TAMPA - To enjoy these good times, Vinny Lecavalier had to go through the bad times.
Make that more like horrible times, the stuff of waking-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares. And make that four years worth of last-place finishes, constant mocking and the diminishing prospects that things would ever get any better.
The problem Lecavalier faced was he was the face of the franchise. Because the franchise didn't meet expectations, even lowly ones, then, everyone assumed, Lecavalier wasn't reaching them either.
"(Former coach) Jacques Demers gave me a chance to play at 18 and every year I was trying to get better," Lecavalier said. "But when you lose you don't really know how it feels when you're winning."
With the Lightning piling 50-loss seasons on top of 50-loss seasons, Lecavalier let doubt creep into his head. Once carrying the swagger of a No. 1 overall pick, Lecavalier slipped into a rhythm of self-doubt and trying to do too much.
The losses proceeded and so did the possibility that Lecavalier wasn't all that he was cracked up to be, all that everyone had hoped or thought.
Then came last year. As the Lightning climbed in the standings, Lecavalier's reputation climbed as well.
Lecavalier realizes he had to go through the rough patches to get better, but added, "I would never want to go back to the way it was."
The turning point?
"Last year, that's when we started winning," Lecavalier said. "We started believing in what we can do. We started to have confidence in what we can do."
Funny how it all worked out. Once the best player on a bad team, Lecavalier adjusted to another role, which meant that he occasionally had to play a supporting role to another leading man. This season, Martin St. Louis became not only the team's top scorer and best player, but, likely, the Most Valuable Player in the league.
Yet because of the winning, Lecavalier is considered a better player, at least across North America. For example, Lecavalier was the subject of a Sports Illustrated article two weeks ago. That's something that likely would not have happened four years ago when he was considered the best player on the team.
"It has been an unbelievable ride," Lecavalier said.
A ride he couldn't imagine four years ago ending here, at the Stanley Cup final when the Lightning was so bad. A ride he couldn't imagine two years ago when he was constantly butting heads with coach John Tortorella. A ride he couldn't imagine a year ago when the Lightning was bounced out easily in the second round of the playoffs.
"We had to go through some rough times," Lecavalier said. "I thought one day we would be good, but when I first got here? We seemed so, so far away. . . . But here we are.