Three days after the Tampa Bay Lightning rewarded its star center with a five-year contract, Steven Stamkos still had a wide smile across his face. On Friday, so did several of his biggest fans, but for a much different reason.
Stamkos, along with approximately 50 kids suffering from various illnesses, couldn’t help but shed their ear-to-ear grins as the 21-year-old forward visited St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital to participate in the Christmas in July Donation Drive.
“This is a great effort by both Steven and our fantastic community partners,” Kasey Smith, executive director of the Lightning Foundation said. “We always strive to do our part in the community and Steven is always a champion about supporting kids’ causes, especially those here at St. Joseph’s.”
Following a press conference at the St. Pete Times Forum, where all eyes faced the front podium inside the XO Communications VIP Club as he addressed members of the local media, Stamkos arrived at the hospital where he was again the subject of attention, as the children stood in awe in front of their unexpected guest.
Although Friday marked the very first time the Lightning have collaborated with St. Joseph’s for the Christmas in July program, the experience was one the Bolts superstar will never forget.
“I was very fortunate to be able to spend some time with the kids today,” Stamkos said. “It’s a real privilege for me to be here and see the kids’ smiles on their faces and their families enjoying themselves. They go through a lot, so this was a special day for them and myself.”
Each year, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital takes in thousands of pediatric patients throughout Tampa Bay who have been stricken with a variety of illnesses ranging from pediatric cancer to treating those recovering from open-heart surgery, amongst other health issues. Despite the severity of each case, all patients are assured to receive the finest medical treatment, emotional support and loving care available.
To help comfort and distract the hospitalized patients from what ails them, the Christmas in July program collects new, unwrapped toys and monetary donations which provide entertainment, encouragement and a hopeful escape from illness for numerous children throughout the year.
Beginning at 2 p.m., the Lightning forward did just that, as he stood outside the main entrance to the Children’s wing, decorated with a wreath, a Bolts-themed Christmas tree and snowflakes hanging from beneath the awning, to collect toys from community patrons who also were in support of the worthy cause. Santa Claus was also present to assist Stamkos in accepting the Christmas presents.
After posing for pictures with the kids and signing autographs, it was time to head inside, where many of the children had come down from their individual rooms to greet Stamkos in the main lobby. Amidst additional photo opportunities, Stamkos had time to sit down with the kids as they did arts and crafts and even helped design their own Lightning goaltender masks. Those who weren’t able to attend the meet-and-greet downstairs did not miss out, however, as Stamkos surprised several lucky individuals by going room-to-room to visit with patients.
That Stamkos also serves as the spokesperson for the Kids Are Heroes program affirms Smith’s statement that he is not only a leader in the locker room, but a champion off the ice as well. In this role, Friday’s visit was just one of many future appearances that Stamkos will make in the upcoming years during is tenure in Tampa Bay.
“Like I’ve said from my very first visit here, it’s always a blast coming to interact with the kids. I’ve learned a lot and now that I’ll be in Tampa Bay for at least five more years, I’m really looking forward to making more of an immediate impact.”
If Friday’s event serves as any indication, it is apparent he already has.