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Vinny Lecavalier touches Tampa Bay in lasting way

The nightmare began a little after 3 in the morning on Dec. 10, 2010. That's when Bob and Jill Dewhurst of Brandon learned their son, Will, had leukemia.

Will was only 3 at the time, too young to realize the grueling road that lay ahead but old enough to sense something was upsetting Mommy and Daddy. The Dewhursts spent the rest of that horrible night inside a room at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg sobbing and wondering how their world would ever be the same.

A few hours later, Vinny Lecavalier walked into the room. And into their lives.

"Will didn't know who he was,'' Jill said, "but here's this big man leaning over to put his arm around little Will, and Will immediately could tell he had a new friend. He got the biggest smile. And he suddenly forgot how upsetting everything was around him. That's how Vinny makes all these kids feel. Vinny is a blessing.''

That's what makes this all so hard. Thursday, you see, was an awful day in Tampa Bay. We lost our blessing. We lost Vincent Lecavalier.

The Tampa Bay Lightning bought out his contract, making him a free agent. Lecavalier is no longer a member of the Lightning.

Many of us will remember him as a mere 18-year-old, putting on a Tampa Bay sweater while a crazy kook of an owner called him the Michael Jordan of hockey. We can still see him hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head in 2004. We close our eyes and see him jumping into the boards, celebrating with fans after another spectacular goal. We'll always see that sweater with the No. 4 on the back and the big C, for captain, on the front.

But here are the images we should remember, the images we need to remember:

Lecavalier wearing a hospital gown with a mask and gloves while cradling the head of a baby ravaged with cancer. The somber moments comforting the parents of children stricken by that terrible disease. We should picture all the times he shaved his head or spoke at functions or used his only day off in weeks to raise money and awareness in the fight against pediatric cancer.

As a hockey player, Lecavalier was pretty good. Maybe not as good as he should have been for as long as he should have been, but pretty darn good.

But it's not his nifty goals or slick passes or even the occasional good ol' fashioned hockey fight we will miss most. It's everything else Lecavalier did.

He came here as a teenager in 1998, a gangly French-speaking kid from Ile Bizard, Quebec, just outside of Montreal. He was supposed to save a franchise. He now leaves as a grown man of 33, a father himself, doing everything he can to save a community, one sick child at a time.

Tampa Bay has had its share of admirable citizens who just happened to play sports for a living. But you could argue no athlete had more of an impact on Tampa Bay than Lecavalier. For proof, go to the seventh floor of All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

That's where you will find the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Will Dewhurst, now 6 and going through what his parents hope is the final year of chemotherapy, calls it "Vinny's Floor.'' How fitting.

Lecavalier has already raised millions and pledged to raise more, a promise he plans to keep no matter where his locker is next season.

"This city, this community accepted me, and I felt I should pay them back. I owed it to them,'' Lecavalier said Thursday, just hours after his contract was bought out. "I didn't know what. I didn't know how. But I knew I needed to do something. And then I learned more about kids with cancer, and I knew I needed to do something.''

When asked if he is more proud that his name is on the Stanley Cup or on the wall of a hospital floor, Lecavalier passes.

"It's not about having a name on a wall or having people say good things about you,'' Lecavalier said. "That's not why I do it. I do it because it needs to be done and because I can. It's about those kids; seeing what they go through, seeing how hard they fight. That's what it's about. It's not about me.''

For example, Jill Dewhurst says when Lecavalier found out Will loved golf, he dropped by to take Will golfing.

"No one knows about that,'' Jill said. "It was just two buddies going golfing. A lot of athletes have charities, but for Vinny, it's a commitment. This isn't just a charity. It's a part of his life.''

Heck, most kids over on Vinny's Floor don't even really know who Lecavalier is.

"A lot of them come up to me and say, 'Hey, you're the guy whose picture is on the wall over there,' " Lecavalier said with a laugh.

Even the Lightning realized how difficult it was to let go of a player who has meant so much to Tampa Bay.

"His contributions to the community are immeasurable," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said.

Yzerman found it necessary to send a letter to season-ticket holders explaining the decision. In it, Yzerman told fans Lecavalier will be honored as a Lightning Community Hero at his first game back in the Tampa Bay Times Forum with his new team, whoever and whenever that might be.

Was it the right move to part ways with the most recognizable player in franchise history? Probably. Lecavalier's contract had become too hefty and took up too much salary cap space. His productivity no longer equaled his salary. If the Lightning didn't make the move now, it would have a year from now.

In the end, there's no bad guy here. The Lightning was smart to sign him to the big contract when it did and smart to get out from under it now. Thursday was strictly business. Lecavalier handled the news with class, as you knew he would.

But it doesn't make it any easier.

"It's a hard thing,'' Lecavalier said. "Tampa Bay is like home to me.''

It's still hard to swallow. It's still hard to believe. Lecavalier is no longer a member of the Lightning.

But he will always be a part of Tampa Bay.

Vinny Lecavalier touches Tampa Bay in lasting way 06/27/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 11:57pm]
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