Face of Tampa Bay sports? Steven Stamkos fulfilled his destiny.

The face of Tampa Bay sports: His name was on billboards before he even arrived now, a decade later, the Lightning captain is the face of a franchise and a community.
Steven Stamkos (91) greets teammates in the tunnel just prior to the Lightning's playoff opener against Columbus Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Tampa. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Steven Stamkos (91) greets teammates in the tunnel just prior to the Lightning's playoff opener against Columbus Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Tampa. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published July 8

TAMPA — Once upon a time, they were all the rage around here. A precocious trio of stars, already teasing the possibility of memories yet to be made.

A third baseman who had his big league debut in April, took the Rays to the World Series in October and won the American League Rookie of the Year award by November. A quarterback who took over his team the following fall at age 21, and soon led the Bucs to their only 10-win season of the last 15 years.

[ Face of Tampa Bay sports? How Jeff Vinik became a 'Florida man' ]

And, in between, was the skating prodigy who was chosen No. 1 in the draft by the Lightning at age 18 and, a year later, was already leading the NHL with 51 goals.

Evan Longoria.

Josh Freeman.

Steven Stamkos.

They were fresh and they were the future. The next generation of stars, emblematic of a growing Tampa Bay market and a hungry fan base. And 10 years later, only one remains.

This is how fickle sports and fate can be. This is a reminder of how rare it is to see an athlete excel year after year in the same uniform.

Freeman could not maintain the early promise of his career, and was quickly out of the NFL. Longoria’s contract outgrew his value, and he was eventually shipped west to San Francisco.

That leaves Stamkos, the rightful heir as the face of Tampa Bay sports.

Is anyone else even close?

* * *

With last year’s trade of Longoria, Gerald McCoy’s recent departure from the Bucs and the possibility the entire Rays franchise could be on its way to Montreal, at least part-time, it got us wondering who might qualify as the face of Tampa Bay.

Elsewhere in this section, we’ll consider a handful of other contenders and let readers make up their own mind.

As far as I’m concerned, the argument begins and ends with the Lightning captain.

[ Face of Tampa Bay sports? Time for a long look at Kevin Kiermaier. ]

Stamkos is an anomaly. A player who arrived in a town with enormous expectation, and still stands tall a decade later. All around Tampa Bay are closets and dressers filled with Stamkos jerseys that children have outgrown. It’s not inconceivable that young fans were brought to Amalie Arena by their parents to see a young Stamkos play, and will one day bring their own children to catch the final days of his career.

There have been other players in Tampa Bay who have won prestigious awards, or set impressive records. But it’s not often you can point to a player so indelibly linked to a specific place and time.

“This type of longevity doesn’t happen as much as it used to,’’ said Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. “When we re-signed him three or four years ago, I remember talking on the phone to Stammer and telling him this was one of the most important days in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise.

“It wasn’t just that we got to keep a leader and a player of his ability, but that he chose to stay. He could have gone and played anywhere he wanted, and he chose to remain in Tampa Bay. That’s a big deal.’’

There are other factors with Stamkos, of course. His grace. His humility. His lengthy stay in the spotlight without the whiff of scandal. His is a name that can be worn proudly on the backs of any jersey.

But it his time on the ice you will recall. The preternatural ability to score. The comeback from devastating injuries. The way his game has grown and adapted as he has gotten older.

Sometime later this year, Stamkos will score his 400th career NHL goal. Absent of injury, it will presumably arrive before his 30th birthday next February.

That would make Stamkos the 20th player in NHL history to reach that milestone that quickly. The other 19 are a Who’s Who list – Gretzky, Lemieux, Hull, Yzerman, Jagr, Ovechkin, Dionne - of some of the greatest players the game has ever known.

[ Face of Tampa Bay sports? The hope still invested in Jameis Winston ]

Does Stamkos belong in the Hall of Fame?

One day, perhaps.

Does he belong in Tampa Bay?

Forever, certainly.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.