In Steven Stamkos' first appearance in Tampa Bay since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Lightning at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, there have been numerous stops throughout the city. Stops for radio and TV interviews, luncheons and meet and greets. None showed more of his true character or the value he brings to the community than his stop Friday at the Children’s Medical Center at Tampa General Hospital.
At just 18 years old, Stamkos is becoming a Tampa phenomenon. As he walked in to the Child Life Room at TGH, a safe, "no procedure" room for the kids to relax and play in, he was greeted by dozens of patients and staff wearing SeenStamkos? T-shirts. Kelly Rodgers, a child Life specialist, said the shirts were dropped off earlier in the week and passed out to the children.
"Everybody was really excited," she said. "If they’re not wearing them, they're in their room hanging up."
Stamkos seemed like an old pro as he walked in among the children, signing shirts and cards and taking pictures. He seemed to be leaving a trail of smiles behind him as he walked along, making sure to stop and talk with each and every child in the room.
"It's great to see and meet them and see the smiles on their faces, because that's really what it's all about," Stamkos said.
"He's doing great with the kids," said Donna Gebbia, marketing manager for Tampa General Hospital and tour guide for Stamkos and the entourage of staff and media with him. "He's getting down to their eye level, engaging them in conversation and putting them at ease. He's got such grace about him – it's very impressive for an 18-year-old."
While the purpose of Stamkos' visit to the hospital was clearly for the patients, it seemed many more days were brightened by him walking the halls and saying hello. Many parents and even staff members – some stopping for a quick picture or autograph – got joy out of seeing the smiles brought to the young faces of those enduring more than any child should.
"It makes my day," said Ramon Barriera, father of Angel Raye, 4. Angel Raye was one of the patients visited by Stamkos in the dialysis room. "It shows they're concerned."
Barriera said he spends about six hours a few times a week here with his daughter, and it makes it easier when people like Stamkos come in and visit. He even got his picture taken with him.
"It's not about the organization, it's about the community and the kids," he said. "It shows they're giving back."
“He's getting down to their eye level, engaging them in conversation and putting them at ease. He's got such grace about him – it's very impressive for an 18-year-old.”- Donna Gebbia
Stamkos seemed to be all smiles as well as he walked through the halls of the Children’s Medical Center, stopping in rooms as he went to say hi, sign a shirt or take a picture. When prohibited from entering certain rooms because of health concerns, he stood outside and waved through the window. When the children were small and scared, he crouched down to get more on their level. He loved seeing their faces when he told them they might be on TV with him.
"It really makes my day, and I hope it makes theirs as well," he said. "It's always great to give back to the community."
Stamkos said the strangest part of everything is that he can remember being a little kid and getting so excited at meeting some of his favorite hockey players. He remembers standing in line waiting for autographs, like many fans did for him at a meet and greet the previous night. He doesn't seem to have quite grasped the concept that he's quickly becoming one of those favorite hockey players to many young fans.
"I don't think that's really kicked in yet," he said. "It's kind of tough to wrap my head around it, but I guess I'm going to have to get used to it. It's a great feeling."
Once the hockey season begins, Stamkos said he hopes to do many more hospital visits and get involved in the community.
"The whole city's just really embraced me and my family," he said. "I'm definitely excited to be a part of that whole situation."
Stamkos seems to be bringing a lot to more to Tampa Bay than just his hockey game. His charisma and calm, natural personality make him very accessible to fans of all ages, but especially younger generations.
"He'll be a wonderful role model for our youth," Gebbia said. "He's so composed, mature and responsible, I think he'll bring a lot to this community."