The Lightning opened training camp this year in Innsbruck, Austria, site of the NHL's International Challenge. Hoping to promote unity, the team passed on a chance to stay at a plush downtown hotel-casino and instead sequestered itself in a mountain chalet Except for one fishing trip and a dinner at a castle, about the only fun thing the Lightning did in Austria was take a 65-mph trip down an Olympic bobsled run that knocked a few players silly.
Lightning fans know all too well what that bobsled run must have been like. Last year their team plummeted down the NHL standings so precipitously that fans and players alike were left weak-kneed and woozy. In 1997-98 Tampa Bay's offense finished last in every major statistical category and ranked as one of the worst in modern history. This spring Art Williams, a retired insurance tycoon and former high school football coach, bought the team and tried to put the brakes on its slide. Williams allocated money for free agents and okayed a $100,000 face-lift of the players' facilities at the Ice Palace. Then, in his wacky, Southern-fried style, Williams declared that the team's No. 1 draft pick, center Vincent Lecavalier, was going to become the " Michael Jordan of the NHL."
So far the rookie is doing fine. Flanked by veterans right wing Mikael Renberg and left wing Stephane Richer, Lecavalier should pump some life into a Lightning offense that was about as powerful as static electricity last year. Coach Jacques Demers is already comparing Lecavalier's on-ice determination with that of future Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman and Doug Gilmour, but what the Lightning could really use are some future Hall of Famers on defense. Even with goalie Bill Ranford, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1990 after guiding Edmonton to the Cup, and 1997 No. 1 draft pick Paul Mara, the defense may be as bad as the offense was last year. "We still need to know who is going to step forward on defense, but we are a much improved team," says Demers. "We're on the right track."
Perhaps, but as every bobsledder knows, going up a mountain is much harder than coming down.