TAMPA — In the late days of August, Vinny Lecavalier flew to Tampa from Montreal in preparation for the start of training camp.
For 14 years, that seemed a simple act for Lecavalier.
But his arrival earlier this year was nothing like before. That drive past the Forum to his Tampa home felt different, knowing that less than 24 hours after arriving, Lecavalier would be back on a plane heading for his new team in Philadelphia.
“When I was driving over to the house I was like, 'Wow,' ” Lecavalier said. “Looking at the arena, that's just when you realize, 'OK, well, I'm here but I'm leaving tomorrow and I won't be back.' That's really when it kind of hit me, and that was probably the toughest day, for sure.''
Tonight, Lecavalier will be hit with whole new range of emotions as he returns to Tampa for the first time as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Lecavalier, 33, spent 14 years with the Lightning, which selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft. But the Tampa Bay organization cut ties with its former captain in June when it bought out the remaining seven years of Lecavalier's contract.
Under the amnesty buyout provision in the new collective bargaining agreement, the Lightning saved $7.7 million in salary cap space for each of the seven years left on Lecavalier's contract. Tampa Bay agreed to pay Lecavalier two-thirds of the contract's remaining value over twice its remaining term, or $32 million over 14 years.
Lecavalier soon signed with the Flyers for $22.5 million over five years. And once the NHL schedule was released, Lecavalier circled this day on the calendar.
“I can't predict how I'm going to feel (today), but it's definitely going to be weird,'' Lecavalier said. “Just to put on the Philadelphia Flyers jersey for the first time was kind of weird. And you get used to it, but to actually play against the Lightning, I don't know how I'm going to feel. But it's going to be a special night. I'm really excited about it.''
Lecavalier worked through some of those feelings on Tuesday, when he arrived at the Forum for an afternoon practice with the Flyers. He walked down the hallway to the visitor's locker room for the first time, reunited with the Tampa Bay training staff and exchanged handshakes with a few of his former Lightning teammates who were around while the team enjoyed a day off.
But that will not take away from the feelings Lecavalier will experience during his first game against his former team, something Brad Richards remembers well from his first game in Tampa after a 2008 trade to the Dallas Stars.
“It was very emotional; it was a tough day, a bittersweet day,'' Richards said. “You're coming back and excited, but also knowing that all your success and so much time was here and you never really wanted to go. So, you're happy to (return), but it happens so quick and you're gone back on the road.
“And it's a little sad because you know that you're only there once or twice a year instead of that being your home.''
Emotion will fill the building throughout tonight. And it will be hard to escape for Lecavalier, the Lightning organization, the fans and his former teammates.
There will be a video tribute for all that Lecavalier did for the team on the ice, including winning the 2004 Stanley Cup championship and the 2007 Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's leading goal scorer. He also will be honored as part of the Community Hero program for the work he does in the Tampa Bay area off the ice, with Lightning owner Jeff Vinik presenting a $50,000 check that will go to Lecavalier's charity.
And then there will be that first on-ice meeting with current Lightning captain Marty St. Louis, a teammate and frequent linemate for the previous 12 years.
“That's going to be weird, just playing against him,'' Lecavalier said. “I remember in practice we would play one-on-ones and we just couldn't stop laughing. It was just the way it was.
“So, to play in a real game, it's going to be different, but we are definitely going to play hard against each other. I'm excited to play.”