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Think the Lightning had an endless summer? Try these guys

By Martin Fennelly
Vinny Lecavalier takes to the ice to practice with his team at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon as the NHL lockout came to an end in 2005. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

TAMPA — The Lightning is coming off an endless summer, so called, no playoffs and the long wait for another season, another chance, which begins Friday night. Six months. 181 days.

You want endless?

"We had the real endless summer," former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk said.

It began on June 7, 2004, when Andreychuk lifted the Stanley Cup in Tampa after the Lightning won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final against the Calgary Flames. A glorious evening.

Summer ended after 485 days between Lightning games. The NHL lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, and with it a true title defense for the Lightning. The team changed coming out of the lockout. Everything changed. It took the Lightning 10 years to get back to the Cup final.

"It wasn't the same after the lockout," former Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier said.

"We would have liked to have kept that team together," said Brad Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP during the Cup run. "We were young, enthusiastic and fun."

"We talk about it when we get together," Andreychuk said. "That team was signed and ready to go. The band was back together. We absolutely had a shot to repeat."

The 2004-05 season marked the first time a major professional sports league in North America canceled an entire season because of a labor dispute. No one saw it coming, at least not wiping out an entire season. Besides, the Lightning was too busy enjoying the actual summer as Cup champions.

Each player, coach and staff member had a day or days with the Cup, celebrations in their hometowns, at their boyhood rinks, at restaurants and bars, parties across the world.

Ruslan Fedotenko, who scored both Lightning goals in Game 7 of the Cup final, took the Cup to his native Ukraine, where the Cup had never been. The parade in the capital of Kiev was attended by thousands and televised nationally.

"It was a great time, memories forever," Fedotenko said. "We didn't think the lockout would last."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, searching for cost certainty for owners, threw down with the NHL Players Association, which resisted player salaries being tied to league revenues — a salary cap. The lockout lasted 10 months and six days. There was repeated talk of a season, a shortened one, again and again, until Bettman cancelled the 2004-05 season on Feb. 15, 2005.

Restless, Lecavalier and Richards joined fellow NHL players on a team called Ak Bars Kazan in Kazan, Russia, 500 east of Moscow. They just wanted to play.

"You just didn't believe the lockout would last that long," Richards said. "And then you're in Russia. It was as strange as you could imagine."

Lecavalier played 30 games in Russia. Richards played only six games before returning home for surgery to repair a lingering sports hernia. He was the lucky one.

"Some days, we would go outside and practice on a frozen (soccer) field with a plastic ball," Lecavalier said. "It was like minus-40."

Teams and players were prohibited from contact during the lockout. There was no White House visit for the Lightning. There was no ring ceremony with a big, splashy party in a banquet room.

"We weren't allowed to fly people in," Andreychuk said. "We didn't get the rings at once. Basically, it was for the local guys, ones who stayed. Just in a room in the arena, come get your ring, nothing much to it."

"Anything we did was clandestine," former Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said.

Something was lost.

Owners and players finally reached a deal in late July, 2005. The lockout had lasted 310 days. But something else was lost under the new collective bargaining agreement. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, the wall behind the Cup, signed with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"The new CBA tore things apart," Feaster said. "Contracts were torn up. We had had a $6.5 million option on Khabby which we had exercised, but now he was an unrestricted free agent."

And Khabibulin was out of here.

"When Khabby left, that was the beginning," Andreychuk said.

On Oct. 5, 2005, the Lightning opened the season at home against Carolina. The Stanley Cup banner was finally raised. The Lightning made the playoffs that season, but lost in the first round.

"It went from there," Andreychuk said. "We eventually traded Brad Richards. We lost Dan Boyle."

Something had been lost.

"In the back of my office, I still have a jersey," Andreychuk said. "It's a No. 1 jersey that says 'Bush.' It was for the president at the White House. That team didn't have its chance. We still think about that."

Endlessly.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029