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by Anthony SanFilippo / Philadelphia Flyers

TAMPA – If there was going to be a Mount Rushmore of sports icons built in Tampa Bay, Vincent Lecavalier would certainly have to be on it.

Yes, the Buccaneers have been around since 1976 and they’ve had their share of major figures – from Lee Roy Selmon to John Gruden to Warren Sapp.

And the Rays are certainly making a name for themselves in recent years reaching one World Series and with an ever-changing roster of young talent, manager Joe Maddon deserves some consideration.

But when it comes to hockey, Lecavalier sold the sport to a fledgling city.

While in Tampa Bay Lecavalier was captain, won a Stanley Cup, was a 50-goal scorer and won the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy. Not a bad run at all.

In the first six years of hockey existence in Tampa, the Lightning were… not a very good team.

They made the playoffs once, sneaking in as the No. 8 seed in 1996, and although they put up a game effort, they were bounced by the Flyers in the first round in six games.

Two years later, they were the worst team in the NHL and had the No. 1 pick in the draft. It was a pick they couldn’t afford to screw up. The luster of a new toy – hockey in south Florida – was already wearing off.

Fans weren’t coming to games anymore and those that did were doing so on a lark. So much so that the Lightning had to explain during stoppages what icing and offside were on their scoreboard.

The raucousness of the Thunder Dome, their original building, was gone and the Tampa Bay Times Forum (then the St. Petersburg Times Forum) was mostly sterile and being filled with snow birds from visiting northern teams.

The Lightning had to get this selection right or risk losing hockey as quickly as they had gotten it earlier in the decade.

They hit a grand slam.

They selected Lecavalier, who has turned out to be the most prolific offensive player drafted in that year. It also helped that they added Brad Richards in the third round of the same draft, but netting Lecavalier was the start of a renaissance in Tampa that would lead to the Stanley Cup getting a sun tan for the first time just six years later.

The Stanley Cup was just a crowning achievement for Lecavalier and the Lightning, but more importantly, he helped grow the sport in a market that many thought would never sustain hockey.

“For the longest time he’s been the consummate face of the Lightning,” said Adam Hall, who played with Lecavalier both in Tampa and Philadelphia. “Ever since he became a part of the organization it had its best 14 years. When people thought of the Lightning they thought of him in the same breath.”

The two started breathing separately though last summer, when Lecavalier had his contract bought out by the only team he ever knew.

It was a hard reality for Lecavalier, who had always said he wanted to retire in Tampa, but it was one he didn’t dwell on for long. Knowing he had to move on in his career, he needed to make a list of teams he would be willing to play for.

He understood it would be difficult to uproot his young family and to leave his parents and sister – all of whom had made homes in the Tampa area – but he needed to continue his hockey career, and there would be suitors.

Would there ever. There’d be 10 in all – a list Lecavalier made himself.

And while his hometown Montreal Canadiens were atop the list, the Flyers swooped in and impressed Lecavalier more than he could ever imagine.

So the guy who help carve the hearts out of Flyers fans in a fantastic seven-game Eastern Conference Finals nine years earlier, would now be coming aboard to try to help the Flyers reach the same pinnacle.

Once he agreed to sign with the Flyers, he waited with eager anticipation to see when his first trip back to Tampa would be.

Coincidentally, for the fans of the Lightning, it was set for tomorrow – the day before Thanksgiving. Just when homecoming is supposed to be celebrated.

Lecavalier has one goal before he eventually retires to Tampa... help Claude Giroux and the Flyers win a Stanley Cup.

“I can’t predict how I’m going to feel tomorrow, but it’s going to be weird,” Lecavalier said. “To actually play against the Lightning… it’s going to be a special night and I’m very excited about it.”

Lecavalier is a pillar of leadership in the Tampa community with charitable arms reaching out all over the market, but especially to children with cancer.

As such, he’s going to be recognized by the Lightning as the community hero of the game tomorrow with a lot of deserved pomp and circumstance surrounding that announcement.

“He did it all here,” said Steve Downie, who also played with Lecavalier in both Tampa and Philadelphia. “Not just on the ice. He’s got a lot of charities and he’s always giving back to the communities. Tampa loves Vinny.”

And Vinny loves Tampa. He admitted that once his playing days are over, he would likely retire in the Tampa area where he has not sold his home.

But until then, he’s a Philadelphia Flyer and he’s got one goal on his mind before retirement:

“Like any hockey player, it’s to win the Stanley Cup,” he said.


NOTES: Lost in the hoopla of the Lecavalier return to Tampa, it will also be Downie’s first game back at the Forum since being traded to Colorado… It may have just been for practice today, but Ray Emery was the first goalie off the ice, which is usually an indicator that he will start the next game… Michael Raffl continues to work hard in practice and actually took a couple shifts on the second power play unit today, indicating that coach Craig Berube might be thinking of getting him back in the lineup. Berube wouldn’t offer any suggestions after practice though. “You’re always thinking about things,” he said. “I’m not sure yet. As coaches, you’re always going over things and trying to figure out what you want to do. It’s always talked about win or lose… but we’ll see [tomorrow].”

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers

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