Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Re-signing Stamkos and Hedman: How the Lightning kept the band together for another run at the Stanley Cup (w/ video)

TAMPA

Veteran center Brian Boyle found out while on the back nine of a golf course in Hingham, Mass. • Center Tyler Johnson had his workout in Spokane, Wash., interrupted by a buddy who told him he saw on Twitter the news that rocked the hockey world June 29: • Steven Stamkos signed an eight-year, $68 million deal to stay with the Lightning. • "At first I didn't believe him," Johnson said. • Up until that morning, general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff had been going through free agency contingency plans in case they had to face the unenviable task of replacing Stamkos, a generational scorer and face of the franchise, who could become a free agent July 1. Owner Jeff Vinik, who never gets involved in contract negotiations, made a few courting calls to Stamkos and got "minute-by-minute, play-by-play updates" from Yzerman. • "We didn't know (what Stamkos would do), " Vinik said. • Victor Hedman did. The Lightning's star defenseman had been talking with Stamkos throughout the process, getting awoken at 4 a.m. in his native Sweden a few times when the captain forgot the time difference. The two have been best friends for years, Stamkos and Hedman growing up together since getting drafted as 18-year-olds, Nos. 1 and 2 overall in 2008 and '09, respectively. It's no surprise Hedman got a few hours' heads-up in a text message from Stamkos: • "I'm staying."

So is Hedman, who signed an eight-year, $63 million deal two days after Stamkos did. It was the first day Hedman was eligible to do that, one year away from unrestricted free agency. The story of the Lightning's summer was how Yzerman was somehow able to keep the band together for another shot at the Stanley Cup. Restricted free agent forwards Alex Killorn signed for seven years later in July and Nikita Kucherov, finally, for three Tuesday.

But it all starts with Stamkos and Hedman, the franchise cornerstones, who set the tone in a 48-hour flurry.

Goalie Ben Bishop is all but likely in his final season in Tampa Bay, and the deals of Johnson and forwards Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat are up next summer, too. But if there's any reason for the Lightning to believe its window for a championship can be extended, it's Stamkos and Hedman. If the Lightning is the Beatles, Stamkos and Hedman are Paul and John.

"It's special to be part of something where you start from the bottom and make your way up," Stamkos said. "To be part of that, hopefully get that end product that results in a Stanley Cup, it means everything you did leading up to that was worth it."

"We want to win," Hedman said. "And we want to win in Tampa."

•••

Hedman looks across the dressing room, peeks at Stamkos and smiles.

"We're the only guys left from when I got here," Hedman said. "Everything else has changed. The coaching staff, ownership, players. We've gone through a lot."

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The two have played together through low points and lean years, including when the owners that former coach John Tortorella called "cowboys" (Oren Koules and Len Barrie) ran the team nearly into the ground. Both carried the weight of high expectations as top picks. They learned from veterans such as Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier.

"(Hedman) came in the same situation," Stamkos said. "As young kids, it can be intimidating coming into the NHL locker room. To have one another back then, it was nice to have him around, another 18-, 19-year-old."

Their friendship has evolved. Early in his career, Stamkos hung out with buddies Teddy Purcell and Steve Downie. That's when Hedman was adjusting to North American life and hockey. But as the two emerged as Lightning leaders, especially during the team's run to the Eastern Conference final in 2011, their bond grew stronger.

They hang out a lot now, from playing golf in Tampa to cards on team charters. They watch baseball and football games together on the road. They catch up on favorite TV shows like Game of Thrones and Scandal. Hedman, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of European soccer teams and leagues, still hasn't converted Stamkos to that sport.

"I try to get him to watch soccer, but he's not patient enough to learn," Hedman quipped.

RELATED: Find all our Lightning season preview stories at our Lightning page.

Stamkos has taught Hedman about baseball, getting him into the group's fantasy league; though Stamkos did pluck star outfielder Mike Trout in a trade from the naive Hedman.

"He made the playoffs for the first time this year," Stamkos said. "I think I beat him out. He's getting better."

Even their dogs are buddies. Stamkos has a 100-pound Swiss Mountain named Trigger, Hedman a 30-pound French Bulldog, Harry.

"Harry is the boss," Hedman quipped. "He's stubborn. He thinks he's a bigger guy than he is."

"Harry is a big bully," Stamkos said, smiling. "Harry is a little bit older, so maybe that's it."

•••

As flattering as the summer's week-long free agency interview period was for Stamkos, it was also stressful.

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There were sleepless nights for the superstar, who wrote down in a notebook the pros and cons of every potential landing spot. His hometown Maple Leafs put on a full-court press in a meeting that included Toronto's mayor and the CEO of Canadian Tire. The Sabres were prepared to open their checkbook. Stamkos' friends could tell the decision, arguably the biggest of his life, was weighing on him.

"There was definitely a moment that I thought I was going to be gone," Stamkos said.

Stamkos consulted with many people in the process: his family, his agents, friends like Marty St. Louis and former Lightning player Gary Roberts. But Stamkos said he had "constant" dialogue with Hedman, who was in the middle of his own negotiations with the Lightning. Stamkos acknowledged he didn't need a "hard sell." As Vinny Lecavalier said, "You always think maybe the grass is greener, but it really isn't, especially when you're in Tampa."

"We wanted to find a way we could both remain here and still give us every opportunity for management to put a competitive team on the ice," Stamkos said. "It's really a special group here that is on the brink, and we want to keep that going."

When Stamkos agreed to terms, Yzerman called Vinik. Vinik then phoned Stamkos, telling him it was the second-most important day in franchise history, behind the 2004 Stanley Cup championship win, and one of the city's best moments. Then came Hedman's deal, followed by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, Killorn, forward Vladislav Namestnikov and Kucherov.

Bishop, whose name was involved in deep trade talks with Calgary at June's draft, will start Thursday's opener against the Red Wings and could remain for the full season, with the June expansion draft and unrestricted free agency looming.

"Years from now, I'd like to think that them all jumping in at the same time to commit long term will give us some special chemistry, special bond," Vinik said. "Over the next several years, we can do some great things."

And if Stamkos, as captain, finally hoists the Stanley Cup, you can bet the first person he'll hand it off to is Hedman.

"(That thought) goes through your head," Stamkos said. "It went through our heads a couple years ago. To have that experience, big-game experience as a group, and the best thing is we're still young. Hopefully, we've got eight great years ahead."

   
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