied 1-1 (and Tampa lost this game 3-0). Hockey is an emotional game and when a fight erupts between two players giving it their all in the biggest series of their lives it provides a certain dramatic flair. Lecavalier fought 28 times during his career, but no fight was more memorable than this one. I can’t describe the scene well enough, so just watch the video and enjoy two great players going at it.

Solidifying his Greatness

Lecavalier produced in the NHL, but he was always on the periphery when it came to being one of the biggest stars (he even played second fiddle to St. Louis when it came to production). However, after the lockout following their championship, Lecavalier went through six seasons of 50 points or more. Here are his numbers:

  • 2005-2006 - 35G 40A 75P
  • 2006-2007 - 52G 56A 108P (Led TBL) (Rocket Richard Trophy)
  • 2007-2008 - 40G 52A 92P (Led TBL)
  • 2008-2009 - 29G 38A 67P
  • 2009-2010 - 24G 46A 70P
  • 2010-2011 - 25G 29P 54P

Lecavalier’s 466 points are only behind Martin St. Louis’s 519 in the same time span (it must be noted that St. Louis was paired with Steven Stamkos in 2008 and beyond. He scored 94 and 99 points in 2009 and 2010). Additionally, after Tim Taylor retired in 2008 it was Vincent Lecavalier (not Martin St. Louis) who was awarded the captaincy—eight years after being stripped of it as a 20-year-old.

Decline and Departure

Unfortunately, father time comes for everyone and Lecavalier was no exception. Vinny was never known for his speed and was always more of a power forward. Combining that with injuries as he aged, and the shift to a more speed centric game his effectiveness slowly declined after the 2010-2011 season. Ultimately, (after rumored trades to Toronto and Montreal) it led to general manager Steve Yzerman buying out his contract; signaling the end of his time with the Lightning. It was a business decision, one necessitated by Lecavalier’s declining play in comparison to his cap hit ($7.727 at that time) and what the Lightning was planning to do with their rebuild. Everyone understood the situation, but it was a rough hit for the fans (and Lecavalier) to take.

Vinny left the Lightning with the following milestones:

  • 14 seasons
  • 1,037 games played (franchise leader)
  • 383 goals (franchise leader)
  • 491 assists (second in franchise history)
  • 874 points (second in franchise history)
  • Thousands of loving fans who will embrace him with open arms

The First Mr. Tampa Bay

No other player in franchise history has displayed what it means to be a Lightning player more than Vinny. No other player brings a smile to the fanbase as much as Vinny. Before Steven Stamkos was dubbed “Mr. Tampa Bay” during All-Star weekend last month it was Vinny who was the face of hockey in Tampa Bay—he was the first “Mr. Tampa Bay”.

Lecavalier returned to the area after his short stints in Philadelphia and Los Angeles with no hard feelings and immediately continued giving his time to children at the pediatric center he funded (the one that bears his name). He embedded himself into the very fabric of the Tampa Bay community. He was the first face of the franchise and lived up to that billing both on and off the ice.

As a franchise, the Lightning grew into a hockey community at the same pace that Vinny was growing up. Without Vinny, the Lightning wouldn’t make the moves to create a championship team. Without Vinny, the Lightning wouldn’t endear themselves to the city of Tampa Bay. Without Vinny, the Lightning isn’t the Lightning.

Vinny is one of the most beloved icons the Lightning has so far. He was the first beacon of hope that a young hockey community in Tampa Bay had to help navigate through the trials and tribulations of an expansion team.

Vinny is Tampa Bay, and Tampa Bay is Vinny.

VL4 forever.