Last year when Steven Stamkos first came to Toronto during the regular season on the final year of his contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning and his future with the club in doubt, a throng of autograph seekers and well-wishers greeted him outside the team hotel, shouting his name, taking pictures and creating a paparazzi-like atmosphere as the Lightning captain walked from the lobby to a bus bound for the Air Canada Centre.
A year later, after Stamkos signed an eight-year contract extension with the Lightning in the offseason, spurning the hometown Maple Leafs and a host of other suitors in favor of the perennial Cup contending Bolts, Stamkos' arrival was met with indifference from the locals.
Nobody stood outside the hotel waiting hours for him to emerge, save for a random cab driver or two looking for a fare.
Video: Stamkos on upcoming game vs. TorontoThe Toronto fan base has finally accepted, it would appear, that it's unlikely that Stamkos will wear a Leafs uniform anytime soon.
The scene was a bit different inside the MasterCard Centre, the Leafs' training facility where the Lightning practiced on Monday ahead of Tuesday's game against Toronto. A heavy contingent of well-respected Canadian sports writers and media personalities were there to greet Stamkos at his locker room stall once the Bolts' training session wrapped up.
Everybody wanted to know one thing: Now that you're wrapped up long-term with the Lightning and the contract situation is in the rear view, what was it like going through that experience?
"There are no distractions (this year)," answered Stamkos, who has scored a goal in three of the Lightning's last four games. "You're coming to the rink with a clear mind, and that's something as an athlete that sometimes you take for granted, just being able to come to the rink and having fun and enjoy what you're doing and work hard and help your team in any way you can. Last year was tough in that regard, but it's something you go through in life. Just like any big decision you're going to have to make, there's going to be stressful times, there's going to be time to reflect, but when you make that decision, as long as you can live with it, you'll be happy.
"And I'm definitely happy."
Stamkos signed an eight-year contract extension in June, two days before he would have become a free agent. Throughout the previous season and into the previous offseason, Stamkos and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman reiterated getting the captain signed to a new contract was a top priority.
But as the 2015-16 season came to an end and trade speculation involving Stamkos was rampant at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo, Lightning fans felt less and less confident that would become reality, especially as the date Stamkos could become a free agent drew nearer.
But in the end, Stamkos decided he wanted to finish what he had started with the Lightning. He wanted to win a Stanley Cup with the franchise that drafted him with the first overall pick at the 2008 Draft. He wanted to stay connected to and win with the tight-knit group he and his Bolts' teammates had become.
And he wanted to stay home, his new home in Tampa Bay.
"I made the decision to stay with the team that drafted and brought me up as an 18-year-old kid," Stamkos explained. "(Tampa's) my second home now. Like I said, there (are) no regrets, and I'm looking forward to hopefully winning another hockey game here on our road trip."
This visit to Toronto is different for Stamkos. Last year, all of the questions revolved around his contract status and whether he would explore free agency in the offseason.
Now, with all of those questions answered, the focus has shifted to what it was like to go through that experience and having to deal with those issues.
The shift has left Stamkos feeling a bit freer and more able to be himself and just one of the guys Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
"We were all part of that last year," Cooper said. "You put your best foot forward and say it's not bothering anybody, but deep inside you know that it has to be on his mind. He's human. Everybody thinks about, 'Where's my future going to take me? Am I moving? Am I switching teams? Do I want to do that?' Then you've got all that outside noise on you too. You turn the TV on and it's being talked about. Every building you have to answer questions. There's no question that weighs on you. But to see him now with all that behind him, you can see it actually with a lot of our guys. It's just refreshing for them. And they just get to concentrate on one thing and knowing when they come into a scrum like this that the first question is not going to be, 'Where are you playing next year?' I think that really helps."
Stamkos has faced the Toronto media since the offseason decision. He helped Team Canada with a gold medal at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, played exclusively at the Air Canada Centre, and was asked then at length about the choice to stay with Tampa Bay.
Now, with all of those questions answered and the contract decision behind him, Stamkos returns to Toronto as a bit of an outsider, a superstar on an Atlantic Division rival team, a Toronto-area native who likely will only wear blue and white during his career.
The blue and white of the Lightning
That's the decision Stamkos made.
Judging by the lack of attention from the locals, Maple Leafs' nation has come to terms with the choice too it seems.