TAMPA — He was the face of the franchise. He was taken first overall in the 1998 NHL Draft by a franchise at the bottom. Art Williams, the nutty Tampa Bay Lightning owner at the time, proclaimed the 18-year-old from Ile Bizard, a Montreal borough, "the Michael Jordan of hockey."
"I guess that's a little bit of pressure," Vinny Lecavalier said with a laugh Monday. "He'd never seen a hockey game. He'd never watched me play. I got asked that question a lot. It went 10 feet over my head."
Vinny Lecavalier became the Vinny Lecavalier of hockey. It worked out fine.
The Lightning will retire Lecavalier's No. 4 on Feb. 10 in an Amalie Arena ceremony when the Lightning play the Los Angeles Kings. Lecavalier will join Marty St. Louis' 26 in the rafters, across the way from Stanley Cup banner Lecavalier and St. Louis helped win in 2004.
It's the mark of any franchise that amounts to anything that it retires jerseys. The question now is how long until the next one? We might be here a while.
No. 19, Brad Richards, did great work with Lecavalier and St. Louis in Tampa Bay, but he was here only seven seasons, through no fault of his own, as he was traded. No. 25, former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk was only here four seasons. Besides, there's that statue of Andreychuk hoisting the Stanley Cup in front of the arena. Steven Stamkos seems a likely candidate down the road. Victor Hedman has a chance.
"You need to have a standard, you need to have integrity, before you retire jerseys," Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said at a news conference.
Vinny Lecavalier more than meets the standard.
Lecavalier, 37, would have spent his entire career here, happily, if his contract had not been bought out after the 2010-11 season. He played 14 seasons in Tampa Bay. No man played in more Lightning games. Only St. Louis has more points and assists.
"Vinny meant everything," Andreychuk said. "He was the face of the franchise. Vinny went first. He was the first superstar. He went from bad teams to winning a Stanley Cup. He made his home here. He dug in. I look at it like me in Buffalo. Went there as an 18-year-old, left at 30. That's your whole hockey life, really, and that's what Vinny did."
Since the day he was drafted, Vinny was someone for this franchise to hang its hat on," said Richards, who has known Lecavalier since they were roommates playing elite high school hockey far from home. "His name and image in Tampa will always be there."
Lecavalier and the Lightning made history together. I'm not sure this franchise would have lasted hadn't been the young star, marked for greatness.
He scored 407 goals for the Lightning, counting the playoffs. There are so many Vinny hockey moments. There was his 50-goal season. There was the Cup run. Vinny, back in Montreal, scoring with a shot between his legs to force overtime. There was his titanic fight with Calgary's Jarome Iginla in the Stanley Cup final. There was Vinny holding Stanley.
And there was giving. There was and is Lecavalier's charitable work, including a $3 million donation to help establish the pediatric cancer and blood disorder center at John's Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
When Lecavalier retired from the NHL after the 2015-16 season, he returned here with his wife and three young children. He dug in all over again. He does some work for the Lightning. He coaches youth hockey. He is happy.
Monday, Lecavalier, who hates talking about himself, nevertheless hinted at what this means to him. He spoke of growing up in Montreal, going to Canadiens games with his father and looking to search for all the retired jerseys.
"I'd go through the players and their numbers," Lecavalier said.
"To have (my) jersey retired, to be here all the time, I know there are going to be kids who go to games with their parents and they'll look up and watch the jerseys."
They'll soon see a 4.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly