TAMPA — When Vinny Lecavalier's No. 4 jersey was raised to the rafters at Amalie Arena on Saturday, it was a fitting gesture for the former captain who became the face of hockey in this city.
Lecavalier, 37, is one of the best players in franchise history, leading Tampa Bay to the 2004 Stanley Cup.
"There's no better place to play," he said.
That's what makes it crazy to think back to how close Lecavalier came to being traded to Toronto in 2001. Instead of being one of the franchise pillars, his tenure would have been a footnote, akin to Jonathan Drouin.
"We were a trade conference call away," said Jay Feaster, the Lightning's assistant general manager at the time.
With Lecavalier and then-coach John Tortorella's relationship strained, the team's 1998 No. 1 overall draft pick requested a trade in December 2001. Then-GM Rick Dudley was quick to oblige, agreeing to terms on a deal with the Maple Leafs that would have brought back a package that included Nik Antropov, Jonas Hoglund and Tomas Kaberle. All the teams had to do was complete a trade conference call with the league to make it official.
How did the situation come to that?
Lecavalier was a holdout in training camp. Tortorella had to deliver the news to Lecavalier that he wouldn't play in the first two home games of the regular season due to concerns about his conditioning. And Tortorella, instead of management, was left to explain the organizational decision to strip Lecavalier of his captaincy at that time.
Ron Campbell, the team president then, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2008 that he, Dudley, Tortorella, Feaster, then-CEO Tom Wilson and then-owner Bill Davidson had a meeting Dec. 7, 2001, in Tampa, where the owner laid out the ground rules for a trade.
Davidson reminded the group of the ramifications of dealing Lecavalier, then told Dudley to take 30 days to make sure to get the best possible return.
"Literally, within hours, Rick had a conference call to trade Vinny," Campbell said. "I told him, 'Let's rest on this for tonight and let's talk in the morning and make sure we have Mr. Davidson's blessing.' So I didn't stop the trade. I just said, 'We're not following with what my owner recommended we do.' "
The deal never happened. Two months later, Dudley resigned, and Feaster took over as GM. Feaster tried to help salvage the relationship between his coach and star player.
Feaster told Tortorella that it wasn't going to be his legacy to be the GM who traded Lecavalier. Feaster called Lecavalier and told him that he wasn't firing Tortorella, who was just trying to get the best out of Lecavalier.
"I said, 'I don't know what ship the Lightning will be. It could be a luxury liner on a great cruise or it could be the Titanic and we'll be at the bottom of the ice,' " Feaster said. " 'But wherever we go, John, Vinny and Jay will be on deck chairs looking at each other.' "
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Years later, Lecavalier says the tough love from Tortorella was the best thing to happen to him. Lecavalier said that if he were a GM, he'd hire a coach just like Tortorella.
"The first two years (playing under Tortorella) were tough, I've got to tell you," Lecavalier said. "I was given a lot my second season at (ages) 19 and 20, and I think 'Torts' probably saw something. He said, 'Well, maybe it's time to reel it back in a little bit.'
"When you're given a lot, it's tough to get it kind of taken away from you. So it was a tough transition for a couple of years, but now looking back — and I say it because I had Darryl Sutter as well in my last year (playing in the league with the Kings) — I think the best I was playing hockey was when a coach was like Torts, all over the players, in a good way, but, like … there's no breaks.
"During the season, there's 82 games, there's no nights off. (Tortorella) pushes you to be better. I realize that many years later. We won the Cup together. He did a lot of good things, Torts, for me, and I'm really happy I went through that rough couple years, because after that, I think it really helped me for the long run."
Feaster said no "magic wand" was waved to repair the relationship between Lecavalier and Tortorella. It was a series of passionate meetings, with one get-together in Long Island after the 2004 Cup season standing out.
"(Tortorella) was talking about his responsibility for the entire group. 'If the fourth line is going, he has to read that during the game,' " Feaster said. "Vinny said, 'Yeah, I understand. But this is why you pay me all the money. That's why I'm a first-line guy. I'm the guy that when the game is on the line, I can get the goal to win it or tie it.'
"Torts sits back and goes, 'That's great stuff, Vinny. That's the mind-set of an elite athlete.' It was like an epiphany for him."