For a day, Lecavalier almost a Canadien

He was set this summer to leave the Lightning to fulfill a childhood dream, until he had a true awakening.

Published September 21, 2005

MONTREAL - Vinny Lecavalier stood along the blue line Tuesday night inside the Bell Centre as Charles Prevost-Linton belted out a stirring French version of O Canada. Wearing the white visitor sweater of the Lightning, Lecavalier looked down at his skates and, perhaps, for a split second thought about what could have been.

Perhaps in another time, he could have been standing on the opposite side wearing the red sweater of the Montreal Canadiens.

It nearly happened.

Hours before the Lightning's 6-1 loss against the Canadiens in a preseason game Tuesday night, Lecavalier admitted for at least a few hours this summer, he was set to leave the Lightning after this season so he could fulfill his dream of playing for his hometown Canadiens.

He had it all worked out: sign a one-year deal with the Lightning in order to become an unrestricted free agent and then go back home for, maybe, the rest of his career.

"For a day, I really thought about it - what would it be like?," Lecavalier said. "That night I slept and I woke up and I thought: you know what? I want to be in Tampa."

Imagine that.

"I like Montreal and it would be very special," he said, "but my heart is in Tampa.

Within hours of waking up that day in August, Lecavalier signed a deal that, barring an unforeseen trade, will keep him in a Lightning uniform for the next four years. There's no telling what will happen after that, but it's looking more and more as if that dream of playing in Montreal might never happen.

For Lecavalier, that cannot be easy to swallow. Since he was barely old enough to skate, he was supposed to someday play in Montreal. Lecavalier's grandfather was a die-hard Habs fan. His favorite player was Jean Beliveau, who wore No. 4. It's why Lecavalier wears No. 4 for the Lightning. The passion was passed down to Lecavalier's father and then to Lecavalier.

The new collective bargaining agreement made it possible for Lecavalier to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. A Montreal newspaper, using a little photograph trickery, fuelled the frenzy by painting a Canadiens jersey over his Lightning sweater.

While the Canadians have had good French players over the past couple of decades (Vincent Damphousse, Pierre Turgeon, Stephane Richer), they haven't had a true icon since Guy Lafleur in the 1970s. Lecavalier would have been such an icon.

But with that worship would have come an immense amount of pressure from the media, something Lecavalier is not sure he wanted. For example, Lecavalier spent an hour doing interviews Tuesday in French and English.

"It's definitely very, very different," Lecavalier said. "I guess you get used to it. I don't know because I never played here. I asked (Montreal goalie) Jose Theodore this summer and he's used to it. He was like, "I don't know what I would do in Florida. I'm just used to this and I don't know anything else."'

The pressure from fans might be worse than the media attention.

"Everybody is so crazy about it and not to say Tampa is not because there's a good buzz right now," Lecavalier said. "But (Montreal is) like England with their soccer teams."

Maybe someday toward the end of his career, Lecavalier will return to Montreal. But for now, he is looking to buy a house in Tampa. He might even settle there after his playing days. For now, Tampa Bay is home.

"I've been there seven years through a lot of ups and downs," Lecavalier said. "We're a winning team. We started off losing for four or five years and now we're winning and I don't want to lose that. Not to take anything away from Montreal, but I want to stay in Tampa Bay and play with these guys and enjoy the winning.

"And I like the city. I like Tampa."