tampabay.com

Points and pride

Vinny Lecavalier's off-ice work has blossomed with his game.

By Gary Shelton
Published November 14, 2007


TAMPA

Here in the prime of Vincent Lecavalier, let it be agreed there is more to the man than any one of us had reason to suspect.

He is bigger than he has ever been. He is better. There is more strength to him than before, more character, more impact. He has blossomed into a man of a substance. He has developed into something special.

It is true of Lecavalier, player.

It is also true of Lecavalier, person.

And, my, aren't you impressed with the way our young man has grown up?

At 27, Lecavalier has found himself. There is a difference in the way he carries himself, a maturity in the way he expresses himself. His shadow seems to cover more ground. His footsteps seem to make a deeper imprint.

One the ice, Lecavalier has become one of the NHL's premier players and, finally, no one follows the sound of his name with the mention of untapped potential. If you are talking in the present tense, he is the finest athlete Tampa Bay has to offer.

Away from the arena? Lecavalier has a few highlights there, too.

Lecavalier made the most impressive play of his career last month when his foundation made a $3-million commitment to All Children's Hospital. It was a pledge that will cost Lecavalier hundreds of thousands of dollars - perhaps as much as a million - out of his own pocket.

And when you think about it, a player's name on a hospital wing is a tad more impressive than his name on the Stanley Cup, isn't it?

Lecavalier is part of us now. A move such as this one will ingrain him here forever. Over the years, Tampa Bay has embraced a lot of athletes, but it seems to reserve a special admiration for those who have given back. Warrick Dunn. John Lynch. Derrick Brooks. Brad Richards. Now Lecavalier.

Who would have expected this? As admired as Lecavalier has been as a hockey player, his was the image of a guy who liked his fast times and fast cars. He liked the nightlife. He liked to boogie. He dived into the good times like an ant on a birthday cake. Wouldn't most of us?

The more you hear about an athlete's flash, the easier it is to question his substance. It's human nature. Not that anything is wrong with being a 21-year-old millionaire in a Ferrari. It's just that this is ... more.

It is interesting that Lecavalier's arrival as a player mirrors his arrival as a person. Perhaps they go hand in hand. In both areas, it sounds a lot like growing up.

"I don't know whether his growth as a player or his growth as a person is more impressive," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It's a coin flip. He has done such a great job in both areas."

Yes, Lecavalier says, he has matured. He has lived a third of his life as a member of the Lightning, so let's hope so. But he will also tell you that he always has cared.

"I didn't just wake up one morning and say "I want to do more,"' Lecavalier said. "I always wanted to do something. But when you come into the league as an 18-year-old, the first thing you want to do is establish yourself. A few years later, I was ready to do something, and the lockout came."

Let's be honest. Lecavalier could have done a lot less, and people still would have been impressed. Sports is a world where some athletes think of charity as leaving a two-dollar tip in the bartender's bowl. There are others who fool the world into thinking they care by saying the right things when the cameras are rolling.

So where does it begin? Where does the responsibility to not turn away come from?

With Lecavalier, perhaps it began with Karine Martetinis, his cousin. Karine was diagnosed with brain cancer when she and Vinny were 5 years old. Even now, Yvon Lecavalier, Vinny's father, can remember the two of them huddled and chattering away as children. Karine died last year.

Perhaps it was because of Alex, Lecavalier's cousin. Alex has Crohn's disease. There has been an Alex Lecavalier Foundation for a decade.

Perhaps it began with Jean-Rene, a wheelchair-bound boy in Lecavalier's hometown of lle Bizard, Quebec. Lecavalier's father made sure each of his three children - Genevieve, Philippe and Vinny - all spent time looking after Jene-Rene.

"My wife (Christiane) and I wanted to teach them value," said Yvon, a firefighter. "We wanted them to know just how lucky they were to be healthy. Vinny was always patient. When he played sports, he was usually the best player on his team, but even on the bench, you would see him sitting beside the weakest player, trying to encourage him."

As a society, we tend to measure performance in points and philanthropy in out-of-pocket expenditures. As impressive as Lecavalier's contribution is, however, his commitment is more so.

Practice had been over a matter of moments Tuesday. The sweat dripped from Lecavalier's face as he told the stories. The girl who had almost died in the car wreck. The boy with cancer in his body and a smile on his face. The young man who told him to appreciate how fortunate he was.

"These are kids who are going through things they shouldn't go through," Lecavalier said. "The more you know about their lives, the more it touches you."

Turns out, that's true of Lecavalier, too. If he is impressive in your eyes, then imagine how he must look through a father's.

A hockey player leaves home at 14 to play juniors, and a father worries. He becomes a millionaire at 18, and a father worries. He gets so much so fast, and a father worries.

And these days?

"I am so proud of him," Yvon said.

The rest of us, too, Yvon. The rest of us, too.