TAMPA — The snug, 1,000-square-foot Brew Bus Brewery in Seminole Heights was packed from the bar to the back.
More than 200 Lightning fans were vying for stool space. Some had walked there from down the street, others drove from as far as Daytona Beach. Many had waited for several hours, all for the chance to meet the face of the franchise.
To shake hands with Mr. Tampa Bay: Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.
Evan Longoria is gone, traded by the Rays this offseason. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is still unproven. Stamkos is the biggest star on the market's most successful team. And he's the unofficial host of this weekend's NHL All-Star festivities in Tampa.
But in December, Stamkos and two other Lightning players were asked to help support Seminole Heights, a neighborhood that had been terrorized by four seemingly random shooting deaths in the fall.
Professional athletes typically lend a hand in their communities at times like these, but for Stamkos, this night meant something more.
"This really is my second home," he said.
Stamkos is from Toronto, but he became a man, became a star, in Tampa Bay. He arrived at age 18 in 2008 as a prized and precocious No. 1 overall draft pick on the ice but a shy kid off it. Now, Stamkos, whom veterans took turns having over for dinner as a rookie, is married and building a Davis Islands home with his high school sweetheart, Sandra.
Facing free agency two years ago, Stamkos could have played anywhere in the world. Two days before he could have become the NHL's most coveted free agent in a generation, he chose to stay with the Lightning.
Low-key by nature, he loves that the area's passionate hockey fans still allow him to "fly under the radar" on date nights at Ocean Prime or on trips to the dog beach with his and Sandra's 100-pound Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Trigger.
Stamkos said a big reason why he decided to stay in Tampa Bay was Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. Stamkos witnessed how "Mr. Vinik" transformed the organization.
Along with friend and fellow franchise pillar Victor Hedman, Stamkos wanted to see the transformation through. Both signed eight-year contract extensions three days apart in 2016.
"Loyalty is big to me," Stamkos said. "I grew up in the city, and going to the (Stanley Cup) finals and losing (in 2015), there's obviously some unfinished business. You look at 'Heddy' and I being here through all the changes. We saw what it was like, the losing seasons, and it wasn't fun. And we were able to see this team and city grow together. We wanted to be part of that. We wanted to see the job done. I'm hopeful we can do it."
When his son left the family home in Markham, Ontario, to play juniors, Chris Stamkos took comfort in Steven not being that far away. Steven played in the Ontario League for Sarnia, a three-hour drive away, and lived with a host family that treated him as its own.
When Stamkos was drafted No. 1 overall by the Lightning in 2008, he was living on his own in another country.
Said father : "It was an adjustment."
Said son: "I wasn't doing a lot of cooking at 18. Wasn't doing a lot of laundry, either."
Veteran teammates Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi took care of the rookie, whom Roberts dubbed a "wet noodle."
Stamkos lived in their Westshore neighborhood. Roberts and Recchi took turns inviting him over for home-cooked dinners with their families. They took Stamkos golfing. They made sure he went grocery shopping.
"Both had families, so it meant that much more to me that they were taking time," Stamkos said. "I'd go over and play with the kids, play mini-sticks and babysit a bit."
Stamkos hasn't forgotten that. And he is paying it forward. These days it's Stamkos inviting over younger players who are living in hotels during training camp. He tells them to bring their wives or girlfriends. Anything to make them more comfortable.
"To be one of the elder statesmen of the team, it's pretty surreal," said Stamkos, who turns 28 next week. "To just look around and see some of those young guys coming up, you can appreciate what they're doing and how they're feeling. It doesn't feel like 10 years (since his rookie season), but you can remember what they're going through."
Stamkos found a comfort zone his second season in Tampa. But when he went through tough stretches, he found his new home a safe sanctuary. He could get his mind off the game by playing golf or walking along the beach in St. Pete Beach, where his family had friends.
He could explore Tampa Bay without getting mobbed by autograph seekers.
"To be in a market where everyone appreciates and understands the game, sees you and supports you but at the same time allows you to have that little privacy, whether it is with your friends or your family, it's unbelievable," he said.
