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Fennelly: For some, Vinny Lecavalier's work off the ice as important as anything he did on it

TAMPA — Hi, neighbor.

The Lightning honored one of its all-timers Tuesday night.

Vinny Lecavalier, 36, oversaw the ceremonial puck drop before the Lightning played the Panthers. And there was a video tribute. And Lecavalier met with young cancer patients.

His No. 4 jersey wasn't retired. Marty St. Louis' No. 26 will rise to the rafters first, later this Lightning season. Vinny's time will come.

Tuesday was just welcome home.

Lecavalier grew up in Montreal.

"But this feels like home," he said.

Home to all that Vinny and Lightning history.

Home to Vinny and his wife, Caroline, and their young children, Victoria, Gabriel and Amelia. Gabriel turned 5 on Tuesday. He and Victoria accompanied their dad to the puck drop.

And home to all those other children whose lives Lecavalier touched through his charitable efforts, most apparent in the $3 million commitment he made nine years ago to help establish the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

All of that and more is how Vincent Lecavalier became Vinny — the first name would do. Still does.

"It's obviously a great honor to be back here, just to be back in this building, not as an opponent," he said.

Part of him never left Tampa Bay, even after the Lightning bought out his contract after the 2012-13 season. He wanted to end his career here, not go to Philadelphia, where it was a rough go, or finish in Los Angeles, as good as the Kings were.

But now all of Vinny is back.

And is Will Dewhurst excited.

The 9-year-old from Brandon was 3 when he first met Vinny. Will had just been diagnosed with leukemia. It was just before Christmas. Bob and Jill Dewhurst sat in Will's room at All Children's. They were fighting tears.

"In walked Vinny," Jill said. "He was doing a Christmas visit to his floor. Vinny's floor. Vinny is so tall, so he got down on his knees to get eye to eye with Will. He brought in a couple of Toy Story toys, I think Woody and Buzz. That was the first time that day that Will beamed. Someone had come to play with him."

Vinny took Will golfing. Their faces shared a billboard to try to raise funds.

"Vinny is my friend," Will said.

Lecavalier never sold his Davis Islands home, so it was a soft landing when he returned to Tampa after his 17-year career.

A lot of people here grew into hockey fans watching Vinny, 14 seasons of Vinny, as many seasons as Derrick Brooks spent with the Bucs. Like Brooks, Lecavalier helped lead the Lightning from being a punch line to a world champion.

"Vinny went through the same experience I did," said Lightning captain Steve Stamkos, the No. 1 overall pick 10 years after Vinny and Lecavalier's teammate for five seasons. "It was pretty easy to follow his lead when he was here. He was someone to watch, to lean on. You saw what he did in the community and how much the community appreciated him."

"Vinny was always so humble, always such class," former Lightning GM Jay Feaster said.

There was the foundation Vinny started, the one that eventually led to Vinny's floor at the hospital.

That's where he met MaKayla Muir. MaKayla is 19 and a sophomore at St. Petersburg College. She was 13 when she was diagnosed with cancer. They met on Vinny's floor. They hit it off. They walked together at a charity fashion show.

"Meeting Vinny, becoming part of his legacy here in Tampa, meant a lot," Muir said. "He was so inspiring, he gave so much to the community and kids. That made me want to give back, too."

MaKayla, who once had a horse named Stanley Cup, started an equine therapy program at Quantum Leap Farm in Odessa for cancer kids and their siblings, "so they could forget about their problems for a little while."

"The kids amaze me. They inspire you," Vinny said.

The Vincent Lecavalier Foundation lay dormant after Vinny left Tampa Bay. Now that he's back, he'll renew his community work.

"I do know I'm going to the hospital next Wednesday," Vinny said.

He says he plans to take a year off to decide what he wants to do. It might involve hockey, some Lightning alumni events. Meanwhile, "I'm like a taxi driver," Vinny said with a laugh. "I'm taking my kids all over to their sports. But it's great watching them play." He teaches hockey to kids on Thursday nights at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon.

And Tuesday night, he was at Amalie for the ceremony. He was home.

"This is where I grew up," Vinny said. "I came here as an 18-year-old kind of clueless about the game. You're the new guy, the young guy. You go through all these experiences and challenges. Then you win a Cup in '04 with all your best friends. It was just a great ride to play here …"

MaKayla planned to be at Tuesday's game. She hopes to one day be a pediatrics or oncology nurse. She's in remission.

Will Dewhurst also is in remission. He loves hockey, baseball, basketball, running — and fighting with light sabers. Will was at Tuesday's game with his parents and his younger brother, Matthew.

"We all have our Vinny jerseys," Jill Dewhurst said.

"I want to see Vinny," Will said.

Fennelly: For some, Vinny Lecavalier's work off the ice as important as anything he did on it 10/18/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2016 12:06pm]
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