Vinny was a phone call from being traded
It has been seven years since Lightning superstar Vinny Lecavalier almost was traded to the Maple Leafs, and when I say almost, I mean it. Former Lightning president Ron Campbell, who on Friday was named a senior adviser to the new ownership group spoke at length for the first time about what almost went down in December 2001.
Campbell has been credited with stopping the deal that would have brought Nik Antropov, Jonas Hoglund, Tomas Kaberle and either then-prospect Brad Boyes or a first-round draft choice.
"I didn't stop the trade, per se," Campbell said. "I stopped the conference call."
That's how close Tampa Bay was to trading Lecavalier. According to Campbell, a deal was done with Toronto and general manager Rick Dudley was simply waiting for the conference call with the league to make it official.
This is Campbell's take on what happened:
He said the team had badly "mismanaged" the negotiations with Lecavalier, who was a holdout from camp in September 2001. When an agreement was finally reached the day before the season's first game, Campbell said Lecavalier was not told he would not play in the first two home games. He also wasn't told that decisions had been made by the team that he was not ready to continue as captain.
"John was really fearful he wasn't in playing shape and didn't want him to get hurt," Campbell said of then-coach John Tortorella. "Vinny didn't know until he finally showed up in Tampa, and then he found out he was no longer going to be captain. That's what created the big gap between him and John Tortorella. John should not have been the messenger on either one of those fronts, but he was put in that position."
The gap between player and coach became so strained, Lecavalier asked for a trade. Then-GM Rick Dudley determined the two could not coexist, and why not get a windfall of assets for a future superstar?
"And John endorsed the trade because it had become such a distraction, and he wanted to move forward with the team, and getting assets wasn't the worst thing in the world, and to start with a clean slate," Campbell said.
Campbell said he, Dudley, Tortorella, then-assistant GM Jay Feaster, then-Lightning CEO Tom Wilson and then-owner Bill Davidson met in Tampa Dec. 7 to discuss the possible deal.
"Mr. D just laid out some ground rules," Campbell recalled. "One of them was you take 30 days and make sure you get the best possible deal. Literally within hours, Rick had a conference call to trade Vinny. I walked in and I challenged him. I said, 'I thought you were supposed to take 30 days?' He said, 'Well, I've been working on this for 30 days.'
"Mr. Davidson had just told him to take 30 days from that moment, and then I walk in three hours later, he's preparing for a conference call. I told him, 'Let's rest on this for tonight and let's talk in the morning, and make sure we have Mr. Davidson's blessing.' So I didn't stop the trade. I just said, 'We're not following what my owner recommended we do."
Campbell said he also had reservations about the trade's possible repercussions from a business angle.
"The team had been going along with 17 wins, 19 wins (it actually had 24 in 2000-01), but the one icon of Tampa Bay was Vinny Lecavalier, so you would be stepping back greatly if you trade him. ... But the biggest reason, I said, 'If you trade a player because he asked to be traded, if you do this for Vinny Lecavalier, where does it stop? You cannot let a player dictate. You may trade him down the line, but it's under your whim, but not on someone else's.' We agreed to pull the plug on the trade at that time."
I've told this part of the story before, but it's worth repeating here. I was on the team bus heading for the Senators' stadium and speaking to Dudley, who told me Lecavalier would not be traded. I asked him if he had spoken to Lecavalier. He said he had not. I told Dudley tat Lecavalier was sitting right behind me, and did he want to speak to him? He did, so I handed my cell phone to Lecavalier. That is how he found out he was not being traded.
Granted, this is only one man's story, but it is worth noting that Campbell was on record in the St. Pete Times on Dec. 5, predicting Lecavalier would not be traded. "I don't think Vinny Lecavalier should plan on going anywhere," Campbell said at the time, "And we're not going to accommodate anyone but the Tampa Bay Lightning."
Having lived through the story myself, it gives you a good flavor for what was going on at the time.