On a recent January night in Tampa, a city home to a fake pirate ship and the clever sleights-of-hand of crooked card dealers, a wide-eyed, pallid teenager joined an exclusive group of elite company, reaffirming that there was at least one real deal in town.
Sometimes, he still has to pinch himself. Doing so, however, is as useless as the meaningless doubts that circled around him throughout his rookie season, and now, he has arrived.
Meet Steven Stamkos, the 19-year-old wunderkind who, in just his second year in the league, has soared to the apex of hockey’s highest tier and yet still has the ability to go beyond it. In fact, these days, while the rest of us have become ho-hum to his highlight reel footage that now sits stored away in the NHL Network archives, the only person still surprised is Stamkos himself.
“It’s still a little surreal,” the 6-foot-1, 196-pound native of Markham, Ontario said. “You have to stop and look around a little bit. Although age never comes up, I think it forces you to mature faster.”
Stamkos is already wise beyond his years, with the maturity and wherewithal of a seasoned veteran. His abilities on the ice are only exceeded by his presence off of it. That is part of what makes him such a special player.
While last season’s naysayers have since been quieted, is it possible Steven Stamkos doesn’t know just how good Steven Stamkos is?
On January 29 in a game against Anaheim, Stamkos recorded his 100th career point, making him one of three active NHL players to hit the century mark before turning 20-years-old, joining Ilya Kovalchuk and Sidney Crosby.
Furthermore, when Stamkos scored his 50th goal on January 23 against Atlanta, he became one of six players in the past two decades to reach the mark as a teenager, a list that also includes Kovalchuk, Crosby, Columbus’ Rick Nash, Trevor Linden and Jaromir Jagr.
“I didn’t even realize that,” Stamkos added. “That’s pretty cool to be in a group with those guys. It’s a special honor.”
Call it the kid’s surprising humble and well-grounded personality. Call it a respect for the game, but Stamkos has found himself in similar company before.
During the 2009 off-season former Lightning teammate Gary Roberts invited the young forward to his house for an intense strength-training program. The regiment consisted of unique weight training and resistance drills, as well as exercises designed to improve agility and stability.
Stamkos arrived at training camp in the fall with five to seven pounds of added muscle and his 29 goals this season, good for seventh place in the NHL on February 3, serve as nothing less than a testament to the work he put in. Simply put: Good in. Good out.
Nashville Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz went on the record as saying Stamkos has the best hands out of any young player he’s seen. But unlike many other 19-year-olds who have been thrust into the public spotlight, he refuses to take all the credit.
“I’d have to say Marty [St. Louis],” Stamkos said when asked which individuals were most crucial to his development as a player. “He’s a great player himself and expects a lot from himself and his teammates. He pushes me to make me better.”
Another key to his success is legendary skating coach Jari Byrski who, including Stamkos, invites NHL stars the likes of Jason Spezza, Mike Cammalleri and Wojtek Wolski to his camps with the intention of honing their skills in preparation for each season.
Before the halfway point of his rookie season in 2008-09, Stamkos was not on pace with the unrealistic expectations put on him by the media and others in the hockey world. He struggled to find his own version of what worked, citing a lack of confidence, which led to the teenager second guessing himself.
“I think the biggest difference between this season and last is my confidence level,” Stamkos said. “You’re always going to have some doubters who are out looking to defeat you. I think my parents and Coach Tocchet did a pretty good job of keeping me level-headed and not letting it get to me.”
If only the naysayers could see him now, but they are nowhere to be found. The doubts that once followed Stamkos have since turned to praise with each milestone he has surpassed.
Judging by the numbers, his performance on the ice and the hard work put forth off of it, it appears Stamkos has found a formula that is all his own.
Level head. Hard work. Can’t lose.