"When I went back to Tampa this summer to pack up my things, I think that's really when it hit me," Lecavalier said. "Everything happened so quickly. But that's when I realized,'I'm here, but I'm leaving tomorrow and I won't be back.' That was probably the toughest day, for sure. You move on and you get used to [the Flyers], but to actually play against the Lightning will be . . . a different thing. It will be weird."
Lecavalier, 33, was the face of the Lightning from the time he was selected first overall in 1998 until his 1,037th and final game with the club as its captain last April 27. He was a four-time All-Star, a 108-point scorer, the NHL's leading goal scorer and a key cog in their 2004 Stanley Cup squad.
When you thought of the Lightning, you thought of Lecavalier. For the Flyers, tonight's return would be like Bill Barber or Bobby Clarke returning in a different sweater.
"Ever since he became part of that organization 14 years ago, it seems like his name and the Tampa Bay Lightning have been in the same breath," said Adam Hall, who was Lecavalier's teammate in Tampa for parts of four seasons. "With the type of success he's had, he's still down-to-earth, remained such an approachable person."
What makes Lecavalier's return to Tampa Bay so captivating and emotional are his genuine affection and fondness for the area, even if there was probably a little bit of disappointment surrounding his departure. It is no secret Lecavalier wanted to remain in Tampa Bay for the duration of his career.
He signed an 11-year, $85 million deal that began in 2009 and it would have kept him in Tampa Bay until 2020. In today's day and age, it is usually the player who falls out of favor in a situation, perhaps soured by a coach or an untenable situation in the standings. Not the other way around.
"I think everybody realizes that he didn't want this," said Hall, who was waived by Tampa Bay last year. "This was the business side of the game, which unfortunately isn't fun all the time. You try not to take those things personally."
Lecavalier will be honored tonight as the Lightning's "Community Hero," something the team has done every home game since owner Jeff Vinik took over. Vinik donates $50,000 to each worthy recipient's charity of choice. Lecavalier is the first player to receive the honor.
In 2007, he donated $3 million to fund the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at All Children's Hostpial in nearby St. Petersburg. Even though he's been gone from Tampa Bay, Lecavalier just received an email update Monday from a patient, a little girl who is nearing remission for her cancer.
"Sometimes you have a bad day and you might be grumpy, but they're always smiling. They teach you by just being with them, being positive," Lecavalier said. "When you have your own kids, you start realizing it could happen to you, it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone."
The Flyers signed Lecavalier to a 5-year, $22.5 million deal on July 2. The deal includes a full no-movement clause - and the Flyers already used their two compliance buyouts on Ilya Bryzgalov ($23 million) and Danny Briere ($3.3 million). He isn't going anywhere. Lecavalier has settled into Haddonfield, N.J., with his wife, Caroline, and three young kids, and they're growing to love the area. He has been one of the Flyers' most consistent players, with 13 points in his first 19 games.
But Tampa Bay is still home. Lecavalier's parents, Yvon and Christianne, make their winter home in Florida. Lecavalier's sister, Genevieve, moved permanently to Tampa. Only his brother is left in Montreal. Now, Lecavalier's parents are living in his house on Tampa's Davis Island, keeping it warm.
Tampa Bay might always be home.
"One of the first things I looked at when we got the schedule this year was when we'd come to Tampa Bay," Lecavalier said. "Everybody knows how I feel about Tampa. It's a great community and a lot of good people here. It's a big city, yet it's small. It's great for sports. It might be early to say, but in the back of my mind, when I retire, yeah, Tampa would be a place I'd like to retire, for sure."
The Lightning is 3-3-1 without leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos since he fractured his right tibia in Boston on Nov. 11. Stamkos was up and walking without crutches or a boot on his surgically repaired ankle on Monday, and it's possible he could return this season . . . The Flyers are 1-4-1 in their last six trips to Tampa Bay Times Forum.
On Twitter: @DNFlyers