Lecavalier knows this drill

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

Time for a quick round of "Who Am I?"

Here are a handful of clues to chew on.

1) I played my junior hockey in Rimouski, where I was a scoring machine in the Quebec junior league.

2) At 16, my skills already were being compared to those of Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

3) I was projected to be the first overall pick many months before the actual NHL draft took place.

The answer should be a slam dunk, right? It's Sidney Crosby, the most coveted prospect to come out of junior hockey in years.

Nice guess ... but a wrong one.

No, the man we're referring to here is Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vinny Lecavalier, who knows all too well the pressures being thrust on Crosby as the unanimous choice to be top pick in tomorrow's entry draft.

'THE NEXT MARIO'

As a 16-year-old phenom, he was dubbed "The Next Mario" by the fans and media in a province thirsting for another home-grown francophone superstar.

As an 18-year-old selected first overall, he was called hockey's Michael Jordan by then-Tampa Bay Lightning owner Art Williams.

So many expectations. So many demands. So many labels.

Yet is wasn't until last year that Lecavalier, still a relative hockey infant at just 24 years young, finally enjoyed the on-ice success the pundits had projected for him. A Stanley Cup ring, a World Cup title and tournament MVP honours were more than enough proof that Vinny had finally arrived, flushing away all those previous claims that he was an underachiever.

But it wasn't easy.

"The expectations started when I was 16 years old (playing in Rimouski) and they started putting me on the list as a potential first-round draft pick," Lecavalier recalled.

"I didn't take the Mario comparisons in a bad way. I thought it was a compliment. I thought it was cool.

"I knew obviously Mario is Mario. I just figured: 'Oh, I'm tall and skinny like him.' Obviously, Mario is the best in the world. But I didn't take it in a bad way as pressure. I had good years in junior so obviously it didn't bother me."

Yet those close to him could see the hype was having a negative impact. Even after recording 115 points during his final year of junior, it just never seemed to be enough.

"It was tough for him during his draft year," Brad Richards, Lecavalier's long-time teammate and close friend, said.

Lecavalier was just 14 when he and Richards first played together at Notre Dame College. They went on to Rimouski, where Richards witnessed first-hand the demands being placed on his buddy.

"There were such high expectations of him," Richards said. "He played well but everyone still expected 200 points from him.

"It was hard. It wore on him."

They hadn't seen anything, yet.

In June of 1998, Williams' Lightning made Lecavalier the top selection in the entry draft. When the so-called franchise player was introduced to the media, Lecavalier, Williams and then-coach Jacques Demers emerged sporting t-shirts that read: "I'm a stud!"

"Actually, I don't know why (Williams) wanted us to wear them and I wasn't about to ask," Lecavalier said. "I had just got drafted so I wasn't about to ask questions."

Moments later, Williams made the famous Jordan comparison.

"I didn't really take anything from it," Lecavalier said. "He had never seen a hockey game before and he was real excited about the team. I don't know why but I'm still answering questions about it seven years later.

"I think in basketball it's a different story. Look at how well LeBron James did at 18. But for the most part, at 18 you haven't stopped growing yet. After playing against 160-pound guys, now I was against these huge players.

"People think when you are drafted first overall, you should dominate the league at 18."

Such hype has been swirling around Crosby for some time now. When the Pittsburgh Penguins make him the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, he'll officially become the guy in the eyes of many fans who will accept the torch from Lemieux, his soon-to-be teammate and boss with the Pens, as the next dominant superstar in the game.

But in those rough times ahead -- and don't kid yourself, there will be some -- Crosby need only call up Lecavalier, another alumnus of Rimouski, for some words of advice.

After all, Vinny, in the end, found a way to blossom. It just took a few years.


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