TORONTO — For virtually the entire time Steven Stamkos has laced up hockey skates he’s been the centre of attention.
But it’s never been quite like this.
And should the 25-year-old stick to his guns and become the first superstar NHLer to test unrestricted free agency since the birth of the salary cap, well, this is really only just the beginning.
The signs in the crowd. The two days of around-the-clock chatter on sports talk radio. The crush of media for a rare post-game scrum in the hallway outside the visitor’s dressing room.
The intense focus and speculation we witnessed in Toronto this week will be minuscule by comparison should Stamkos remain a pending UFA when Tampa returns to Air Canada Centre on Feb. 29 — the leap year day that just happens to double as the NHL’s trade deadline this season.
Once every four years? Try once in a quarter-century (or more).
That’s how rare this situation could be. In a risk-averse league bubbling over with long-term extensions, especially for franchise cornerstones, we simply don’t see players anywhere near as talented as Stamkos get within six months of testing the open market.
And with each passing day, the Tampa captain looks a little bit more like the one who might actually go through with it.
No wonder there was such relief for the Lightning after looking at the schedule and seeing that Tuesday’s game fell at the end of a back-to-back. After arriving late from Columbus, they didn’t hold a morning skate and managed to insulate themselves from the most intriguing national storyline in hockey.
To wit: Where is Stamkos going to play in 2016-17? And: Could it be here in his hometown?
“The media attention, I completely understand (it),” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after a 5-4 overtime win over the Leafs. “He’s from Toronto. This is the hockey Mecca and people want to know. It’s a story. He’s probably one of the most talented players to become a UFA in his mid-20s — I mean that doesn’t happen, especially in this era.
“So of course it’s going to be a story.”
It’s a story that promises to gather steam as the calendar flips forward. The closest comparable situation came after the end of the 2012-13 lockout, when Anaheim Ducks stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry got to March before signing eight-year extensions 10 days apart.
But the biggest difference between those Ducks and these Lightning is the tremendous array of talent that surrounds Stamkos in Tampa.
It was a good enough group to get within two wins of winning the Stanley Cup in June. In fact, you have to believe that the only reason Stamkos hasn’t already been offered an extension that would make him one of the NHL’s highest-paid players is the numerous others on the roster that need new contracts in the next two years.
Now Stamkos holds all the cards. A no-movement clause guarantees that he can’t simply be flipped at the deadline without having a major say in the process.
And his influential agent, Don Meehan of Newport Sports, doesn’t have to initiate or engage in any negotiations with Lightning GM Steve Yzerman unless his client instructs him to.
It puts Stamkos in a highly unique position as a player who looks ready to exert as much leverage as is possible in the NHL’s hard-cap system.
LeBron James has twice been a NBA free agent. David Price, Max Scherzer and Albert Pujols are among the numerous baseball stars to test the open market in recent years.
Should Stamkos do something similar he would be blazing a new trail in the NHL.
When you couple that with the fact the rebuilding Leafs are in a position to be free-agent shoppers, and Stamkos liberally used Twitter’s “like” function again recently, well you get the storm that just blew through Toronto.
While Stamkos said Tuesday’s game felt just like any other, he acknowledged that he’s aware of the mounting attention and feeling some of its effects.
“You never know how it’s going to be until you go through it,” said Stamkos.
About the only person who can truly sympathize is Mike Babcock, who came through town a couple times last season as a free-agent-coach-to-be before eventually signing the richest deal ever in his profession to join the Leafs in May.
For Babcock, the uncertain contract status wasn’t a big issue most of the time. The only time it got to him was during those stops in Toronto.
“The only time it bothered me to be honest with you (was) when I came here and people would be yelling at you, ‘Are you coming here?'” said Babcock. “Other than that, you didn’t even notice it was going on. You didn’t worry about it. And I expect it’s the same for him.
“I think the noise around you only affects you if you listen to it. If you just get on with your life, the hunting channel and country music, you don’t even know what’s going on.”
No matter how things end up playing out, the fact Stamkos spends the majority of his time in a quiet two-newspaper town should help a bit.
“You’ve got Erik (Erlendsson) and Joe (Smith) there asking the questions for the majority of the time,” said Stamkos. “They know that they’ve asked it quite a few times already — so they’re good that way, they understand — it hasn’t been that bad.”
Not yet, maybe.
But there are a couple road trips through Canada ahead and he is currently starting down a path with no footprints.
A goal-scoring superstar in his prime on the open market? Imagine?
It’s only going to get more interesting from here.