TAMPA — It was easy Thursday to put a smile on the faces of Lightning players: ask about Wednesday's paintball battles.
"Guys were laughing, giving it to each other," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "It was 25, 26 buddies going at it and having a lot of fun."
"A good time," wing Ryan Malone said. "Paintball kind of brings you back to being a little kid."
The team probably needed the break. Coach Guy Boucher has pushed the players hard, really hard, the past three weeks.
And three days before Saturday's season opener against the Thrashers at the St. Pete Times Forum, the players probably needed the diversion.
Most important, Boucher said, they needed to come together, to bond, to learn to play for each other, not just with each other.
"It creates relationships," Boucher said of such outings. "You've got to play for someone that you know. If you don't know the people beside you, you're not going to play for them."
Or even fight for them.
Originally the team was to spend the day fishing on the Gulf of Mexico, but high winds forced a change of plans.
The three paintball games played during 21/2 hours were competitive, the players said. Goaltender Mike Smith and wing Marty St. Louis even showed up in camouflage outfits.
Lecavalier said he has welts on his back from being "shot." Assistant coach Daniel Lacroix got hit the most — according to Boucher, anyway.
"I got freakin' welts behind my legs," Lacroix said.
The outing was the first of several coaches are planning. Lacroix talked about perhaps a bowling day or even a scavenger hunt.
Boucher said the team also is providing post-practice lunch for players as another excuse for them to mingle and develop reciprocity.
"One of the things the older players said is, in the new hockey, guys are alone very often," Boucher said. "They come to the rink, and they just leave, whereas the guys (before), they were together all the time. They would go out with 10 guys. There's a lot less of that today."
But do paintball, bowling and lunches really bring guys together?
"It's communication," Lecavalier said. "If guys can communicate, it's easier to talk to somebody, and that means it's better on the ice."
Consider the most tension-filled moments of paintball, Lacroix said.
"I'm telling you, when you're in a house and people are shooting at you, and you want to know what's coming this way, you need to talk," he said. "If you've got a three-on-two and you have a backchecker coming, you need to talk, so you get to replicate some of the instances they have to face in a hockey game."
Maybe so — and defenseman Brett Clark said the team "is coming together as a very tight group" — but at the moment of paintball engagement, players seemed more focused on that moment.
"I shot Downs a couple of times," Malone said of right wing Steve Downie. "It's always fun when the guys are together."
"Everyone had a blast," Clark said. "Everybody was talking, hollering, communicating."
And, no doubt, smiling.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.