Steven Stamkos remembers the winter of 2002 like it was yesterday.
Joe Sakic had just put on a tour de force performance in one of the most important games of his Hall of Fame career, scoring four points and leading Team Canada to a 5-2 win over Team USA in the Winter Olympics’ gold-medal game in Utah, thus ending 50 years of fruitless gold-panning for the Canadian men.
Sakic, who would be named the tournament MVP, was the 12-year-old Stamkos’s favourite player, along with fellow Team Canada alternate captain Steve Yzerman.
Stamkos had a minor hockey league game in Markham, Ont., later that day. Prior to warm-up, Stamkos and his teammates taped Canada sweaters to their sticks, then circled the rink with their nation’s colours held high.
“It means everything,” Stamkos said Monday of being a slam-dunk for Canada’s 2014 roster. “It’s amazing to be here today knowing I can potentially be on that team. I’d love to follow in his footsteps.”
Sakic’s golden moment will be exactly half a lifetime ago on Feb. 7, when the Sochi Games kick off and Stamkos celebrates his 24th birthday in my-life’s-a-dream fashion. But Stamkos’s is a dream deferred four years.
Canadians don’t talk about it because all we remember is Sidney Crosby yelling “Iggy!”; Ryan Miller crumbling in defeat; a pair of sweaty mitts being flung to the heavens; and a lot of hugging and jumping. A happy ending masks all blemishes.
Consider who was not on the ice during this decade’s most joyous Canadian sporting event, however. It’s what happens when lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Team Canada’s two healthy forward reserves in Vancouver were a pair of prolific point producers in a weak hockey market: centreman Stamkos and his right winger Martin St. Louis. They couldn’t have come closer to making the historic squad, but the near-miss stung. (Would Canada not have gold if Stamkos and St. Louis had got the nod over, say, Dany Heatley and Brenden Morrow? We’ll never know.)
“It was tough. You want to make every team you try out for, so it was disappointing,” Stamkos told Sportsnet.ca Monday, after already being named one of Samsung’s sponsored Olympic athletes. “At the same time, I’m a realist. I was 19 years old at the time, and there’s so many good players and guys that have had more experience than you at that level. So you use it as a little motivation and hope that next time you get your name called.”
That motivation took the form of 51 goals, which tied Stamkos with Crosby for the 2010 Maurice Richard Trophy. Stamkos (95) and St. Louis (94) finished fifth and sixth in NHL points the year they failed to make the cut.
“It maybe put a little extra wood in the fire,” Stamkos said, “but I can’t say I did that to prove something to anyone. You try to prove to yourself and your teammates the kind of player you can be.”
Had Canada not won it all, Lord knows there would have been talk about the absence of St. Louis and Stamkos — Canada’s two highest-scoring NHLers in 2009-10 not named Crosby. Remember that silver medal? Yeah, too bad we believed a 50-goal guy wasn’t ready yet and the 2013 NHL scoring leader was over the hill in 2010.
Something interesting happened that off-season, however. Team Canada executive director Yzerman, Stamkos’s other childhood hero, was hired as the Lightning’s general manager and VP of hockey operations. One of his first acts in Tampa was to lock up St. Louis, now 38, long-term. Yzerman knows St. Louis – and his five-year chemistry with Stamkos — well. One has to think that connection could help St. Louis return to the Olympic stage when Yzerman meets with his fellow Olympic brass in November.
“For Marty, (the 2010 snub) was more of a disappointment because of what he had accomplished in his career, and he had been on (the 2006) Olympic team,” Stamkos said.
“It was tough. It was one of those disappointments,” St. Louis told us in August, “you feed off it and get better. Keep pushing.”
It’s that sinking feeling when they close the gate and you’re next in line to ride the roller coaster. Except the ride only runs once every four years. So you wake up early and bust your ass to beat the others to the queue next chance you get.
Despite getting off to another fantastic start – 10 points in eight games, top-10 in points per game, identical to Stamkos’s numbers – St. Louis is viewed as a player on the bubble when it comes to flying to what Stamkos calls “pretty hostile territory in Russia.”
Yet the veteran remains steadfast in pursuit of that roster spot. Even though he was walking around with a protective boot last week after blocking a shot in a victory of the L.A. Kings, St. Louis didn’t miss a game.
“He’s a true professional. There’s a correlation between the best players in this league and work ethic – and he’s the epitome of that. Look at what he’s done and the route he’s taken to get where he is. It rubs off,” Stamkos said. “What I’ve learned from him is how to play without the puck – where to be, where he wants me to be, little things like that.”
That little thing magnifies in a rushed mini-camp when opponents rush to become teammates and speed-track their on-ice understanding. It’s something the two Lightning stars already have bottled up.
“We’re both looking to be on the team this time around. I was young. For him, there was a definite motivation factor,” Stamkos said of 2010′s sideline status. “No matter how old he is now, he wants that more than a lot of people do. I’m hoping we get a chance to play together on that team.”