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Tampa Bay Lightning drops interim tag for coach Rick Tocchet, holds town hall meeting at St. Pete Times Forum

TAMPA — Bob Ciotti was curious if Lightning general manager Brian Lawton would tell the approximately 500 people at the St. Pete Times Forum he would not trade star center Vinny Lecavalier.

Debra Bell was so insistent she be told how the team will fix its blue line, she several times interrupted what Lawton and co-owner Oren Koules were saying.

And Austin Schwartz wanted Lawton to know that "if you include Vinny Lecavalier in a deal, you'd better include yourself."

The crowd erupted.

"People are very passionate," Koules said. "That's what makes hockey fans, their passion. I welcome that more than if nobody asked any questions."

For the most part during Monday night's fan forum, questions were pretty tame. There also was plenty of love for coach Rick Tocchet, 45, who signed a contract that takes away the interim label and pays about $550,000 per season.

The two-year deal, rather than the three generally given new coaches, puts Tocchet on the same timetable as his returning staff: assistant Wes Walz, goaltenders coach Cap Raeder and video coach Nigel Kirwan.

Lawton said associate coach Mike Sullivan still could return but has permission to pursue head coaching jobs. Sullivan also can inquire about assistant jobs as long as they are closer to his Massachusetts home.

But the main event was the face-to-face with fans, who were appreciative of the chance to speak, if not necessarily the chance to pay $2,000 for a Lecavalier game-worn jersey. A Noah Welch was $250.

"There was only one person I didn't agree with," Koules said. "I didn't think she wanted to listen. She kept going on and on."

That was Bell of Plant City, who wanted accountability for the Dan Boyle trade and specifics about the defense. Koules' answer about building though the draft, free agency and trades apparently wasn't specific enough.

"I thought he dodged the question," Bell said. "He had absolutely no answer. They said to hang around later. Will he talk to me? I bet he runs."

He didn't, and they continued the discussion one-on-one.

Koules' oops moment came when Ciotti, 56, of Odessa, asked if Lawton would say, as did former general manager Jay Feaster, that he wouldn't be the GM who traded Lecavalier.

"Feaster probably said that after he was fired," Koules said. "He didn't have the guts to say it before."

The crowd protested because Feaster, who resigned in the summer of 2008, said it in 2002.

"I had no idea Jay said it," Koules said later. "Honestly, I never heard it before."

Schwartz, 20, of Tampa, was loud and clear about Lecavalier, who has been the subject of trade rumors since January:

"I can't think of a package in the league that would equal what Vinny does both on the ice and for the community. A guy like that has shown so much dedication to Tampa. You can't trade a guy like that."

"At the end of the day, we're going to do what we believe is best for the franchise," Lawton said in his answer to Ciotti. "We're not looking to trade Vinny Lecavalier. We're not actively contacting teams to trade Vinny Lecavalier. … Does that mean I will say I will never trade him? No, it doesn't mean that."

Ciotti called the answer "fair" and praised the evening as "fantastic."

Even Bell said of Koules, "I give him a lot of credit" for facing the fans.

"It's important because I want to be accessible and accountable," Koules said. "I don't know any owners who have done it. I take the good with the bad."

Monday he got a little of both.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning drops interim tag for coach Rick Tocchet, holds town hall meeting at St. Pete Times Forum 05/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 9:30am]
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