Steven Stamkos had 60 goals with Tampa Bay during the 2011-2012 season. (Getty Images)TORONTO — Steven Stamkos didn't think it would get to this point. He figured by now the lockout would be over and he'd be focused on leading the Tampa Bay Lightning back to the post-season. Instead, on a Monday afternoon in December Stamkos was standing in front of a group of reporters in Toronto fielding questions about the lockout, what he's been doing to stay in shape and the RBC Play Hockey Charity Challenge he'll be a part of Wednesday night.
The 22-year-old Stamkos was one of the many NHL players who chose to stay close to home rather than travel and play over seas during the lockout. He's been doing everything he can to stay in game shape including training regularly with former NHLer and fitness guru Gary Roberts, doing some skating with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League and even playing pick up games with his dad on Thursday nights.
He'll skate alongside more than 30 NHL players in Toronto on Wednesday including some of the games top stars in P.K. Subban, Phil Kessel, Logan Couture and James Neal to help benefit the NHLPA's Goals & Dreams Fund and the RBC Play Hockey program.
Stamkos says he misses the camaraderie around the Tampa Bay dressing room and the competitiveness of playing at the highest level, but he's just excited to get to play in front of a live crowd again on Wednesday.
"I got the itch back when we were playing in Atlantic City," Stamkos told reporters at MLG Monday. That game was put together by Brad Richards and Scott Hartnell in an attempt to help raise funds for Hurricane Sandy relief. "Obviously it was a little bit of a bigger venue than this there was I think 10,000 people at the game and you can feel the passion that hockey fans have."
The crowd in Atlantic City far exceeded what the capacity of the newly renovated Gardens (now known as the Mattamy Athletic Centre) is — about 2,800 — but for a Toronto-born player like Stamkos there is something special about getting the opportunity to skate in the Toronto Maple Leafs former rink.
"This is my first time at the revamped Gardens," Stamkos said. "This brings back a lot of memories. When I was young my dad took me to a couple games at Maple Leaf Gardens and obviously there's a lot of history in this building. For a Toronto kid to come back and play in a charity game here at the revamped Gardens, I'm pretty excited."
While Stamkos did his best to keep things focused on Wednesday's event he couldn't avoid being asked his opinion on the ongoing labour war between the NHL's owners and players. He admitted to being frustrated at the current situation, but he's also hopeful that things will get going soon.
And as the NHL's most dangerous goal scorer he knows that if there is any kind of NHL season it will take him sometime to get readjusted to the professional game.
"I don't think I've ever gone that long without playing a competitive game in my whole life so it's tough but lots of people are going to be in the same boat," he said. "Obviously some people that have gone over and played in other leagues may be in game shape, but I think at the elite level that most of the athletes are especially in the NHL it should take you a couple of hard practices to get the groove back, I'm sure the first couple of games you're running on adrenaline."