Lecavalier will be missed in Tampa area

It is first and foremost a business. Always has been, always will be.

But know this: The business of the National Hockey League is, at its heart, about forging a real and emotional bond between a player and his community. Love the team, yes, but especially in places like Tampa and especially in the beginning, it is about loving the player and the player learning the game and ultimately embracing the team.

That’s why the passing of Vincent Lecavalier’s time with the Tampa Bay Lightning gives us pause to consider that -- business or not -- there is a lot of humanity that goes into a relationship like the one forged between Lecavalier and the Tampa community.

A lot.

After 1,037 regular-season and 63 postseason games, including a memorable night in June 2004 when Lecavalier raised the Stanley Cup over his head in front of a delirious and jam-packed arena in Tampa, it is over.

The Lightning announced Thursday that they will use a compliance buyout to get out from under the remaining seven years and $45 million owed on Lecavalier’s contract, making him a free agent July 5.

This isn’t a lament for Lecavalier, who will receive two-thirds of the money owed him spread out over the next 14 years. (An $8 million signing bonus will have to be paid in full, our Pierre LeBrun reported Thursday.) But in the excitement of where players like Lecavalier or Philadelphia Flyers netminder Ilya Bryzgalov will land, or whether longtime Lecavalier pal Brad Richards will be bought out by the New York Rangers, we note the end of something more than just a guy playing hockey in a city.

On almost every level, Lecavalier embodied the trials and tribulations of the Lightning as the franchise clawed its way from curiosity to laughingstock to champion.

The Lightning selected Lecavalier first overall in 1998, and owner Art Williams ill-advisedly proclaimed Lecavalier would become the Michael Jordan of hockey. Against such unrealistic expectations, Lecavalier was named captain after his second season -- a designation that likely came two years too early. That designation was removed before the 2001-02 season, and clashes with then-coach John Tortorella led to much speculation that Lecavalier would be traded.

Former GM Rick Dudley had several deals in the works to move Lecavalier, but ownership would not sign off. We recall talking to Dudley successor Jay Feaster, who said he wouldn’t go down in history as the guy who traded a player of Lecavalier’s caliber.

Feaster’s faith was rewarded when the team began to jell in 2003, making the playoffs after missing out the previous six seasons and defeating the Washington Capitals before falling to the New Jersey Devils in the second round. The Lightning roared through the Eastern Conference the following season, defeating the New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens and -- in a classic seven-game tilt -- the Flyers before nipping the Calgary Flames in another hard-fought seven-game set.

It was during the finals against Calgary that Lecavalier famously fought with his counterpart, Flames captain Jarome Iginla. Lecavalier would later assist on the Cup-winning goal in Game 7.

Although the Lightning could not recall that magic in subsequent years, struggling through a disastrous ownership change after the 2004-05 lockout and many ups and downs on the ice, Lecavalier remained a larger-than-life figure in a community he came to call home.

• In 2007, Lecavalier pledged $3 million to build the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at All Children’s Hospital. The 28,000-square-foot facility opened in January 2010.

• In 2008, he was named winner of the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his charitable and humanitarian work.

• In the same year, he earned an NHL Foundation Award for community enrichment.

• He was honored in 2009 with an award of excellence by the local Ronald McDonald House, and in 2011, he was honored by the local Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

• Last season, he was named a Lightning community hero as part of a program introduced by owner Jeff Vinik and his wife to honor local community leaders. Lecavalier will be honored at a Lightning game next season for his work in the Tampa area.

Tom Doyle works with Clear Channel Radio in Tampa and has a long connection with the team and its charitable works. He recalls meeting Lecavalier shortly after the player was drafted and watching him grow into a leader, both with the team and in the community.

“He’s the epitome of what we want in our athletes,” Doyle, the father of three daughters who are rabid Lightning fans, told ESPN.com on Thursday morning.

Doyle said Lecavalier’s involvement in the community vis-a-vis pro athletes is “unparalleled.”

“There’s going to be a big hole to fill, and it’s a sad day for all of us,” he said. “It sucks.”

Still, one can hardly fault Lightning GM Steve Yzerman for making this call.

Outside of a surprise run to the East finals in 2011, the Lightning have not won a playoff series since 2004 and have missed the playoffs five times since their Cup win. Lecavalier has endured a number of injuries, most notably shoulder and wrist issues, and his production has fluctuated as a result. Yet he remains a consistent 20-goal scorer, and when healthy, he is a nearly point-a-game producer.

But as Lecavalier walks away from his familiar No. 4 jersey in Tampa, it is important to note that his legacy will remain, not just as the man who first hoisted the Stanley Cup in this town, cementing hockey as a part of the local sporting fabric, but also as a man who made a lasting impression on the community in many ways, ways that will not be forgotten even as he dons a new and unfamiliar jersey next fall.