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Can Lightning live with success?

By GARY SHELTON
Published August 18, 2005


Money is in their pockets. They are wealthy beyond lotteries, and there are few comforts they cannot afford.

Celebrity has been achieved. They are famous beyond desire, and children view them with that familiar, faraway look.

Achievement has been conquered. They have won beyond belief, and they have earned titles and trophies along the way.

For the Lightning, now comes the difficult part.

After years of trying to overcome failure, the team now has to overcome success.

"Our biggest fear, our biggest challenge, is our team's mind-set," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It isn't X's and O's, and it isn't talent. It's what the locker room is going to be like."

Success changes everything. Even now, when training camp is still weeks away, when the ink on Vinny Lecavalier's new contract has not dried, when Lecavalier has not yet passed the pen to Martin St. Louis, it is not too soon to recognize the next obstacle.

From a distance, it looks a lot like a trophy.

It is a sneaky adversary, success. It promises that it is here to stay, and it invites players to take it for granted. It blinds a man to his shortcomings, and it suggests he is the only smart guy in the room. It inflates ego and lessens hunger, invites jealousy and promotes pettiness. It fattens cats.

As of today, past success is the Lightning's sparring partner.

As of today, old achievement is more an enemy than a friend.

"Our team had a great season last year," Tortorella said. "But to be considered a great organization, you have to do it again and again. That's the difficult thing. To be considered a great organization, we still have some steps to go."

Once a team arrives, where does it go from there? When it is on top of the world, how does it climb another mountain?

"Remember Good is the Enemy of Great?" Tortorella said, talking about the book he turned into a slogan during the championship season. "This year, we need to say that Great is the Enemy of Excellent."

Talking about the dangers of success is like talking about the struggles of having too much money. It's still preferable to the alternative. The Lightning remains a young, talented team.

Still, if failure is a wolf at the door, then success is a snake in the grass.

"I knew it as soon as that pingpong ball (for the NHL draft) came up as No. 30," Tortorella said. "The hockey gods are coming after us. We're going to have adversity. We're going to have disease. The players will bring some of it in, without meaning to, and others will bring some of it in. And we're going to have to deal with it."

There will be turbulence. There always is. So what happens when the inevitable losing streak begins? What happens when Tortorella, who has been known to raise his voice in the direction of his stars, turns up the heat?

We'll see.

Once, it didn't seem so hard. If a team won the Stanley Cup once, by golly, it had a great chance to do it again. The NHL was a dynasty sport where teams took turns running empires. The Canadiens. The Flyers. The Oilers. The Islanders. The Penguins.

No more. Over the past 11 NHL seasons, as money has increased and the playoffs have gotten more difficult, only one team (Detroit) has managed to defend its title.

What is it about success that trips teams up so often? Do players get mentally fat? Do administrators take so much credit for last year's harvest that everyone forgets to plant?

Here is the darndest question in sports: Why isn't winning enough for some people?

If you have been in enough losing locker rooms, if you have seen failure gnaw at enough athletes, you would think it would be. Some players spend a career trying to get into a winning situation. Short of playing time or outrageous money, you wonder why a player would ever tinker with a good thing.

Yet they do. Consider Terrell Owens, who had a chance to re-invent himself after last season's Super Bowl. Consider Manny Ramirez and all his goofiness at the trade deadline. Consider Kobe. Consider Keyshawn. Consider Kermit, who evidently has dumped Miss Piggy.

Winning hasn't been enough for a lot of people. Rich McKay couldn't work with Jon Gruden, Jimmy Johnson couldn't work with Jerry Jones, Bill Parcells couldn't work with George Young, Bobby Beathard couldn't work with Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren couldn't work with Ron Wolf and Shirley couldn't work with Laverne. It was as if once the ship came in, no one wanted to paddle anymore.

" "We' becomes "me,' " Tortorella said. "Let's be honest. You, me, everybody is selfish to a certain degree. That's human nature. But the only reason this team has been able to have success is because of "we.' After a championship, that has to be a whole different plane."

Eddie Arcaro, the old jockey, had a saying: "Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas, it's hard to get up early."

Which brings us to the wardrobe of the Lightning, and the memory of how quickly success abandoned the Bucs.

Let's see. Martin St. Louis won the league MVP. Brad Richards was the playoff MVP. Vinny Lecavalier was the World Cup MVP. If there was such an award, Ruslan Fedotenko would have been the Game 7 MVP.

There are victors, there are spoils.

That's the thing about victory, however. It comes with an expiration date.

Eventually, if a team is not careful, success spoils, too.