- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PHILADELPHIA -- It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that the feeling of finality set in for Vincent Lecavalier.
He had been home in the Montreal area for the summer when he found out that the Tampa Bay Lightning -- the only NHL team Lecavalier had ever known and the team he helped put on the map both locally and nationally -- bought him out of the final seven years of his monster 11-year contract. So the impact wasn't quite as dramatic as if he'd been traded midseason or something of that nature. The Lightning sent him his equipment so he didn't have to return to the St. Pete Times Forum and confront the many memories he created there.
There was, in fact, a bit of a disconnect from the enormity of the situation.
But when he returned to his house in Tampa several weeks ago, it truly sunk in that the page had been turned both for him and the Lightning.
"It was like, wow, I won't be coming back here," Lecavalier told ESPN.com after his first on-ice session with the Philadelphia Flyers, who signed him to a five-year deal worth $22.5 million in July.
"It was when I was driving to my home in Tampa, I was like, OK, now it's hit me."
Lecavalier wasn't just the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was the team's first star. And for most of his time there, especially in the early days, he was the sun around which the team orbited.
There were bumps, ups and downs, and a lot of losing early on, but Lecavalier hung in, and both he and the fan base were rewarded in June 2004 when the Lightning edged the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to earn the team's first (and only) championship.
But he was more than just a player who was paid handsomely and ultimately helped his team win a prize. He became a central figure in the community, raising and donating literally millions of dollars for a variety of charities. He moved his family to the area.
"I think he's going to be dearly missed in Tampa," said Philadelphia scouting consultant and Hall of Fame player Bill Barber, who spent six years with the Lightning organization before returning to the Flyers.
"He's a great guy. He's a great team player."
Philadelphia goaltending coach Jeff Reese was the goaltending coach in Tampa when the Bolts enjoyed their finest moment. He echoed Barber's sentiments.
Everyone knows Lecavalier is a tremendous hockey player, "but he's an even better person. Not everyone may know that about Vinny," Reese told ESPN.com Thursday.
"He is just a tremendous person. We're really, really lucky to have him. I'm ecstatic he came here."
Late Wednesday afternoon, after taking photos at the Wells Fargo Center, Lecavalier introduced himself to the local writers. He was holding new gloves and a stick as he talked about the excitement he and his family feel for this new adventure.
It is a strange dynamic, to be sure.
After 14 years of being the guy who helped other fresh faces become acclimatized to their surroundings, the guy who smoothed the way for nervous newcomers, the guy who made sure the Lightning locker room was a welcoming place, Lecavalier is the new kid in the class.
"Last week, I felt like the first day of school, first day of high school -- something like that, where you don't really know anybody," Lecavalier admitted with a grin.
But after working out with his new teammates before the start of camp, he said the process has been pretty seamless.
"It went well. They're all great guys," the 33-year-old said. "Hockey is, I think, a special sport for that. I think we bond very easily. We already hung out as a team one day, just got to know the guys and all that. It's been easy on that front. I came in, everybody was nice. Even this summer everybody texted me right away when I signed."
After the buyout, Lecavalier was pursued by a number of NHL teams.
Choosing Philadelphia suggests that he wasn't content to simply fade into the background in another nontraditional market. This is a market where his play will be closely scrutinized, where fans are dying for a team that will end a 38-year Stanley Cup drought, and Lecavalier wanted very much to live and work in such a place.
"I wanted to be in a hockey market." Lecavalier said. "I'm not going to lie. Just playing against this team, playing in this building, hearing that this is like a family.
"I've only been here a week. There's definitely that feel. This is a big hockey market and people really know the game. I'm excited to come to a game here and they can actually cheer for us and not against me. You can feel it. You can feel it around town. People are excited. This is a huge hockey market, so I'm excited about it.
"From all the players that have played here, you see all the guys coming back, all the guys living here, you can see this is really a tight organization, tight family. That's something I wanted to be part of."
If Lecavalier can stay healthy, he still has the tools to produce at close to a point-per-game pace, something that would go a long way toward pushing the Flyers back into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference after missing last postseason.
"He's had an amazing career. It's always hard to leave a team you have been with for so long," coach Peter Laviolette said.
"I think also that brings an excitement and opportunity when you come to Philadelphia and a team like Philadelphia. I still go back to the first couple of times we played Tampa Bay last year. I was so impressed with the way he played the game. His competitiveness, the fact that he fought a couple of our guys, the way he was playing offensively.
"I think we're going to get a spirited guy who wants to make a difference on this team."
Still, the idea that Lecavalier is engaged in a long goodbye isn't going to go away anytime soon. Wherever he goes, at least early in the season and certainly through Nov. 27 when Lecavalier and the Flyers visit Tampa for the first time, he will continue to face questions about his departure from Tampa and his legacy with that team.
But don't look for him to use the circumstances that brought him to Philadelphia as special motivation this season.
"I don't want to try and prove the Tampa Bay Lightning wrong. It has nothing to do with that," he said.
Instead, Lecavalier is looking to focus more on the "hello" aspect of his new adventure than the "goodbye," even if the goodbye was an especially poignant one.