TAMPA ó There was love inside Amalie Arena on Saturday, for a number and a name.
Vincent Lecavalierís No. 4 is now in the arena rafters, near Marty St. Louisí No. 26, after a ceremony as graceful as the man himself.
"He means everything," former Lightning captain and Stanley Cup raiser Dave Andreychuk once told me. "Vinny was the face of the franchise. Vinny went first. He was the face of the franchise. He was the first superstar. Heís gone from bad team to winning a Stanley Cup. He made his home here. Vinny dug in. Thatís a whole hockey life, really, and thatís what Vinny did."
No Lightning player was ever more than Vinny Lecavalier was a Lightning player. Saturday, there were hundreds of people in Vinny sweaters. They wore 4.
David Sicuranza from Hudson wore one.
"I bet a lot of people are breaking into the closet tonight to break out their 4 jerseys," said Sicuranza, whose son Nick wore 4, too. "Just a very nice guy. I saw Vinny at a golf tournament. He signed for us. He was as nice as could be. Itís just the way it is with this place and Vinny. Weíre lucky to have him."
Thereís an emotional connection between Tampa Bay and Lecavalier thatís hard to explain, but it stands alone, more than the one with Marty St. Louis, whose No. 26 was retired last season and who attended Saturdayís ceremony.
Jeff Kohlmann, 54, from Bradenton, wore 4. Kohlmann was in Amalie Arena, in section 308, upper deck, the night Lecavalier and his teammates won and lifted the Stanley Cup. But there was more, said Kohlmann, who has never met Vinny.
"You always had a sense of the man he was," Kohlmann said.
Vinny Lecavalierís impact here goes beyond hockey.
And the hockey impact isnít so bad by itself.
Corey Cremeans wore 4. Cremeans, 26, is a longtime Lightning fan, a longer time Vinny fan. He drove all night from his home in Atlanta to be at Saturdayís game. He was here last year when St. Louisí jersey was retired, but even then, it was a Vinny night for Cremeans, who waited outside the players parking lot until 3 in the morning, after the Marty party ended, to get Vinny to autograph something for his 6-year-old son, Kian.
"Vinny got out of his truck," Cremeans said. "Thatís who he is."
Really, how do you explain how an athlete and a community connect, how sometimes the connection never ends? They always say that players who win a Cup together walk together forever. Sometimes itís like that for a town.
Thatís Vinny and Tampa Bay.
Jacob Wu wore 4. Wu, 28, drove down for Saturdayís game from Pensacola, where he is a nurse.
"He was about more than hockey," Wu said. "The work he did with the kids with cancer, the hospital work, that says so much, so thoughtful."
Christina Burnison and Elsa Hart wore 4. The friends sat near the ice, a few rows behind the glass, next to homemade Vinny posters theyíd made. Christina, from Largo, bought season tickets the year the Lightning won the Cup. Elsa, from Tampa, wished her mother, Betsy, who passed last April, could have been there Saturday.
"She loved Vinny," Elsa said.
At one point in his career, Vincent Lecavalier had earned more money in contracts than anyone in NHL history. And somehow fans came to see him as one of us.
"Marty wanted out, and he got to go where he wanted to go, even if it burned bridges," Christina said. "Vinny didnít burn a thing. He loves it here. People say Marty was the heart and soul of the franchise. But Vinny was the backbone. Heís the constant."
Iíve said it before: Iím not sure this franchise would have lasted here if Vinny Lecavalier hadnít been its young star, marked for greatness. He didnít have to be the Michael Jordan of hockey. He only had to be himself. Just Vinny.
Christina remembered one time when Vinny stopped his sports car and jumped out to talk with fans.
"He was there 40 minutes," Christina said. "It was like he didnít want to leave."
Vinny didnít leave. Vinny came back to live here, with his wife and their three preposterously cute children, who nearly stole the show Saturday. Vinny thanked everyone, Lightning past and present, and he kept it together, even as Christina and Elsa didnít. It was that kind of night.
You wore 4.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813)731-8029.