BRANDON — The 7-year-old Brandon Bulls hockey team arrived at its Christmas party in Palma Ceia not knowing the special gift it soon would receive.
The kids played video games and ate lunch on a December Saturday. Their coach gathered them in the living room.
One parent jokingly wondered if the coach would recite ‘The Night Before Christmas."
Instead, the coach recalled how he used to tell his father he wanted to play in the NHL, how one day he’d hoist the Stanley Cup.
"I’ve got one more surprise for you outside," he said.
The Bulls were stunned to find the Stanley Cup sitting on a bar table in the driveway. They touched, hugged and kissed the Cup, posing for photos.
"That’s one of the benefits of having a Stanley Cup champion as your head coach," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It’s like hitting the coaching lottery."
The coach is former Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier, who will have his No. 4 retired Saturday at Amalie Arena in front of a sellout crowd, including 40 family and friends. Most of his Bulls team will be in the stands, too. But to them, he’s just "Coach Vinny."
Lecavalier, 37, who retired in June 2016, is in his first full season coaching the Brandon-based travel team, which features his son, Gabriel, 6; Cooper’s son, Johnny; Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi’s son, Landon; and goalie Peter Budaj’s son, Peter. There also are eight other kids, from all over Tampa Bay. Many didn’t know who Lecavalier was until they looked up his highlights on YouTube.
The same goes for some parents.
"For the first six months he was our coach, I had no idea he was a thing," said Molly Burchette, whose son, Bear Wright, 7, plays for the Bulls. "He’s extremely down to earth, a regular locker room guy. He just happens to be a really good coach."
There are perks, like posing with the Cup or practicing one time at Amalie Arena. But Lecavalier tries to make fun the driving force, whether that’s ending practices with games of tag, or letting the kids wrap him up like a mummy on Halloween.
Lecavalier feels like his life has come full circle, following in the footsteps of his father, Yvon, who coached him as a kid in Montreal.
"I learned everything from him," Lecavalier said. "I remember when I was young, I was laughing because my dad always did the same drills. Turning, stopping and fundamentals, and now I’m doing the exact same thing. Which is good, because the kids need to learn how to learn. But I’m trying to make it fun at the same time."
Yvon, who ran a hockey school in Montreal for 15 years and coached Lecavalier for a few of them, said he never hesitated to bench his son.
"He’d be taking it easy for a period or two, and I’d bench him," Yvon said. "In the third period, we’d win."
Yvon isn’t surprised to see Lecavalier coaching, too, feeling this relaxed environment is more fitting than the pressure-packed Montreal youth hockey scene.
"Vinny is more calm than me," Yvon said. "Here, it’s more fun, there’s no standings."
There’s a lot of drills focusing on skating — turns, backwards. But there are also scrimmages at the end, and on Saturdays.
"It’s really fun," 7-year-old Bear Wright says.
"He lets us play games," said 7-year-old Johnny Cooper.
At the end of each practice, Lecavalier and his assistants give a camouflage jersey to the two kids who listen best, work hardest. But on Monday, Lecavalier accidentally gave it to the same kid for the second straight week. The kids chased him, tossing their gloves at the former All-Star, who laughed.
"When (Johnny) goes a long stretch without getting (the jersey), I’ll hear about it," Cooper said. "It’s definitely an incentive."
As much as Lecavalier knows the game, it’s a challenge finding ways to teach kids this age.
There was the time he tried to draw up a drill on a dry erase board, the shape of the rink.
"Bad idea," Lecavalier quipped. "One kid, my son, said, ‘What’s the scribbly scrabbly you’re doing? I put my head down, put the board away and tried to show them. You’ve got to realize it’s not an NHL practice, it’s 6-7-year-olds playing."
Lecavalier’s team was picked at an open tryout over the summer, the team practicing twice a week (scrimmaging on Saturdays) and participating in a few tournaments. It costs $850 for the season, from August to March.
"The kids got rapidly better, a lot faster than the other kids," said Lawson White, Liam’s dad.
Once Liam joined Lecavalier’s team, he went online to look up the center’s fights. "He goes, did you really fight Zdeno Chara?" Lawson recalled. "Vinny said, ‘No. I fought him twice. And didn’t get one lick in.’"
Others got a little starstruck.
"When I met him, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Vinny!’ " Bear Wright says.