TORONTO – For fans of either blue-and-white team, it was one of those “where-were-you-when” moments.
Head coach Jon Cooper was in Steve Yzerman’s office when he got word, on June 29, that the face of the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise would remain so.
Cooper’s eyes glistened, the memory vivid.
“Happy times,” Cooper said Tuesday in Toronto, the hometown that tried to pry Steven Stamkos away with the mayor and Matthews and money — Canadian Tire and otherwise.
“I made the decision to stay with the team that drafted me and brought me up as an 18-year-old kid,” said Stamkos, whose voice welcomes travelers to Tampa Bay when they ride the city’s airport tram to pick up luggage. “It’s my second home now. There’s no regrets.”
It was easier for Frederik Andersen to find pucks on this night than it was to detect second-guessing on Stamkos’s part.
Whatever the opposite of “I immediately regret this decision” is, that’s how the Lightning’s 7-3 throttling of the Maple Leafs felt.
Stamkos beat Andersen 79 seconds after puck drop and went on to record his seventh four-point game in the NHL. He now has 40 points in 32 career games versus Toronto, delighting the clusters of friends and family who came out to see the Stammer Show live.
“When you score on your first shift, your legs feel lighter for the rest of the game,” he said. “It just means more because of who’s in the stands.
“[My Toronto friends] realize, when the schedule comes out, get your tickets early because there’s not a lot going around.”
Scattered boos rained down from Leafs fans spurned. Stamkos said his teammates joked that would happen, adding that it kicked up his motivation a notch.
“I don’t know if it could’ve happened any better,” he smiled.
Stamkos was referring to the first period of Tampa’s fifth win in six games, but he could just as well have been talking big-picture.
Once the captain recommitted for eight years and a below-market $68 million, No. 1 defenceman Victor Hedman followed suit. Then so did starting-goalie-in-the-making Andrei Vasilevskiy and underrated forward Alex Killorn. Even though he has just one year left on his deal, Vezina finalist Ben Bishop decided not to approve a trade to Calgary.
The formerly disgruntled Jonathan Drouin is only making noise with his skills. And Stamkos linemate Nikita Kucherov accepted a criminally low $4.77 million per year to be part of what many believe will be a return to the Stanley Cup Final.
Math and business and the pull of Stamkos’s birthplace were all conspiring to break up the band but — for at least one season — they will play on.
“Everything had to fall in line for this to happen, but all the guys made it fall in line. You do what it takes to stay,” Cooper said. “You got a group like that, that wants to stay together, you know you got something special.”
For the first time in a long time, Stamkos arrived at Air Canada Centre to play the Leafs with a clear mind. Having just won the World Cup on this ice last month, he says it feels like he never left.
“This whole year has a different vibe to it,” he says, relaxed.
Gone, for now, are the blood-clot concerns. Gone, for good, are the lies that Stamkos’s impending free agency was not a pestering distraction.
“We were all part of that last year. You put your best foot forward and say, ‘Oh, it’s not bothering anybody,’ but deep inside, you know it has to,” Cooper said. “He’s human. Everybody thinks: Where’s my future going to take me? Am I moving? Am I switching teams? Do I want to do that?”
Stamkos talks of growing closer as a friend to Hedman, alongside whom he’s developed in Tampa. Bishop told us that with each new off-season signing, the Lightning players would all text and call each other.
“Especially Stammer. He’s been the face of that franchise since the dog days to the good days,” said Bishop, who saved 40 shots and lost two teeth. “He sends a message when he comes back and signs the deal he signs for the guys coming up [in contract renewals].”
“Everybody knows we have a good team. It’s about coming back together and the ultimate goal.”
In Tampa Bay, there’s no more drama. There is just focus on winning games and lifting the Cup. Boring and blissful.
Cooper said, even with the Toronto kids pushing, he never felt the game was in doubt. Stamkos, 26, chose correctly and bravely.
If the Lightning do win it all, isn’t that Cup—still years off in Toronto—worth leaving change on the table for? In others words, what would you rather have: $68 million and a Cup ring or $88 million?
“When you make that decision, as long as you can live with it, you’ll be happy—and I’m definitely happy,” Stamkos said.
“That’s something as an athlete you sometimes take for granted—being able to come to the rink, work hard, and help your team in any way you can. Last year was tough in that regard.”
Before leaving the city that almost stole Stamkos — who is playing centre, killing penalties and leading all Tampa forwards in ice time, by the way — Cooper grinned wide at his captain’s four-point display, boos and all.
“I was really happy for him because I’m sure it was a tough decision for him. Plus, this is his hometown,” Cooper said.
“Fans pay their ticket, they’re entitled to do what they want, but Stammer is a good son to Toronto.”