It is a good time to be Marty St. Louis.
He has pushed through the darkness, and he has made it to the other side. He continues to be one of the most dangerous, and most popular, members of the Lightning. He is back in the playoffs, and the energy of it all fills him. Glance into his eyes, you would swear you can see the reflection of the Stanley Cup.
Yet St. Louis has seen the fall from the mountaintop, and he has endured the years during which a franchise got lost. He has seen dysfunction replace excellence, and he has seen failure replace a team's success.
So he knows.
For St. Louis, the immediate past is too painful to look upon, and the future is too far away to see. What he has is the present.
"It's important for us to recognize the opportunity we have," said St. Louis, 35. "We can't think, 'We'll get another whack at it,' because you never know. We have to have urgency to our mind-set. We have to be hungry to do it now."
This is the lesson learned from the lost years. Grab the moment by the throat.
After all, tomorrow has been known to break its promise.
• • •
They were so young, and they were so talented, and it seemed as if the winning was going to last forever.
It was 2004, late in the evening of June 7, and the Cup was still being passed from player to player, and the arena sounded as if Tampa Bay would never stop cheering. It was the night the Lightning won a championship, and you could not help but wonder how many more of them there were to come.
One more? Two more? Four more?
St. Louis, the MVP of the league, was only 28. Brad Richards, the MVP of the playoffs, was 24. Ruslan Fedotenko, the MVP of the clinching game, was only 25. Vinny Lecavalier, an emerging star, was 24. Dan Boyle, the best defender, was only 27. Pavel Kubina was 27.
In those playoffs, the Lightning scored 60 goals; 55 by players younger than 30. Of the 24 skaters, 17 were under 30. Heck, even Nikolai Khabibulin, the Bulin Wall, was only 31.
There in the spotlight, it seemed like a team that would need a bigger trophy case. It was going to win, and it was going to win some more and maybe some more after that.
And then, it did not.
What happened? The world of the NHL changed, and every decision seemed to turn against Tampa Bay. The lockout happened. The acceleration of contracts happened. The team payroll happened. Bad decisions happened. Bad trades happened. Bad ownership happened. Bad results happened. The crash of a franchise happened.
In the five seasons that followed that night, the Lightning did not win another playoff series (and won only three more games). It slipped to a first-round-and-out team for two years, then they had a three-year stint as a punch line, losing an average of 57 games (counting overtime losses).
All of the promise went undelivered. All of the potential was swallowed by the dysfunction. Even now, you cannot help but wonder how many good nights were squandered.
If the league had not shut down, perhaps the team would have kept its momentum. If the post-shutdown agreement had not erased a year off existing contracts — essentially doubling the free agents — perhaps the Lightning would have been able to hang onto Khabibulin. If the team had not made a mistake in entrusting the goalkeeper position to John Grahame, then perhaps it would not have chased the error of Marc Denis so relentlessly. If owner Bill Davidson, never really a hockey guy, had not seemingly lost interest during the shutdown, perhaps he would not have been so eager to sell to the reckless tag team of Oren Koules and Len Barrie. And if not for Koules and Barrie, perhaps Richards and Boyle would not have been traded away for magic beans. And so on.
If the past shows anything, it shows that the future is not to be trusted. It shows that success can melt away as quickly as an ice cube in a microwave. It shows that seizing the day starts with lighting the lamp. It shows that if a man in his 30s wants another Cup, he had better take advantage of his opportunities.
"This is the best hockey there is to play,'' St. Louis said. "I remember my first playoffs (2003), when we lost to New Jersey in the second round. I remember thinking, 'Now I have to play 82 more games before I get a chance to do this again.' "
Now that success has returned, who can blame Lightning players if they wish to claim it before it slips away?
• • •
It is a fine time, too, to be Lecavalier.
Once, he was impossibly young, and his hair flowed around his face, and the days to come seemed endless. Now at 31, he looks harder, and his hair is close cropped, and there is age to his face.
On the ice, Lecavalier has matured. In the past few years, he has been scarred, and he has been suspicious. Now he has become a force in front of the net, willing to absorb punishment for his moments.
Still, the lesson has not been lost on him, either.
"It's so tough to get here, and it's so tough to win a Cup," Lecavalier said. "That's why we have that motto on our T-shirts that says 'Hunt it Now.' You never know when you'll get back to where you are.
"We have to keep pressing the gas pedal. We have to keep going. Especially when you're this close."
A little more work to do. Seven more games to win. This series and one other. From here, another championship is finally close enough to touch.
Ask yourself: When is a better time to win than now?