Wake up the echoes.
Hard to believe there's a winning hockey tradition in Florida; harder still to believe that the Lightning have won as many Stanley Cups in the last decade as its first round opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But it's true. And the appropriate adjective along the Gulf Coast these days is rather odd for a laid-back region that still hasn't seen its 20th season of pro pucks:
That vibe emerged early in the season, when a team not predicted to do very much at all won seven games in October and then floundered in November. Instead of moving on to the Buccaneers, fans became testy. And the team wasn't given a pass when team captain Vincent Lecavalier broke his right hand and sat out 15 games.
"Expectations were way, way up there," says Chris Dingman, who played on the 2004 Cup team and now assists on local TV broadcasts. "I felt we gotta put things into perspective."
Lightning fans haven't quite turned into Yankees fans -- although many are both -- but this is a sign that Tampa (unlike other southern cities like Phoenix and Atlanta) is turning into a real hockeytown. Tampa had the highest attendance jump in the league this season, up more than 11 percent to 17,333 per game. "We always revert back to 2004," says former captain Dave Andreychuk. "Fans want to revisit that, just like the rest of us."
The challenge in a sun-drenched city -- both on and off the ice -- is selling a work ethic instead of an entertainment ethic. While parka-cloaked northerners will drink in a 1-0 game like so much cold beer, southern-based players (and sometimes coaches) sometimes feel that new fans want wide-open play and lots of scoring. That doesn't usually work in the playoffs. Even the '04 title team was unique in that it was high-powered on offense and fairly unspectacular on defense (other than Dan Boyle). After that season and the ensuing lockout, the Lightning's blue-collar grit devolved back into no-collar freedom. When Ryan Malone arrived from Pittsburgh in '08, he was shocked to find how loose the system was.
"At first it was run and gun," he says. "Guys had a long leash to be creative. A blind cross-ice pass to the far wall was something they were actually expecting."
Malone laughs at this, and it is kind of hilarious to imagine. But it wasn't so funny when the Lightning hired Barry Melrose to run the team in '08 and suddenly there wasn't as much substance on the entire roster as there was in the coach's hair. The days of "Good Is The Enemy Of Great" were as good as gone.
That's part of why Steve Yzerman was so well-received in Tampa. In his first meeting with the team, he and handpicked coach Guy Boucher informed a group that had not won a playoff series since the Stanley Cup Finals seven years ago that expectations were now higher and "Working hard is not good enough." (Sound familiar?) Furthermore, "relentless" was offered as the word of the day and the season. When drills are not done relentlessly, players were told, they would be done again and again. "Jeff Vinik bought the the team," says Andreychuk, "and his expectations filtered down. That's why the results on the ice are there." It also helped that Boucher, who coached in Andreychuk's hometown of Hamilton, was a latter-day John Tortorella. Although "Torts" wore on his players after a while, Boucher's hire was welcome and even desired by the two holdovers from '04, Martin St. Louis and Lecavalier.
St. Louis, who went undrafted, has been intensely driven since before he arrived in the league. But Lecavalier's reputation, floating back and forth between entitled and engaged, has told the story of this franchise like nothing else.
Lecavalier knows both individual and team expectations, and how the two often contradict each other. He was once the long-locked heir to the French Connection skaters who a one-time Lightning president dubbed "the Michael Jordan of hockey." He was allowed free reign early in his career in part because of his talent and in part because of the belief fans came to see him show off. He was given the captain's 'C' at age 19, but not for the reasons Yzerman and Sidney Crosby got that honor before turning 20. Lecavalier was simply the most talented player. When John Tortorella took over as head coach, that stopped being sufficient, and Lecavalier was stripped of his title.
Trade rumors surfaced quickly, but Lecavalier gamely bought in, and the team got better. The climax of Lecavalier's metamorphosis from me to team, ironically, came in the Stanley Cup Finals of '04, when Lecavalier stunned the hockey world and galvanized his teammates by dropping the gloves with Calgary captain Jarome Iginla.
Lecavalier has always had an unfair rap, probably because of his height, his laid-back looks, and seemingly-relaxed persona. (Hard to avoid that when "cavalier" is right there in his name.) Even after winning the Cup, he was rumored to be back on the trading block when the team sank back into its old devil-may-care ways. But Lecavalier is proving himself all over again this season, now resembling the graybeard captain who led the Lightning to the Cup in the first place -- Andreychuk.
"We all know the rumors about moving him," says Andreychuk, now VP of fans and business development. "I saw him train to get ready after his injury. He’s been a totally different player on the ice. Off the ice, Vinny has accepted the role of guy who’s been counted on."
Many fans remember Andreychuk doing the same, turning down trade opportunities and leading the Lightning into the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons in '03. (Note it's been seven seasons since '04.) But Andreychuk is still the NHL's all-time leader in power play goals. He was a 6'4" first-round draft pick whose reputation as a winner years after he had a reputation as a tall talent.
Now Lecavalier is the 6'4" captain with a recent reputation as a winner. "Vinny's a little smarter than he used to be," half-jokes defenseman Pavel Kubina, another '04 vet who is now back on the Lightning blueline. And Lecavalier is using his smarts to help Steven Stamkos, the wildly talented No. 1 overall pick of a new generation, deal with his own expectations.
Tampa brass at first reverted right back to the talent-over-team ways of the past when it launched seenstamkos.com (which now redirects to the team website), but Lecavalier has tried to save mini-Vinny from the harder lessons of being the face of the franchise. The two have had a few conversations about how things are different in the playoffs.
"I've learned how hard you have to compete," says Stamkos. "You can't afford to take any shifts off."
Almost as soon as those words came out of Stamkos' mouth after practice Sunday, Lecavalier interrupted the interview by telling the 21-year-old to hurry up and get to a power play meeting.
Stamkos can be forgiven if he tries to do too much after scoring nearly 100 goals over the past two seasons. Lecavalier's job is to push Stamkos away from the pressure to score and toward the pressure to sacrifice. Those are the expectations fans now have in Tampa, and the expectations Lecavalier himself has learned to live with. He's been known as brooding or aloof, but these days he notices the fans wanting more and feels unburdened rather than put-upon.
"I really feel the love," he says, smiling. "Maybe that's me talking; I've been here so long. It's good. The expectations in here have been higher, too."
Stamkos, the future of Tampa and maybe the sport itself, can only hope to feel as young in 10 years as Lecavalier does now.
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