Wednesday 6 a.m.
Damn, Vinny. You got old.
Vincent Lecavalier walked across the ice, his ice, and if it wasn't for the two toddlers, his toddlers, you might have sworn it was 2002 all over again. Except that he is no longer Vinny the Kid, Vinny the Promised One, Vinny the 50-goal scorer. He no longer skates like Lightning.
This time, he was Vinny the Recently Retired, and he moved like it. He no longer carried a stick that should have been registered. He no longer looked bulletproof, as if he would last forever.
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He is 36 now, and his playing days are over. Tuesday night, the Lightning honored Lecavalier, who was young for so long before he ever dared to get old. He dropped a puck and he got out of the way.
Time does that to all athletes. Eventually, it asks him to get out of the way. No one is undefeated against the calendar.
But know this: In his day, Vinny was a terrific player. If you remember his charity work, he was a terrific guy. And Tuesday night, if you squinted hard enough, you could have sworn he looked the way he did in the old days.
More than that, he was our guy, our star. He came in with Art Williams, who blustered that he was the sport's next Michael Jordan. He left with Oren Koules, who thought overpaying Vinny by so much it would cripple the franchise later on was a fine idea. And in the middle, well, he scored 50 one year. He won a cup one year. He was Vinny.
“It's where I grew up,” Lecavalier said of his time here. “You come in as an 18-year-old and you're clueless about the game. You're the new guy, and the young guy. You go through all these experiences and different challenges and then you win a Cup in 2004 with all of your best friends on a great team. It was just a great ride.”
The Lightning won 19 games the first year Vinny was here, and 19 the second. But before he was through, the team won more than 40 games seven times. It made eight playoffs.
It could have ended sooner. Rick Dudley, when he was general manager, wanted to trade Vinny (and everyone else). But Jay Feaster, who replaced Duds, was determined not to be the general manager who traded Vinny. He forced Lecavalier and former coach John Tortorella to find a peace. And the player grew into a force. After that, Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis grew into the Lewis and Clark of this franchise.
No, he wasn't as good for as long as you might have wanted. He scored 52 goals only once. He scored 40 in 2007-2008, his fifth straight of 30-plus, but he never cracked 30 again.
Still, he was Vinny, who would score whirring, slashing goals with that incredible flair of his. He was good in the community, with the donation to All-Children's. He touched the hearts of his fans. He touched us all.
And so, once again, his cheers, poured across him again.
He was home again.
And wouldn't you have loved to have seen him take one more slap shot. For old-time's sake.