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� 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."