Monday, February 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's Stamkos expects quiet reception in return to Toronto

TORONTO — Lightning captain Steven Stamkos skated at the Maple Leafs practice facility Monday morning, donning a dark blue jersey.

It was a similar shade to what the Leafs wore at the same time about 100 meters away in a separate workout.

If Leafs fans' dreams had come true last summer, Tuesday would forever be remembered as the night Stamkos, 26, faced the Lightning for the first time since signing with his hometown team.

But as Stamkos sets to face the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre Tuesday for the first time since spurning Toronto in June to re-up with Tampa Bay on eight-year, $68 million deal, it's a decision both sides seem at peace with.

"I don't think there has ever been a doubt in my mind since I made this decision," Stamkos said. "That's why you do all the due diligence, you do all the questions and answers, so when you make that decision you realize you made the right one."

Stamkos, who spends his summers in Toronto suburb Markham, Ontario, said he hasn't had one bad personal interaction with Maple Leafs fans since signing. Considering how much Leafs fans clamored for him last season, flooding local radio stations with calls, tried bringing in "Sign Stamkos" signs to a Maple Leafs-Lightning game in December, you'd think they'd feel scorned, devastated. It would be like LeBron James turning down Cleveland. Toronto tried, the city's mayor and CEO of Canadian Tire among those who met with Stamkos during the June free agency window.

But the fact the Leafs won the NHL draft lottery, which netted them franchise-caliber player in No. 1 pick Auston Matthews, eased any pain of missing out on hometown savior in Stamkos, according to Bryan Hayes, who hosts a daily radio show in Toronto called "Leafs Lunch."

"It's as if it never happened," Hayes said. "The second they won the lottery this became an Auston Matthews town really quickly. I think people still wanted Stamkos or a large portion of them wanted Stamkos. But they could accept him not coming anymore because it'd be Matthews' team..

"People wanted him to come, people love Stamkos, love his story, a Toronto kid, big Leaf fan growing up. But it was his decision, a decision that everyone understood. I would have gone back to Tampa as well."

Stamkos admits that going through his contract saga last season, sparking questions and speculation in every road city, wore on him mentally. But teammates say he did a great job keeping it out of the dressing room. "If he was nervous or not relaxed, he did a good job of hiding it," veteran wing Ryan Callahan said.

Already Cooper can sense a difference in Stamkos, the lack of off-ice-drama "refreshing" for him and the rest of the Lightning (4-1), which is off to a hot start. So is Stamkos, with three goals (five points) in the first five games.

"It's something I tried to do the best job of dealing with last year, as much as you want to put that stuff in the back of your mind, it's still there," Stamkos said. "Personally there were times where it was definitely stressful. Now it's just come to the rink and have some fun and do what you need to do to help the team win."

Hayes thinks there may be a few isolated boos from Leafs fans towards Stamkos Tuesday, but they will be the minority. For the most part, it will be a normal game, Stamkos playing in front of many friends and family, just like he did for Canada in winning the World Cup of Hockey here in late September.

He said he loves the city, coming back, and doesn't expect any reaction Tuesday.

"People are entitled to do whatever they want," Stamkos said. "I made the decision to stay with the team that drafted me, that brought me up as an 18-year-old kid. It's my second home now. There's no regrets."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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