It helped make former Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier an unlikely Tampa lifer, too, returning to live here with his family after his 2016 retirement. Like Stamkos, Lecavalier arrived in 1998 as a teenage No. 1 pick from a Canadian hockey hotbed. Lecavalier, who grew up outside Montreal, found Tampa a big town with a small-town feel during the 14 seasons he played here. He'd often have lunch at a bar across from the arena without being noticed.
"There's always a thought going through your head, 'Well, what would it be like to play in Canada (in) the city you grew up in?' " Lecavalier said. "I really feel like when you spend a lot of time in Tampa, at the end of the day, they really make you feel at home here. It's the people and the way they treat you. It's very, very easy to really like this town."
Gary Roberts has played in Tampa and Toronto. If Stamkos played in his hometown, "he wouldn't be able to get a drink of water without talking hockey," Roberts said.
Chris Stamkos has had plenty of meals and outings with his son in Tampa. Chris said people approach Steven but they're polite and quick, not overbearing.
"For the most part, he can be himself," Chris said. "He grew up and played with (Predators star) P.K. (Subban) when they were kids. Steven just has a different personality. P.K. always liked to joke around and be the center of attention. Steven was more low-key."
That doesn't mean Stamkos shies away from attention. Thomas Schooley, 40, drives from Seminole to join fans outside the players' parking lot at Amalie Arena for most home games. Schooley said 90 percent of the time, Stamkos stops, signs and chats. Schooley said he and Stamkos have a selfie tradition when he's there and the Lightning has lost only one game in regulation the three years they've done it.
Two weeks ago, Victor Kirschbaum woke up at 5 a.m. to drive his 11-year-old son, Aidan, from Daytona Beach to meet Stamkos. Stamkos is Aidan's favorite player. He is partly why Aidan plays hockey. The father and son braved the 28-degree temperature during the morning skate. Stamkos stopped and signed Aidan's hat. Kirschbaum said his son was starstruck.
"You get support from fans, and it's not the crazy stalker, crazy fans," Stamkos said. "It's the 'Hey, "Stammer," great game.' 'Hey, Stammer, thanks for staying.' They're so appreciative because they love our team so much."
The five-time All-Star is proud to represent a city and franchise that share his values. Evan Longoria knows what his friend goes through, having been the face of the Rays from a young age.
"The responsibility is to be the best version of you always," Longoria said. "With that, I never wanted to create a false persona. I wanted to be what the fans saw from afar to be who I really am in person."
Stamkos does a lot of work behind the scenes. There was the paddle auction at an October fundraising dinner for coach Jon Cooper's charity fishing tournament for pediatric cancer research. Stamkos emerged from the back pledging $10,000 from the players in attendance, matching Vinik's pledge. At Stamkos' June wedding in Toronto, he and Sandra asked gifts to, in lieu of gifts, donate to their charity, the Ronald McDonald House. The request raised $35,000, split between the Tampa and Toronto chapters.
Stamkos sponsors tickets at each home game for families from the Ronald McDonald house and meets with them postgame, win or lose.
"Kids gravitate towards him," said Alison Barrick, marketing and communications manager for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Tampa Bay.
Fans were wowed with Stamkos' relatability, and patience, during the December event at Seminole Heights. Teammates Victor Hedman and J.T. Brown also had signings at different places. Stamkos drew the biggest crowd.
Stamkos stayed for 90 minutes, making sure every hat, shirt, painting or photo was signed. One man squealed upon shaking Stamkos' hand. One dad put his twin daughters on Stamkos' lap. The girls cried.
Darren Armstead, 11, a roller hockey defenseman from Temple Terrace, had broken his right thumb, so he had to miss his playoff game that night. But Armstead was all smiles when Stamkos signed his cast, telling him he'd be back out there soon. Armstead's mother, Jasmine, joked that she didn't think the killings could stop her son from meeting his idol.
"It really humbles you," Stamkos said. "It's a pretty cool feeling, something that you don't forget."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.