Lecavalier, Richards are Lightning in a bottle

Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards are buddies for life.

In the last six years, they've gone from being 14-year-old roommates at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask., to being teammates with the Rimouski, Que., juniors, to dressing side by side in the locker room of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is extremely rare that two young men would take such parallel routes to the NHL.

"They were always dedicated, great young fellas to coach," Terry O'Malley, who first coached them as bantams, said from Wilcox on Friday as Lecavalier and Richards prepared to skate against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.

"They roomed together, they hung out together, it's kind of like a fairy tale come true for them to be in the NHL together now."

Lecavalier, from Ile Bizard, Que., enrolled at Notre Dame because his older brother attended the school.

Richards, from Montague, P.E.I., was enrolled by his family because, like the Lecavaliers, they wanted him to be in an environment that provided both a top-flight education and hockey development.

"One thing you develop out here is good friendships," said O'Malley. "They'd always be on their rollerblades playing ball hockey, and they had the same school courses and the same dreams, and those things build friendships."

When they first arrived at Notre Dame, Lecavalier and Richards had adjacent bunks, which is how they first met.

"We've always been friends," says Lecavalier, who after being drafted by the Rimouski junior club tipped off the Oceanic about his buddy who stayed behind for another year with the Hounds.

At the 1998 NHL draft, the Lightning took Lecavalier first overall.

When Richards was still available as the third round started, Lecavalier was prompting the team to claim his best friend.

With the 64th pick, the Lightning did just that.

Lecavalier moved into the NHL immediately, and last year became the league's youngest captain.

Richards, who stayed in Rimouski and helped the Oceanic win the Memorial Cup, made the NHL grade this autumn.

They live in separate apartments 30 seconds apart in downtown Tampa.

They take turns driving to the rink.

They are inseparable.

"We're like brothers," says Lecavalier. "To play on the same line at Notre Dame, to be on the same junior team in Rimouski, to both be drafted by the Lightning, it's very special.

"I was very, very happy when Brad made the team this year. He has the talent, he has everything to be a great hockey player."

Lecavalier had 18 points including eight goals, and Richards had 12 points including three goals going into the game against the Leafs.

Richards had been overshadowed by Lecavalier in the Oceanic lineup, but he's now coming into his own.

"I tell him to play as if he's still in junior and not be afraid to make mistakes," says Lecavalier. "He's got a lot of determination.

"He's going to be a star in this league."

These days Richards is still pinching himself.

"It's a dream come true to be playing in the NHL, and it's a special bonus to have your best friend on the same team," says Richards.

Notre Dame was the start.

"It builds character," Richards said of the school, which also helped produce Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph.

"You grow up fast. At 14, you're on your own. There are no babysitters. You do things like help clean the school.

"I'm sure, if I'd heard how it was before going, I probably would have got scared and never have went. But it's a big reason why I'm in the NHL now. It helped me so much.

"I had a great coach in Terry O'Malley. At 14, to have a coach of that calibre ... he helped me and Vince so much on and off the ice. It made a total difference in my life."

The Lightning is the youngest team in the NHL, averaging 25.4 years, and Lecavalier and Richards are keys to a prosperous future.

This is Tampa Bay's ninth year in the NHL.

Only once, in 1996 when they lost in the first round to Philadelphia, have the Lightning qualified for the playoffs.

Last season, they went 19-54-9.

They were 6-8-1-1 this season before playing the Leafs, which was good enough to be flirting with first place in the weak Southeast Division.

"The biggest thing right now is the chemistry," Lecavalier said in pinpointing the recent upswing in the team's fortunes.

"We've got a great bunch of guys in here. We're so close, and that is reflected on the ice.

"We're working harder, and it's really paying off."

Lecavalier is tabbed for superstar status.

"The biggest thing in the NHL is to have confidence," he says. "I remember my first 20 games in the league, when I was so afraid to make mistakes.

"Right now, my confidence level is very high. I'm playing pretty good hockey. I'm not afraid of making mistakes and I think it's really paying off."

Veterans such as defenceman Petr Svoboda, 34, are enjoying the youthful makeup of the team.

"It's a lot of fun," he says. "We've got young guys with a lot of energy.

"It could be a pretty good season."

Lecavalier has awesome potential, he says.

"He's unbelievable. He's got a lot of talent and he's also the hardest worker on our team."

O'Malley intended flick on the television to watch his former players in action.

"We're delighted here at the school to see they have succeeded," he said.

By Neil Stevens