Sports Hockey


Lightning captain Steven Stamkos driven to win

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun


Sitting behind his pre-assigned podium at the circus known as NHL media day, nothing — and we mean NOTHING — can wipe the smile off the stubble-laden face of Steven Stamkos.

Not even the 16-inch titanium rod that remains implanted in his right leg, a souvenir of the fracture that cost him a chance to represent Canada at the 2014 Olympics.

“I’m not going to lie ... it sucked,” Stamkos said Tuesday, referring to the injury that stripped him of his opportunity for glory with Team Canada.

For the record, he’s grinning as he says it.

About a slapshot away, sitting across the room from him on the set of the NHL Network, is Barry Melrose, Stamkos’ first NHL coach. The same Barry Melrose who played him just six minutes in his first home game back in 2008 and, more often than not, refused to give him a regular shift.

“You’re pissed off at the time. You want the opportunity ... It sucked going through it but now I appreciate it even more,” Stamkos said of his early NHL days.

And, yes, he’s still grinning.

Obviously, at this particular moment in time, life doesn’t “suck” anymore. Far from it.

Not for Steven Stamkos. Not when you are just four wins away from being able to hoist the Stanley Cup.

He dreams about doing just that. After all the adversity he has gone through, the possibility consumes him. Just thinking about it causes him to snap out of his pre-game snoozes. It is just that important to him.

“You find yourself waking up in pre-game naps ... absolutely,” he says. “These games are so intense and you have so much nervous energy coming in. You almost wish you could wake up, have breakfast and go play so you wouldn’t have to think about it all day.

“You get more confortable as you go along but, for me, I don’t think you can have a good nap on the day of a Game 7 or when you get to the finals.”

Yes, the Stanley Cup final. That is where Stamkos and his Tampa Bay Lighting find themselves now, hosting Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday night at the Amalie Arena.

Although he is just 25, it has been a long road for Stamkos to get here, one sprinkled with potholes. And now that he’s arrived, he doesn’t want to blow it.

“We’ve made it this far,” he said. “And we want to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Still grinning. Just in case you were wondering.

* * * * *

Steven Stamkos’ hockey journey began when he was just a wee lad of two in the picturesque community of Unionville, just north of Toronto. According to his father Chris, that’s when young Steven first clutched a hockey stick.

In the Stamkos household, young Steven’s hockey haven was the dining room. “We didn’t have any furniture in there and our basement wasn’t finished, so that’s the place where he played,” Chris Stamkos recalled Tuesday.

And it was the same place, for that matter, where he learned how to skate. At least wear skates, anyway.

Upon getting his first set of blades, he’d actually walk on the rug in the dining room while they were on his feet. He was about three at the time.

“It taught me how to keep balance and how to move with them on,” Stamkos said.

And when Chris Stamkos took his son to Unionville’s Crosby Arena to skate for the first time in his life, all that previous practice in the dining room paid off.

“He walked from the blueline to centre ice,” Chris Stamkos recalled, chuckling at the memory.

Imagine that. Another member of the Stamkos family in a good mood. Like father, like son.

And with good reason.

* * * * *

By the time Steven Stamkos was a teenager, you could tell the kid’s upside was limitless. Just ask Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane, who recalls facing Stamkos in junior during the 2006-07 season. At the time, Kane was a star with the London Knights while Stamkos was a rookie for the Sarnia Sting.

“I remember he was the first overall pick in the OHL that year, so he was coming in,” Kane said Tuesday. “I remember the first time watching him, he scored a highlight-reel goal — might have even been in preseason — where he came down the ice, deked out one of our defenders, made a deke to his forehand and scored, and I knew he was going to be a special player.”

At the conclusion of that particular OHL season, Stamkos attended the NHL draft where he watched Kane get picked first overall. Seeing that gave Stamkos the confidence that he himself could also potentially have a lucrative NHL career.

Said Stamkos: “I actually remember going to Columbus the year before my draft and watching (Kane and Sam Gagner) get drafted and realizing ‘Those are guys I just played against and tried to compete with. I’m hopefully going to be in their shoes one day.’ It showed me that ‘Hey, I played against them. If they can do it, so can I.’”

In 2008. Stamkos was drafted first overall by the Lightning.

“Now, here we are seven years later,” he said, referring to his matchup against Kane and the Hawks in the final.

“I think you can probably say both of us have kind of grown up and matured as well,” Kane said. “He’s really leading their team right now.”

* * * * *

Even before Stamkos was officially drafted by the Lightning, the team launched an ad campaign centred around the phrase “Seen Stamkos?” From Tampa to St. Pete’s to Clearwater, senior VP of communications Bill Wickett estimates there were at least 20 billboards in the area blaring that slogan, not to mention things like bumper stickers and wrist bands.

“There were even girls on the beach wearing t-shirts with those words on the front,” Chris Stamkos recalled. “It was crazy.”

So was Melrose’s refusal to give Stamkos legitimate ice time early in that rookie year. Melrose was subsequently fired after just 16 games.

“It was tough at the time but you can sit here now and say it was the best thing for you,” Stamkos said, pointing out that the influence of fitness guru Gary Roberts and veterans like Mark Recchi taught him lessons he retains to this day.

A tougher pill to swallow was the broken leg he suffered on Nov. 11, 2013, when he slammed into the goal post at Boston’s TD Garden. He says he was playing the best hockey of his life at the time, having accrued 14 goals and seven assists in just 16 games to that point.

Despite his valiant effort to come back, his Olympic aspirations crumbled.

“Knowing you could have been in Sochi getting the gold medal for your country, it sucked,” he repeated.

Six weeks later, his Lightning were swept in the first round of the 2014 playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens. That, by the way, sucked, too.

Truth be told, Stamkos admits he didn’t feel anywhere near 100% in his comeback from the injury until the start of the 2014-15 season. Even then, he had to get over the mental block of charging to the net without the fear of the Boston goalpost incident creeping into his mind.

In the end, he has managed to overcome it — just like he’s done with the other examples of adversity that have sprung up in his career.

Explained Lightning GM Steve Yzerman: “(Look at) all the things he’s gone through in his career to date — a young guy coming into the league; developing as a scorer; our team getting better; doing whatever you need to do to win; going through the injuries he suffered last year: coming back from that; getting to this point here today with these younger guys coming in; being willing to do whatever he needs to do to help the team win.

“He’s just really evolved. He’s the leader of our team.”

Yzerman knows all about leadership from his days as the iconic captain of the Detroit Red Wings. As such, he gave Stamkos some wise advice before Game 1 of Tampa Bay’s first-round series against the Red Wings.

“The message was to stay even-keeled and be prepared for anything,” recalled Stamkos. “That night, we had 50 shots and lost. I thought to myself: ‘How did he know?’”

Stamkos went through that entire seven-game series without scoring. In order to create more space for him out on the ice, coach Jon Cooper suggested he move from centre to wing. It worked. He now has seven goals and 10 assists entering the final.

Anything for the goal.

“Going through those adverse times, especially last year, it gives you perspective,” he said. “And as long as I remember, the dream is to win the Cup. You never know when you get the next chance.

“I’m competitive at everything I do. Even running up the stairs with my sister (Sarah) as a kid, that was a race. I was competitive. I want to win at everything I do. At the gym, who can lift the most weight. Who can run the fastest around the track. Softball, golf, everything I do, I want to win.

“I want this so bad. Everyone who knows me knows that. And I will do whatever it takes.”

Just four more wins, and his long journey will be complete.

Imagine how big his smile will be if that happens.


Who will win the Stanley Cup final?

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