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May 24, 2016

Vincent Lecavalier

Jean Beliveau retired in 1971, his place in hockey history secure. He would forever go down as one of the greatest hockey players of all time.

Nine years later Vincent Lecavalier was born in L'ile Bizard, Quebec. And by the time Lecavalier was emerged in 1996 as the next great superstar out of Quebec, 25 years had passed since Jean Beliveau last skated.

Yet, in a rare circumstance, Lecavalier would forever be compared to the legendary Hall of Famer from another generation. He idolized him, too, even though he never saw him play. Hence why Lecavalier, like Beliveau before him, wore #4 much of his career.

The comparisons were striking. Lecavalier was Beliveau's on-ice reincarnation. His size, his presence, and his mannerisms were so similar movie makers asked Lecavalier to play the role of Beliveau in a Rocket Richard biopic - the closest Lecavalier ever came to fulfilling his destiny - as many believed - as the next great French superstar of the Montreal Canadiens.

Lecavalier was a natural hockey star. He was on skates since the age of two. His father ran a hockey school. His grandfather endless told him stories of his favorite player - Beliveau.

As a youth Lecavalier's parents paid him 25 cents for each goal and a whole dollar for each assist he scored. They wanted him to be a complete player.

They also wanted him to be down-to-earth and classy off the ice by having him work at a summer camp for handicapped children.

As a teenager Lecavalier escaped the already mounting pressure of Quebec and left his Montreal home to attend the famed Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchwan. Lecavalier was hoping for a college scholarship to a big US university at that point.

But he was convinced to return to Quebec and play junior hockey in Rimouski. He was an immediate star and brought credibility to a struggling franchise.

Lecavalier was the first pick overall in the 1998 NHL draft, undeniably the best prospect in hockey since Eric Lindros. But he would be saddled with the extra pressure of having to carry a new expansion franchise - the Tampa Bay Lightning - both on and off the ice.

Not that it was easy. Phil Esposito, a hockey legend in his own right and the infamously politically incorrect general manager of the Lightning, said the draft choice was so obvious "even Ray Charles would have picked him."

That was nothing. It is one thing to grow up in Canada and be compared to Jean Beliveau. But upon his arrival in Tampa, but how about being compared to basketball Michael Jordan? Lightning owner Art Williams, perhaps in a bid to sell tickets, proclaimed the 18 year old to be "the Michael Jordan of hockey."

"It was said by a guy who never saw a hockey game," Lecavalier said years later. "He's not even around any more, but I still have to talk about it. I get asked about it at least 10 times a year."

The Lightning, like most expansion teams, was not a very good team for the first years. That weighed heavily on young Lecavalier, who was billed as a savior. It did not help that as a 19 year old he was named as team captain - the youngest captain in NHL history at that time.

"A lot of people thought he'd take over the league at 20," teammate Brad Richards said, "but that doesn't happen. There's only two or three people in 50 years can do that. He was with a bad organization. He lost a lot of games and it was tough on him."

"Its all about expectations," said Lecavalier. "When you get called first in the draft, believe me everyone expects you to lead the League in scoring, win a Stanley Cup and make the Hall of Fame. "There is no room for mediocrity. You are expected to be a star. Nothing less than greatness is acceptable. You could be a candidate for a psychiatrist's couch if you aren't level-headed to begin with."

Things got both worse and better when coach John Tortorella took over as coach. The two instantly rubbed each other the wrong way. Tortorella tore the "C" off Lecavalier and gave it to veteran Dave Andreychuk. Trade rumours were commonplace until Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said neither player or coach were going anywhere.

Though Tortorella was famously tough on Lecavalier, somehow they coexisted and improved. Neither may have ever liked each other very much, but it resulted in them sharing a Stanley Cup victory in Tampa Bay in 2004. Lecavalier set up the Cup winning goal in game seven, and famously fought Jarome Iginla earlier in the game.

At that time Lecavalier was emerging as arguably the best player in the world. His talent was undeniable. With his size and creativity he was at times unstoppable. But he also learned about winning.

"John was able to get to Vinny," veteran teammate Tim Taylor said. "To teach him it's all about winning. Vinny's realized that. He's helping on faceoffs and is becoming a lot better two-way player. That's a lot to do with the coach."

Lecavalier took those lessons to even higher levels. He was dominant at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, scoring the championship winning goal for Team Canada. He was also named as the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

By 2006-07 Lecavalier had his best season, winning the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL's leading goal scorer with 52 and setting a Lightning team record with 106 points. It also resulted in an 11 year, $85 million contract extension.

The problem was the Lightning team was really struggling, despite Lecavalier's brilliance. And as the team continued to flounder, soon Lecavalier's point totals also headed south. His contract became an albatross as he was not producing enough for the enormous salary cap space he was occupying.

After 14 years and 1037 games, the Vincent Lecavlier era ended in Tampa Bay. The Lightning bought out his contract in 2013.

Lecavalier joined the Philadelphia Flyers on a five-year, $22.5 million contract, but soon found coach Peter Laviolette and general manager Paul Holmgren were removed from their jobs. They had committed to Lecavalier, but the new regime did not. He viewed him as a liability on the ice and another albatross on the salary cap ledgers.

Things got so bad Lecavalier was a healthy scratch for much of the 2014-15 and almost the entire 2015-16 season in Philadelphia. The once proud superstar was now being paid to practice. He knew he was not going to play.

All he wanted was a chance.

That chance came in 2016 when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. In order to make the salary cap numbers work, Lecavalier had to agree he would retire at the end of the season, voiding the final two seasons on his contract and leaving a lot of money on the table.

Lecavalier re-emerged under coach Darryl Sutter and with the west coast Kings. His rebirth was short but a great story. Everyone in hockey was happy to see him happy again, as he fit in nicely on the Kings third line.

Despite proving that he could still play, Lecavalier was true to his word and planned on giving up the game of hockey. While it did not end like he had hoped, he had no regrets.

Vincent Lecavalier played in 1212 NHL games, scoring 422 goals, 527 games and 949 points. He was a Stanley Cup champion, World Cup MVP, NHL All Star, Rocket Richard scoring champion and an Olympian.

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