When those events were over, they picked an all-star team. Stamkos made that list often, but he doesn’t remember many games where all the standouts got together to play against each other. He said all-star games weren’t big in minor hockey back then.
Watching the NHL All-Star Game was though. It seemed so far away then. But he looked forward to the day he would be one the players announced, stamped for approval as one of the league’s best.
That time has come, amazingly one week before he turns 21.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Stamkos said. “You watch a lot of all-star games growing up. I definitely didn’t envision it this early in my career, but it’s something that you definitely dream of as a kid, whether it was playing on the pond or road hockey. I had a few all-star jerseys back in the day. It was always a fun thing to watch. Just to have that name tagged to you that you’re an all-star, they can never take that away.”
Stamkos could have made his first all-star appearance a year ago during his remarkable 51-goal season, in which he shared the “Rocket” Richard Trophy with Sidney Crosby. But that season there was no game due to the Olympics. Instead, he will go to Raleigh, NC for his first this weekend.
The league’s leading scorer (38 goals, 67 points) will be joined by line-mate Martin St. Louis, who makes his franchise-best sixth all-star appearance.
“My success has a lot to do with him,” Stamkos said. “We feed off each other, so it’s definitely nice to be able to share that experience with him. I got a little taste of it at the YoungStars game in Montreal two years ago with Marty and Vinny [Lecavalier]. It’s an amazing event.”
St. Louis said it is a lot more fun to go with a teammate. St. Louis, 35, who has eight consecutive seasons with at least 20 goals, said at the end of the 2009-10 season that Stamkos keeps him young.
“Stammer is making his own mark right now,” St. Louis said. “He deserves to be there. I’m excited for him.”
Lecavalier was 22 when he made his first of four all-star games in 2003. He remembers being a little nervous.
“You just have to go with the flow,” Lecavalier said. “It’s a busy weekend and you don’t have much time to relax, but he’s going to enjoy it. I’m happy for him.
“He’s [almost] 21. He’s probably going to be at the next 20 all-star games.”
Stamkos said the most memorable all-star games to watch for him was the Dany Heatley four-goal game in 2003 (in his first appearance) and Owen Nolan calling his shot in 1997, beating Dominik Hasek to complete a hat trick.
What event might he be in during the skills competition Saturday?
“I did the fastest skater before the junior hockey all-star game, fell and went crashing 100 mph in the boards so I’ll stay clear of that one,” Stamkos said, laughing. “Maybe shooting accuracy.”
That would seem to fit perfectly.
Stamkos has filled highlight films with his pinpoint rockets from anywhere on the ice. A bundle of his goals came from near the left circle on one-timers on the power play last season. This year, he has scored from everywhere with the man advantage.
“He has one of those golden shots that come around only once every five or 10 years,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said.
Boucher said Stamkos doesn’t just rely on that special quick-release slapper. He has scored several goals on tips, wraparounds and rebounds off body parts while battling his way to the front of the net.
“I showed the team a video of him in camp,” Boucher said. “That’s why he scores 50 goals. He doesn’t try to get the fancy goals. He goes to the areas where it hurts and makes it happen.”
Boucher said Stamkos and Crosby, who he coached in juniors, are different in style of play but the same in mindset.
“They both want to be better, have that same drive, the same passion,” Boucher said. “They don’t play for fame. They play for the love of the game. With players like that, the game expands because they are focused on things that some other guys are not focused on.”
Stamkos is the third youngest player to score 50 goals in a season in the NHL, trailing just Jimmy Carson and Wayne Gretzky. He is now one of six players in NHL history to score 100 career goals before his 21st birthday, joining Carson, Gretzky, Brian Bellows, Dale Hawerchuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. He is now at 112.
It has been quite a run. A weekend in Raleigh just seems natural and Stamkos said it makes it all better to be representing a team in first place at the break.
“It’s fun,” Stamkos said. “Looking back you’re so thankful for all the people that pushed you and had an influence on you along the way. And, that all the hard work paid off.”