When NHL goalies have nightmares, their dreams are haunted by guys like Steven Stamkos. He appears out of nowhere, without warning, a malevolent specter who sends rubber disks screaming past them before they can move. The Lightning center established himself as the NHL’s most prolific goal-scorer by age 20. Now he has fans in the Tampa Bay area thinking about the Stanley Cup again. Steve’s secret? Practice makes perfect. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Steven Stamkos was born on February 7, 1990 in Markham, Ontario. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Chris and Lesely, had a second child, Sarah, a couple of years later.

A suburb of Toronto, Markham was on its way to becoming Canada’s hi-tech capital when Steven was growing up. During his childhood, the town’s population nearly doubled to 1.4 million people. For a young hockey player, this wass an ideal environment. Quality equipment, facilities, ice time and community support were facts of life for Steven, who grew up in Markham’s Unionville section. 

Indeed, Markham was a hockey hotbed. Among the notable players forged in its rinks were Steven Thomas, Ron Wilson, Stephen Weiss and Raffi Torres. Steven was introduced to the sport by his dad at age two, on the public rinks. Soon he was hooked. When Steven couldn’t play outdoors, he used the family dining room as an indoor rink. Years later, when the Stamkoses turned it back into a dining room, then had to replace all the baseboards.

Although Steven’s parents pointed him toward hockey, they encouraged him to excel at other sports, and he did. He played baseball, soccer, golf and lacrosse. Blessed with tremendous hand-eye coordination, Steven also had a good sense of what was happening around him. This made up for the fact that he was not a particularly big kid—and that, in hockey, he often found himself squaring off against boys who were two or three years older.

Steven learned a lot about hockey from his dad. A first-generation Canadian of Macedonian descent, Chris was a good athlete in his own right. He grew up rooting for the Maple Leafs. His favorite player was tough guy Wendel Clark. Chris did not start playing hockey until his teens. Even so, he became good enough to earn a college scholarship. By the time Steven was born, Chris was working for American Express. Lesley was a telemarketer.

Unlike his father, Steven was drawn to smooth scorers. The NHL star he identified with was Joe Sakic. Steven liked the way the Colorado star carried himself on and off the ice, and how he dictated play as much with his thinking as with his skating and shooting.

Like Sakic, Steven was a fluid, powerful skater in his pre-teen years. He wanted to snap off wrist shots like his idol, but he found getting the puck off the ice difficult. His dad enrolled him in a twice-weekly shooting school. Playing on synthetic ice, Steven learned the mechanics and proper techniques for making the puck go where he wanted. Sometimes Steven would take 500 shots at a time. Eventually, he got it. By the age of nine, he was starting to develop his signature shot—the one-timer. 

Steven was as complete a player as you’d want to see by the time he began playing Pee Wee hockey. He was particularly adept at finding a patch of open ice and firing shots at a goalie’s weak spots after receiving passes. In 1999, Steven led his team to the Edmonton Brick Tournament at the cavernous West Edmonton Mall. His team lost in double-overtime—a defeat that still gnaws at him when he thinks about it.

Steven also thinks about some important lessons he learned at that age. It was a rare game in which he did not score at least one or two goals; needless to say, he felt pretty good about himself when the final buzzer sounded. But his dad didn’t care how many times he scored—he cared how hard he worked during his shifts, and what he did to make his teammates better. At an age when most kids are obsessed with scoring, Steven knew you could have a great game without putting the puck in the net.

Steven went to grade school at the Central Park Public School in Markham. From there he enrolled at Brother Andre Catholic High. At the age of 15, he started playing for the Markham Waxers, a club in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association.

ON THE RISE

Steven’s one season with the Waxers was a stunner. In 66 games, he pumped in 105 goals and assisted on another 92. In one game, he scored five third-period goals to turn a 5–1 deficit into a 6–5 victory.


 

 

 


Wendel Clark, 1991 Upper Deck

     
 

Playing for the Waxers brought real cache. The team had long been home to Markham’s finest players, as well as producing stars like Adam Oates, Dan Maloney, Sean Avery, Mike Palmateer and Mike Liut. Steven’s teammates on the Waxers included defenseman Michel Del Zotto, who would go on to make the New York Rangers at age 19, and Cory Hodgson, a budding star in the Vancouvers Canucks organization.

Steven graduated to the Ontario Hockey League in 2005–06, suiting up for two seasons with the Sarnia Sting. The largest town on Lake Huron, Samia sits across the water from the easternmost point in Michigan. As happens with many junior players, Steven was housed by a local family, the Shaws. Andrew Shaw was a scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets, so in addition to providing guidance and surrogate parenting, he could also talk hockey with Steven and critique his performances.

Not that there was much to complain about. Though Steven had yet to fill out his gangly 6–1 frame, he was filling the nets for the Sting at an impressive rate. He had 42 goals and 50 assists in 2006–07 and finishedsecond to Patrick Kane in Rookie of the Year voting.

