Details of the moment are a little fuzzy to Steve Stamkos; not surprising since he was only 2 years old. But pictures snapped by his mother, Lesley, captured the aftermath:
Stamkos sitting in his stroller during a family visit to St. Pete Beach and mugging for the camera after a seagull plucked a french fry from his hand.
"One of the first words ever out of his mouth was french fries,'' said Lesley, whose parents had a since-sold home in Seffner.
"That," Stamkos said, "was the only time I've been to Florida."
Sixteen years later, a glorified return is all but guaranteed.
Barring a turn onto Unexpected Street, the Lightning next month will make Stamkos, 18, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
He isn't Sidney Crosby, but the center is the consensus best player available.
"Really good," Blackhawks assistant general manager Rick Dudley said.
"Very, very good,'' Dudley said and added, "When you break down the entire package, skating, puck skills, the shot, there's nothing missing."
It is just what goal-starved Tampa Bay wants to hear about the still-growing 6-foot-1, 184-pounder it desperately needs next season and hopes will be Vinny Lecavalier's heir apparent.
But there is more to Stamkos than the 58 goals and 105 points he had last season for Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League, the 100 goals he scored in 124 games as a junior or the goal and six points he had in seven games to help Canada to this year's world junior championship.
Former coaches praise his work ethic and humility. Family and friends tout his character. And parents Lesley and Chris couldn't be prouder that their son will graduate in the top 20 percent of his class at Brother Andre Catholic High School in Unionville, Ontario, and he said he might take college courses online while playing as a pro.
"This is one of the most special kids I have ever come across," Blue Jackets scout Andrew Shaw said. "And I've been around the game for 20 years."
A bigger picture
Stamkos was 10 years old when Canada's National Post featured him in a story "Seven Habits of Successful Kids.''
"In sports, you have to have a good attitude," he said. "You shouldn't always carry the puck or ball; pass it up and move."
On dealing with teammates: "You say good things and then they're confident instead of …thinking they can't do it so they won't try."
Again, he was 10.
Stamkos credits his parents with teaching him to deal with people, to consider the feelings of others and not to boast.
"They taught me from Day 1 not to get caught up with what other people say, positive or negative," Stamkos said. "And they've never been the type to brag about my success."
"I've always been a believer in the sport is bigger than one athlete," Chris said. "If someone made a good pass that resulted in a tap-in goal, it's more about the person who made the pass than the person who scored it."
How grounded is Stamkos?
In 2006-07, he was the OHL's top student-athlete. Dave Turner, athletic director at Brother Andre, said Stamkos never was sent to the principal's office, "unless (the principal) wanted an autograph." And Shaw, who billeted Stamkos in Sarnia, said the kids who showed up at the front door looking for autographs never were disappointed.
"He'd spend five or 10 minutes with them," Shaw said. " 'What team do you play for? What position?'
"His mom and dad have done a great job."
The Stamkos hype should take off next week, when he and other draft hopefuls are in Toronto for a camp in which on-ice skills will be evaluated and interview room character judged.
Shaw said Stamkos has answered all questions:
"If Steven is in a situation where he is playing 18 to 20 minutes a game and maybe seeing some power-play time … I can see him scoring 60 or 70 points.''
Sarnia coach Dave MacQueen, who called Stamkos, "probably the best" junior player he has coached, isn't so sure.
"I think in his first year he would get more goals than assists because he's more a shooter than a passer,'' said MacQueen, a Lightning assistant from 1996-98. "Don't get me wrong. He can distribute the puck, but he likes to shoot and has that ability around the net. If he gets 20, 25 goals, that would be a pretty good year."
Stamkos' hockey education began with Paul Titanic, who coached him from age 9-15.
"He introduced me to try to play a complete game," Stamkos said. "I remember him sitting me down once and telling me if I wanted to be successful at the next level, you can't be a liability on defense."
Titanic said that Stamkos did that "naturally. He understands the game and how to play in his own end."
"I watched him a lot last year, and he was unbelievable," Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill said. "He'd be the first guy leading the rush and catch the guy on a breakaway on the way back."
That is speed, something Sarnia GM Alan Millar said that Stamkos uses as a weapon.
"A lot of times, to make a play through the neutral zone … players have to slow down,'' Millar said. "But when Steven gets into second or third gear, he continues to see the ice, thinks the game and does things with the puck a lot of players can't do."
"He's going to be a great player for many years in the NHL," Nill said. "Is it going to happen his first year or second? It may take time. Either way, the Lightning is getting a good one."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]