Captain Kid With good reason, the Lightning last season made Vincent Lecavalier, a rising star at 19, the youngest player in NHL history to wear the C: He was ready for it

October 15, 2000

Even on the most bitter winter days a few kids from the
neighborhood would play on the outdoor rink. It was so cold that
when you stopped skating, your body felt numb, you know? I
remember my father standing by the boards, watching us. He wore
this big fur hat, and he'd smile and wave. He'd stay for hours,
shivering and hopping up and down, the only adult out there. He
never said much; he just wanted to see me play. Afterward we
would walk home together and talk about hockey and then go
inside to warm up."
--TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING CENTER VINCENT LECAVALIER, recalling his
boyhood in Montreal

"If you want to know why Vinny is the way he is and why I rest
easily knowing we have him as captain, look at where he came
from."
--LIGHTNING COACH STEVE LUDZIK

Some NHL players are born captains, some achieve captaincy and
some, such as Vincent Lecavalier, have captaincy thrust upon
them. Lecavalier's stunning ascendency came last March 11, the
day after the Tampa Bay Lightning traded Chris Gratton, its
captain at the time, to the Buffalo Sabres. Some hockey insiders
scoffed at the naming of Lecavalier, and not just because, at 19,
he became the youngest captain in NHL history. Less than a year
earlier he had been playing only 13 minutes a match, on the
Lightning's third line, and saying things like, "I just try to
play my game. What's my game? I don't know."

Perennially last-place Tampa Bay, for the most part a rudderless
and misguided organization since its inception in 1992, seemed to
be making another big blunder, though Lecavalier's status as the
Lightning's best talent was inarguable. The first pick of the
1998 draft, Lecavalier came to the NHL after two junior seasons
in Rimouski, Que., during which he racked up a Gretzkyesque 105
goals and 161 assists in 144 games. Scouts rated Lecavalier a 10
in puck skills and hockey sense. They raved about his heavy
lefthanded shot, his agility and his vision. Some even spoke of
Lecavalier, a lanky 6'4", 180-pound teenager, in the same breath
as legends Jean Beliveau, Mario Lemieux and even Gretzky.

Yet when Ludzik anointed Lecavalier as captain, he wasn't moved
to do it so much by the fact that Lecavalier was on his way to a
team-best 25 goals and 42 assists last season as by Lecavalier's
confidence, work ethic and maturity on and off the ice. Ludzik
recalled the morning in December 1999 when Lecavalier strode
into the coach's office, closed the door and said quietly, "I'm
ready for more ice time." Ludzik gave Lecavalier the added time
in part because, day after day, Lecavalier arrived early to
practice and invariably was the last player off the ice--even as
Tampa Bay suffered through a stretch in which it won only twice
in 20 games. "He sets the example," says general manager Rick
Dudley. "He's not loud, but he has a presence. The day we traded
Gratton, 10 players called me to say they wanted Vinny as
captain."

One player who wanted him was 23-year-old goalie Dan Cloutier.
"About the middle of last year I'd had a couple of bad games, and
I was sitting next to Vinny on the plane feeling low," says
Cloutier. "He started telling me about how things were going to
get better, and he suggested a couple of things to turn my game
around. It was weird. He's a 19-year-old kid, right? But the way
Vinny carries himself, it's as if he's been in the league 10
years."

Yvon Lecavalier, a firefighter for close to 30 years, is a
quiet, self-assured, athletic man of 49. He has passed down to
Vincent, the youngest of his and wife Christiane's three
children, a smooth, hip-swinging gait and a shoulders-slouched
posture that makes both men seem perpetually at ease. Perhaps
because he often saw Yvon, a former junior player, watching
hockey on television, Vincent began dragging a toy stick around
the basement floor as soon as he could walk. "I didn't care
about GI Joe," he says. "I wanted to play hockey."

When Vincent was 2 1/2 he put on skates for the first time. Most
days, while Christiane worked as a government administrator and
siblings Philippe (now 25) and Genevieve (23) attended school,
Vincent and Yvon went to an arena where 90 minutes of ice time
cost a dollar. Yvon, his days frequently free because he often
worked nights, kept Vincent on a schedule: No hockey until after
lunch and a nap. "He'd wake up, and before he'd open his eyes,
he'd say, 'Dad, let's go to the rink,'" says Yvon.

In those preschool years Yvon set up a line of cones on the ice
and showed Vincent how to weave through them. He gave him a
miniature stick and talked to him about the rules of the game,
explaining what the red dots and the blue lines meant. Mostly,
though, Yvon retreated to the stands and watched. At four,
Vincent skated well enough to play in a league populated largely
by nine-year-olds. He not only kept pace with the older boys but
also shocked his coaches with his hockey knowledge. A
four-year-old who knew when to ice the puck? Who lined up in
perfect position for a face-off?

