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Here's Looking At You, Kid

Tampa Bay Is Counting Heavily on 18-Year-Old Vincent Lecavalier to Reach Rarefied Air of Greatness


TAMPA, Fla. — Art Williams is the first to admit his limitations, one of which isn't money.

When he said Vincent Lecavalier was going to be "the Michael Jordan of hockey," he wasn't slighting Wayne Gretzky or Maurice Richard or Gordie Howe or anyone else in the Hall of Fame.

"I didn't know hockey," says Williams, who was completing a $118-million deal to buy the Ice Palace and its chief tenant, the Lightning, when it made Lecavalier [luh-KAV-uhl-YAY] the No. 1 pick in the NHL entry draft in June.

"I'm a football coach and I knew a little bit about basketball, so I didn't know who Gretzky was," Williams says. "The press has a good time with me. I talk about the field and teeing it up and quarters. I haven't gotten the terminology yet."

Sure he has. Contract, bonus, incentive clause, all those terms have become a part of his hockey vocabulary since Lecavalier, an 18-year-old center, was signed to what could be the most lucrative deal for a rookie in NHL history.

It includes the base salary ($975,000 a year for three years) that is the rookie limit in the league's collective bargaining agreement.

And there is a $3-million bonus for reaching any two of six incentives:

* Score at least 20 goals.

* Have at least 35 assists.

* Record at least 60 points.

* Average at least 0.73 points a game in a minimum of 42 games.

* Finish with a plus-minus rating of plus-10, if Tampa Bay makes the playoffs or be among the top three forwards on the team in plus-minus if the Lightning misses the playoffs.

* Finish fifth or better in voting for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

Bonuses for making the all-star team, all-rookie team, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, winning the Stanley Cup and being among the team leaders in power-play and short-handed goals could bring the total to $16 million over three seasons, though the Lightning has hedged its bet for the first season by buying an insurance policy on the bonuses.

"If you're going to be in this business, you've got to stick your neck out," says Williams, who lives in a black-and-white world and hands out T-shirts that read: "You can be a stud or a dud."

"He's a stud," Williams adds. "I expect him to be the Michael Jordan of the NHL. He's going to be a superstar and he's going to be our franchise player."

He's a rangy 6-foot-4, 190-pound kid who isn't going to be 19 until April 21. Some filling out is going to be necessary before he can put the Lightning on his back. Some growing up too.

"I think he was just really excited about getting me No. 1," Lecavalier says of the man who signs his checks. "I think it was good pressure. It wasn't anything to hurt me. I don't think that's pressure. I just play hockey. I don't bother with that."

Of more immediate concern are his digs, and his ride. His folks just left Tampa to return to Ile Bizard, a suburb of Montreal, and he is alone in his two-bedroom apartment here. Before he left, Yvon Lecavalier made sure Vincent's transportation wasn't ostentatious.

His son didn't need that Porsche he coveted.

He got a BMW convertible, same as every other 18-year-old.

"We told him to start easy and each year give him some objectives: 'Earn some bonuses and get your Porsche,' " says Yvon, a firefighter. "Parking in front of somebody with a Porsche, you would lose their respect. I think that's a good thing to get the respect of the players, you know. And the fans also."

The easiest way to get the respect of both is to earn enough bonuses to buy that Porsche. But Lecavalier's first five games were strictly used Ford Pinto material, with no points and the ignominy of being benched briefly and demoted from the second to the fourth line.

"That's part of hockey," says Lecavalier. "I had one bad game and didn't play in the third period. I didn't deserve to play. I think I was playing good the first five games, and then I wasn't intense and I deserved to be on the bench."

Said Coach Jacques Demers: "I don't look at him as an 18-year-old kid, but I still have to think that when I'm coaching him. . . . This week he acted 18, but that's OK. New home. BMW. . . .

"When I brought him in my office, I told him, 'This is why I benched you. You didn't play. You didn't show up. Not because you make mistakes.' I won't bench him for making mistakes. I will bench him for not showing up.

"I also understood why, all the distraction he had, but I wasn't going to let him get away with it."

Lesson apparently learned. Against Pittsburgh, fourth-line center Lecavalier got 1/35th of the assist total in his bonus arrangement when he fed Darcy Tucker for a goal.

On Sunday against Vancouver, he went 1/20th of the way to the goal standard with his low screamer past Garth Snow.

Welcome back to the second line for tonight's game against the Mighty Ducks at the Pond of Anaheim.

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