BRANDON — Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier looked around the Ice Sports Forum locker room and deemed the scene "strange."
Check that, Lecavalier said, editing himself, "It is very strange. I have never been through this many changes in such a short period of time."
So many, in fact, thanks to free-spending owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, Tampa Bay could have up to 13 new players on its regular-season roster, a turnover of more than 50 percent, assuming a 23-man unit.
That creates a bit of a challenge heading into today's start of training camp at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa — building chemistry, on and off the ice, among the disparate parts.
"We're going to do everything we can think of to accelerate the process," new coach Barry Melrose said. "Is there a magic wand? No. Hopefully, we'll hit the right buttons."
Team chemistry can seem a trite topic in a me-first world. But Melrose said hockey's violent streak makes its development imperative.
"In hockey, you literally fight for the other guy," he said. "You literally give your body up for the other guy. That's why you really have to care about each other."
"You don't have to be best friends with a guy," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "But just knowing he's going to be there for you is huge."
As is developing lines of communication.
"You can play with a guy you don't know, but it doesn't mean you're going to connect with him," Lecavalier said. "When I get off the ice, I talk to Marty (St. Louis). I talk to Vinny Prospal. 'We should have done that. Next time we should try this.' If you don't talk to each other, it's not going to help."
That is why the 12-day trip to New York and Europe, ending with two regular-season games against the Rangers in Prague, is so welcome.
Nothing against family and friends, Melrose said, but an extended trip in which players live, play and socialize together "is the way to bond"; especially with just 10 days before the trip to put together a team.
"When you have so many new faces, it's important to bring the guys together," said wing Gary Roberts, acquired from the Penguins and in his 21st season.
"Normally what happens, 'Hey, we're going to dinner at six, whoever wants to join in, we'll meet you in the lobby.' You make sure you include everybody. In Pittsburgh, we wouldn't go to dinner without at least eight guys. That was real good for the team."
Also good: golf outings.
"You really get to know somebody riding in the cart," Lecavalier said.
And don't underestimate a round of paintball, one of the highlights of the Lightning's social calendar during the 2004 Stanley Cup season.
Really, though, the process begins with today's practice, which center Chris Gratton said should build on several weeks of skates at the Ice Sports Forum.
"Guys are getting to know each other," he said. "They're getting to know how guys play and where they like to be on the ice. I think guys are going to come together real quick."
They better, Melrose warned.
"Every team in the NHL is looking for chemistry," he said. "The good ones will have it. The ones that can't find it will fall by the wayside."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.