By the time Vincent turned six, his ability had made him a local
sensation. Fans came to watch him dominate older children in
league games. In one match a particularly large crowd turned out,
and Vincent failed to score. Afterward Yvon went to the dressing
room to help Vincent change to his street clothes. "I was angry,"
Yvon says. "All these people were there expecting him to do well,
and he didn't score. I said, 'What's wrong with you? You have to
play better!' Then I stopped and looked at him. Tears were coming
down his face. That was it. I never yelled at him about hockey
again."

Yvon's attentiveness, however, never waned, and as Vincent
racked up awards for his play and Philippe developed into a
hard-nosed defenseman who would go on to play at Clarkson
University, Yvon mounted action photos of the boys alongside
shots from his playing days. When Vincent was 10 and struggling
with a choppy skating style, Yvon enlisted a figure skater who
spent the next year working to help lengthen and smooth out his
stride.

As good as Vincent was when he left home in 1994 to attend Notre
Dame prep school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, there was little
indication that he would play in the NHL. Lecavalier, 14, stood
a smallish 5'11" and weighed about 155 pounds. Three months into
his freshman season he was visited by his parents, who were
surprised to see that he had grown two inches and bulked up. He
spun defenders to the ice, stickhandled end-to-end and bullied
his way to the net at will. A year later he scored 56 goals and
added 50 assists in 24 games for Notre Dame. "The minute I saw
Vinny play there, I went to the phone and called my brother
Sylvain," says Yvon. "I said to him, 'It's done. We're going to
the big league.'"

The Lightning's 80th game last season was in Montreal. As a
rookie, in 1998-99, Lecavalier had played there as a Lightning
third-liner and been so nervous that "I couldn't keep the puck on
my stick." Now his second season was nearing its end, and he was
skating before his family and scores of friends with the C on his
chest. Early in the third period, with Tampa Bay trailing 5-0,
Lecavalier was hit in his left ankle with a slap shot. "I wanted
to take him out," says Ludzik, "but he said, 'Coach, I've got one
more shift in me.' I sent him back on, and he took the puck,
brought it up-ice and made a perfect pass to set up our only
goal. That was the last shift I let him play all year; his ankle
was bad. You think that kind of courage makes an impact on his
teammates?"

Lecavalier's teammates regard him with the muted awe that elite
athletes command from their peers. Tampa Bay players talk of his
highlight-reel ability, his bursts of speed and his sleight of
stick that make him one of the league's most dangerous scorers.
They talk about his conditioning, how he came to training camp
carrying a preposterously low 4.1% body fat on his 207-pound
frame. They talk of his unheralded toughness and the way he rose
to his own defense by pummeling the Washington Capitals' Jeff
Halpern last March.

They talk of his humility. Lecavalier drives a new Porsche 911
that gleams like a black pearl in the Florida sun. He loves the
car, which he bought after earning $3 million in performance
bonuses last season. Yet when he invited an acquaintance to
follow him home from this year's training camp, he glanced
downward. "I'll be in the, um, black car," he said.

Many on the Lightning's fresh-faced roster (Tampa Bay is the
NHL's youngest team, with an average age of 24.5) regard
Lecavalier as a sage. Rookie left wing Brad Richards, 20, who
starred alongside Lecavalier in Rimouski, recalls a time last
spring when he was playing in juniors and engaged in a harsh
contract dispute with the Lightning. Members of the Tampa Bay
brass questioned Richards's ability. "Vinny called all the
time," Richards says. "He told me to keep believing I was the
best player on the ice, not to let contract talk get to me."

"Vinny can settle the team down with a look," says second-year
defenseman Paul Mara. "So when he stands up and says we're going
to make the playoffs, you believe him."

To prepare for his first full season as captain, Lecavalier spent
the summer living in an apartment in downtown Montreal and
training daily. In mid-August he began skating with friends at an
arena near his boyhood home. "The day he started skating I wanted
to go watch him, but I wasn't sure," says Yvon. "I was thinking,
He's 20 now and grown up and captain of an NHL team. Maybe he
doesn't want his father hanging around."

About then Yvon's phone rang. It was Vincent. "Dad?" he said.
"I'm going on the ice in a couple of hours and I wanted you to
know. Just in case you wanted to come and watch."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Captain Kid The Lightning made 19-year-old Vincent Lecavalier (right) the youngest captain in NHL history [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO The man Older Tampa Bay players look to Lecavalier, who had 25 goals last season, for leadership on and off the ice. COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT AUDETTE Balancing act Lecavalier knows the importance of defense as well as offense. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE LECAVALIER FAMILY Little shaver By eight, Vincent (center, with Philippe, left, and dad Yvon) was dominating older children in a league outside Montreal.

"The day we traded Chris Gratton," says general manager Dudley,
"10 players called me to say they wanted Vinny as captain."

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