Cue Stamkos mania as Maple Leafs game nears

Maple Leafs fans are ecstatic at that thought that Steven Stamkos could end up in Toronto. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
Maple Leafs fans are ecstatic at that thought that Steven Stamkos could end up in Toronto. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
Published Dec. 13, 2015

Senior producer Mike Lane was sitting Wednesday in the Toronto offices of TSN — Canada's ESPN — discussing with colleagues how to open their national 6 p.m. Sports­Centre show. Lane, 40, noticed a story on Twitter about Lightning captain Steven Stamkos clicking "like" on a TSN video that asked if the Maple Leafs should pursue the Markham, Ontario, native in free agency if available next summer. It didn't matter that Stamkos soon called the like "accidental." Meeting over. "It was a no-doubt, slam-dunk lead," Lane said. You see, Stamkos' contract saga, with the All-Star in the final year of his current deal with the Lightning, might be a big story in Tampa Bay as he's the face of the franchise. But in Toronto, where the Lightning will be Tuesday, it's THE story.

There, Stamkos, 25, is a mythical figure, a hometown hero ready to return — think LeBron James to the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers — and bring the Maple Leafs their first Stanley Cup since 1967.

Radio talk shows are flooded weekly with calls about Stamkos. Live chats at the Toronto Sun website are interrupted with questions on what it would take to get Stamkos. Someone somehow sneaked a Stamkos No. 91 Maple Leafs jersey into the dressing room at Fan Fest. A countdown clock began on TSN during the Maple Leafs-Devils game Dec. 8 for Stamkos' wildly anticipated trip to Toronto.

"It'll be an absolute circus," said TSN analyst Jamie McLennan, a former goaltender and Toronto resident. "Steven Stamkos gets enough fanfare down (in Tampa), times that by 320 on Tuesday. It's going to be insane."

"When he gets here, it's going to be all about Stamkos," said Bryan Hayes, who hosts a daily radio show in Toronto called Leafs Lunch. "Every media member in the city will likely be there. It will be the biggest story in the city by a mile."

This is Mike Babcock Watch multiplied by 100. And the Maple Leafs fans figure if they got Babcock, the former Red Wings and Team Canada head coach, to sign an eight-year, $50 million deal in Toronto, Stamkos must be next. The fact that Stamkos still doesn't have an extension with Tampa Bay, despite general manager Steve Yzerman calling it his "No. 1 priority" back in June, further emboldens that belief; Yzerman reiterated Saturday there's no deadline to end talks.

Add the rumored rift between Stamkos and coach Jon Cooper, the captain playing wing and Stamkos' third liked tweet in the past two years — inadvertent or not — about coming to Toronto, "fans are starting to think more and more that it's actually going to happen," Hayes said.

"Leafs fans live off hope," he continued. "You can't live in the moment because the team has been so bad for so long, living in the moment is almost impossible to do. It's always about that great player that's finally going to come here or great player they're finally going to draft or great coach finally going to hire.

"That's why it's almost impossible to explain what it would mean to Leafs fans if Stamkos actually came here because it's always been about that great player who is going to come home, he's finally going to do it. If Stamkos actually did it, the reaction would be crazy, crazy."

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Stamkos grew up a huge Leafs fan, telling Toronto Sun national hockey columnist Mike Zeisberger before the 2008 draft it would be a "dream come true" to play for Toronto. But even if he reaches free agency, there's no guarantee Stamkos still feels that way, having said previously he has enjoyed the relative anonymity of living in Tampa since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2008.

"You can go to the mall, go to dinner, go to the golf course, go to the beach and, for the most part, you don't get bothered too much," Stamkos said. "It's nice to kind of fly under the radar."

There's no chance of that in Toronto, according to assistant coach Steve Thomas, who also grew up in Markham before spending two stints with the Leafs. Thomas called playing for the Leafs a "big deal" for him but said not everybody can do it.

"Everyone knows who you are because you're in the newspaper and on TV every day," Thomas said. "Here, people are starting to recognize our players, but in Toronto and Montreal, you're looked upon as being bigger than life."

Stamkos wants to win, and the Lightning, while struggling this season, is coming off a Stanley Cup final appearance. The Leafs, even with Babcock and new respected brass in Brendan Shanahan, are still in rebuilding mode. They have just one playoff appearance the past 10 years and are 13th in the Eastern Conference.

But the Maple Leafs, the NHL's third-richest franchise, have the money, enough to offer the likely $11 million per year (or more) Stamkos would warrant. Not only would he be guaranteed to stay at center, but Toronto Sun columnist Lance Hornby joked the Maple Leafs would "play him 35 minutes a game." Considered the center of the hockey universe, Toronto, also an Original Six franchise, offers big-market endorsement opportunities.

"I know he's big in Tampa; I'm sure he's on billboards and the voice at the airport like (Vinny) Lecavalier," said Hornby, a Sun columnist/writer the past 25 years. "But he could be the mayor of the city if he shows up and does well. It's the perfect storm.

"The Blue Jays, they absolutely worshipped David Price and thought he was the most wonderful pitcher and wonderful human being. Forget about what happened the last couple weeks of him leaving (to sign with the Red Sox), that's the kind of adulation that a Stamkos or anybody who shows up to be the quote-unquote savior would get. (Eric) Lindros was hard to like. This guy (Stamkos) is legit. Everybody likes him. It would be cool, like Jean Beliveau in Montreal."

Hornby pointed out when the Maple Leafs won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, the teams were almost all made of Toronto kids or those who played at St. Michael's College. So there always has been a "romantic notion" a Toronto star would turn things around. But while several local products have played for the Maple Leafs later in their careers, such as Lindros, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, none were stars still in the primes of their careers.

The six-year, $36 million David Clarkston experiment was a failure. And stars such as P.K. Subban (Canadiens), John Tavares (Islanders) and Tyler Seguin (Stars) are out of reach.

That's why the Stamkos scenario is such a "tease," Hayes said, one that if it comes true, could be one of the biggest signings in a franchise that started in 1917. Think LeBron, without Stamkos having already first broken his hometown's heart.

"He's not the LeBron of the NHL, but he's again a top-end player in the league, and there are definitely some similarities," Hayes said. "If it ever actually happens, it would be a reaction similar to the one that Cleveland showed when LeBron returned. It will be just wild. It'll be bedlam up here."

And it resumes Tuesday.

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