TAMPA — Vinny Lecavalier hoisted youth trophies and a Stanley Cup with Brad Richards. Twentysomething and talented, they figured they could do this for years in early summer 2004.
Marty St. Louis exchanged text messages with Richards on Tuesday as it became increasingly clear the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as Stanley Cup MVP would leave the Lightning in a trade deadline deal with Dallas.
Dan Boyle, the fourth cornerstone of the franchise's foundation, the man whose signing of a six-year, $40-million extension on Monday basically assured Richards would be dealt to alleviate ownership payroll concerns, learned the trade had been completed after practice Tuesday morning at the St. Pete Times Forum. Boyle passed a television that was airing the news.
The Lightning nucleus was reduced by one when Richards, 27, was dealt along with goalie Johan Holmqvist for goaltender Mike Smith, wing Jussi Jokinen, center Jeff Halpern and a fourth-round draft pick. And Lecavalier, St. Louis and Boyle felt it.
"It's tough to see a friend leave, especially your best friend," Lecavalier said. "Tough day."
"The toughest day of my professional career,'' general manager Jay Feaster said. "There is a huge hole in the team. There's a hole in the community to have a guy like Brad walk out the door.''
St. Louis said Richards helped him become a better player and better person.
And Boyle added, "I look at Marty and Vinny as the other guys who helped put this team on the map, and Richie was a big part of it. It's unfortunate things went the way they did."
Coach John Tortorella, who rarely indulges in outward sentimentality, said "a good deal" also was "a hard one.''
Lecavalier, 27; St. Louis, 32; Boyle, 31; and Richards formed the Lightning's core, helping transform a sadsack franchise in a nontraditional market into a champion. They played catch with a football before games under the stands and became friends.
"Vinny, since 14 years old I've been with him. Weird is not the word. I've played on every team of my life since I was 14 with that guy. My best friend," Richards said in a conference call. "But that's the business we're in.''
Richards excused Tortorella and Feaster in the "process" and left little doubt ownership, including the possible new group led by Oren Koules, was culpable, adding that "Dallas is committed to winning every year."
Richards called his time with Tampa Bay "great,'' but said the move will be rejuvenating after two seasons of struggles:
"A new surrounding wasn't what I wanted at the beginning of the week, but thinking back over the last year and a half, it's been a tough time here with our budget problems and different things going around.
"It's kind of like getting let out of a cage. I felt handcuffed here. I can't wait for a new start.''
Brant James can be reached at email@example.com.