For 15 years, Vinny Lecavalier served as the face of the Tampa Bay Lightning, an all-star on the ice and a pillar in the community with his charity work.
That made Thursday all the more difficult.
Fifteen years to the day after drafting Lecavalier with the first overall pick in the 1998 NHL draft, the Lightning opted to part ways with the longest tenured player in franchise history. Taking advantage of a limited opportunity to buy out the remainder of his contract without penalty, Tampa Bay will pay Lecavalier two-thirds of the value remaining on the 11-year, $85 million contract extension he signed in 2008 and thought would keep him in a Lightning uniform for his entire career.
With $45 million and seven years left on the deal, Tampa Bay will pay Lecavalier $32 million over the next 14 years, roughly $2.33 million a year.
Lecavalier was at home in Tampa, at the breakfast table with his wife, Caroline, and their three children, when the call came from Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.
"Although I knew the reality of the situation, it still hit me and my family hard this morning," Lecavalier said. "When I signed my long-term deal with the Lightning, it was because I wanted to spend my entire career with the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's where I started at 18 years of age, the city where I've spent the longest amount of time in my life, ... where I wanted to end my career."
Instead, Lecavalier, 33, becomes an unrestricted free agent when the market opens at noon on July 5, free to sign with any team in the league - except the Lightning.
"It's tough to imagine," Lecavalier said. "The last few weeks, we've had a few conversations with the organization. Obviously, you don't know until it happens. . When you get the phone call and you're told you can't play for the Lightning, it was pretty rough on everybody, my family, myself. I've been here 14 years. It was definitely, still is, really hard."
It was not a decision made lightly. Yzerman and his staff held numerous internal discussions weighing the pros and cons before ultimately deciding to part ways with Lecavalier.
"There was a lot of consideration, and it's not something I enjoy or we enjoy doing. It's an inevitable part of the business," Yzerman said. "But we recognize and were concerned that we have a player that was an original draft pick and a very popular player. So, that makes it more difficult."
The move frees up roughly $7.7 million annually in salary cap space, nearly $54 million total over the next seven years. The savings is critical considering the salary cap for next season shrinks by $6 million, down from $70 million last season to $64.3 million.
With that in mind, the collective bargaining deal signed in January gave teams two amnesty buyouts to use this summer or next without incurring the salary cap penalty that normally comes with a contract buyout.
"We have two compliance buyouts if we choose to use them," Yzerman said. "Do we use one now or next year? We felt that in regards to Vinny, in particular, that if we were going to go down that road, it was better to do it this year instead of waiting until next year."
Lecavalier holds 15 franchise records, including career games (1.037), goals (383), power-play goals (112) and game-winning goals (60).
Yet, Lecavalier takes with him more than just the on-ice moments with Tampa Bay - the 2004 Stanley Cup Championship, the 2007 Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's leading goal scorer. He leaves behind a legacy of philanthropic work that endeared him deeply to people around town.
In 2005, Lecavalier launched the Vincent Lecavalier Foundation to help local children's hospitals and charities. In 2007, he donated $3 million to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, which led to the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorder Center.
His commitment to that work will continue, no matter where his hockey career takes him next.
"I want to be involved in Tampa," he said. "Tampa is like home to me. Most of my life has been in Tampa. That's why it's really hard, but that's why I want to keep my word. I made a pledge, and ... I'm a person of my word."
In that sense, Lecavalier's legacy in the Tampa community transcends his play on the ice.
"I think he sets the bar with his involvement in the community and probably the entire of major sports for what he has done, the legacy he has in the community," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "For me, being a young guy when I came in, you hear about that stuff. But until you see the hard work that he puts in, the money that he donates, the involvement that he has in the community, ... he's not just Vinny Lecavalier the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he's the captain of the whole city."
Now, Lecavalier will move on to another city, another team. But not without leaving a permanent mark in Tampa and the surrounding area.
"He's meant a lot; he was the face of the franchise. Everything that he has done off the ice has been remarkable," longtime teammate and fellow 2004 Stanley Cup champion Marty St. Louis said. "I've known the guy for 15 years. I feel like I've matured with him as a player, grown as a player, the highs and lows that I've gone through with him."
To think of Lecavalier elsewhere?
"It's just weird," St. Louis said.