On Feb. 10, the Tampa Bay Lightning are scheduled to retire former captain and longtime face of the franchise Vincent Lecavalier’s No. 4 jersey. Lecavalier will join his friend and former teammate Martin St. Louis as the second player to have his number retired by the franchise. It is fitting for these two to have their numbers in the rafters of Amalie Arena, as they were both integral to building the Lightning. Without their work, the Lightning may not have survived in a non-traditional hockey market.
Lecavalier Became the Future of the Lightning
As the first overall pick in the 1998 draft, Lecavalier was an 18-year-old expected to become the future of a fledgling franchise. For the Lightning, they not only needed to build a winning team around Lecavalier, they had to establish a new hockey culture in Tampa along with it. While the Lightning could have survived if Lecavalier became a busted pick, the Lightning planned for him to become a consistent face for fans to point to for years to come.
Things didn’t always go well for Lecavalier or the Lightning at the start of their relationship. As stated in a 1998 article written by Jim Hodges of the Los Angeles Times:
…Lecavalier’s first five games were strictly used Ford Pinto material, with no points and the ignominy of being benched briefly and demoted from the second to the fourth line.
It took time for Lecavalier to grow into his role with the Lightning. He was made the youngest captain in NHL history at age 19 and 314 days but then lost that captaincy before the 2001-02 season. He didn’t reach the playoffs until the 2002-03 season and didn’t have a positive plus/minus in the regular season until 2003-04.
Lecavalier Helped Bring the Stanley Cup to Tampa
Once everything was running smoothly, however, Lecavalier helped create magic for the Lightning. Along with St. Louis and Brad Richards, he played an integral role in the Lightning winning the Stanely Cup in 2004. In the seasons following the lockout, he became one of the dominant scoring forces in the NHL, scoring at least 35 goals in three straight seasons. While at his peak, Lecavalier became the first Lightning player to reach 50 goals in a season, scoring 52 in 2006-07 en route to winning the Rocket Richard award as the league’s best goal scorer.
While his numbers would never reach the same highs as they did in 2006-07, Lecavalier would go on to help mentor the player who would succeed his place in the franchise. When Steven Stamkos was drafted first overall by the Lightning in 2008, he faced a similar scenario as Lecavalier did in his youth: a young player with superstar potential playing as far from home as possible. With a similar story and potential career arc, it only seemed natural for Stamkos to pick up some life lessons from ‘Vinny.’
As Stamkos said himself to Martin Fennelly of the Tampa Bay Times:
“Vinny went through the same experience I did,” said Lightning captain Steve Stamkos, the No. 1 overall pick 10 years after Vinny and Lecavalier’s teammate for five seasons. “It was pretty easy to follow his lead when he was here. He was someone to watch, to lean on. You saw what he did in the community and how much the community appreciated him.”
Lecavalier’s Legacy Stretches Farther Than Hockey
What Lecavalier means for the city of Tampa is more than just the on-ice product he put forth. Sure, winning a Stanley Cup helps build this legacy, but Lecavalier is much more than that. It started with his dedication to the city. If left to his own devices, he wanted to retire with the Lightning, having a full career with the team that drafted him. Even after being bought out, he kept his house in Tampa, planning to return after he finished his career to raise his family by the bay.
Arguably, the biggest contribution Lecavalier will ever make to Tampa is establishing the ‘Vincent Lecavalier Foundation,’ which raises money for families across Tampa. He also made a $3-million donation to help establish the aptly named ‘Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.’
Long after the glory days of his career have passed, Lecavalier’s donations to the Tampa community will persist. His sports legacy is deep, but he was more than just the captain of the local hockey team. Lecavalier was one of the captains of Tampa, using his presence to bring positive change to the city.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.