In 2007–08, Steven upped his production to 58 goals and 47 assist. In the playoffs, he potted 11 goals in only nine games. That year the Sting advanced all the way to the conference semis. As the season unfolded, many in the OHL believed that Steven might be the first player taken in the NHL draft that spring. The Sting created a promotional campaign for him that played off the “Got Milk?” ads. A special website asked, “Seen Stamkos?” A video of Steven’s shootout goal in the OHL skills contest garnered hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.  

As draft day approached, Steven was head and shoulders above the other available centers. His primary competition for the top overall pick was likely to come from defensemen Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian, and Russian wingers Nikita Filativ and Kirill Petrov. Tampa Bay, by virtue of a disastrous 2007–08 campaign, owned the first pick. The Lightning had been Stanley Cup champs in 2004. Their fall from grace in the years since had a silver lining—besides earning them high draft picks, they still maintained a core of franchise-type players, including Vincent Lecavalier, Pavel Kubina and Martin St. Louis. 

As expected, the Lightning took Steven with the top selection, with Doughty and Bogosian going second and third. Steven joined a club with nowhere to go but up—and a new coach hired to take them there. Barry Melrose returned to the bench after more than a dozen years as a TV analyst.

Melrose didn’t seem to think much of Steven when he came to camp. He questioned whether the teenager would develop the size and toughness needed to continue his goal-scoring. That proved to be one of many missteps by Melrose. When he was unable to coax consistent performances from his players, the Lightning fired 16 games into the season. His replacement, Rick Tocchet, didn’t do any better. But he let Steven know that he had faith in him and gave him as much ice time as the 18-year-old could handle.


Adam Oates, 2003 Original 6
     
 

Steven took a while to find his way in the NHL. In his first couple of months as a rookie, he looked lost and overmatched at times. Some nights he played less than 10 minutes. Things began to turn for him in February, when he recorded his first hat trick, against the Chicago Blackhawks. Only Bobby Carpenter had an NHL hat trick at a younger age. By then, Tocchet was starting to play Steven with St. Louis and Ryan Malone. The chemistry was there almost from the start.

In the season’s final 20 games, Steven accumulated a respectable 19 points. He finished with 23 goals and 23 assists—his 46 points was the third best total on the Lightning behind St. Louis and Lecavalier. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, finished with 24 wins and 66 points, good for last place in the Southeast Division. Only the New York Islanders had a poorer record in the conference.

The Lightning continued to build through the draft, using used their 2009 pick to grab the 6–6 Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. The team went into the 2009–10 campaign relatively unchanged—a rarity for the club, which was now under the new ownership of Jeff Vinik.

Perhaps the biggest difference was in Steven, who rolled into camp beefed up to 190 pounds. In April, after the regular season, he had led Canada to a silver medal at the World Championships in Switzerland. Working beautifully with St. Louis, his Tampa teammate, Steven scored seven times in nine games and assisted on four other goals. Over the summer he worked with recently retired star Gary Roberts, who pushed his endurance and strength training way past anything Steven had ever experienced.  

The results were nothing short of historic. Playing with new vigor and confidence, Steven began to find his range as an NHL sharpshooter. His quick and accurate one-timer—which he still practiced hundreds of times each day—was a nightmare for goalies, particularly when Steven set up on their right. He would take crossing passes and slap blistering shots just under their blocking pad as they tried to slide across the goal mouth. The “blind spot” of most goalies when they attempt this maneuver, Steven was finding it game after game.

It wasn’t a matter of just sitting in one place, of course. Opponents figured out Steven’s game pretty quickly and kept a close eye on him, even when outmanned on the power play. Steven responded by darting in and out of the seams in the defense—now you see him, now you don’t. When an opponent made the mistake of ignoring Steve, the puck was on his stick and on the way to the goal before they could react. Some were already comparing him to a young Brett Hull, who used the one-timer as his primary offensive weapon. 

Goalies were amazed that a player so young could hit his spots so consistently. On one-timers in particular, Steven squeezed off hard and accurate shots even when he got less-than-perfect passes. This came from the hours of practice he put in on this very skill; most players don't practice one-timers off inaccurate passes. 

Playing the bulk of the season on a line with the playmaking St. Louis and burly Steven Downie, Steven started fast—10 goals in his first 11 games—and finished strong, too. He played through injuries in December and March, and strugn together an 18-game point streak in January and February. By the time he turned 20, he was in the Top 5 in the league in scoring, challenging the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. On March 25th, the three were tied with 45 goals apiece. 


Bobby Carpenter, 1989-90 Topps
     
 

On April 10th, Steven netted a pair of goals against Tampa Bay’s cross-state rivals, the Florida Panthers. That got him to 50. An empty-netter against the Panthers in the second half of their home-and-home season finales raised his total to 51—and a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy with Crosby. Steven’s 44 assists gave him 95 points for the season, good for fifth place in the NHL behind Henrik Sedin, Ovechkin, Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom.

All the goals in the world weren’t going to deliver a division title to Tampa Bay, however. The Washington Capitals ran away from the pack with 54 wins and 121 points. The Lightning, playing .500 hockey, slowly drifted out of contention, finishing with 34 wins and 80 points. They needed 88 points to earn a postseason berth. After the season, Vinik cleaned house and fired his whole management team.

The Lightning began 2010–11 with a new coach, Guy Boucher. The team also welcomed a new GM who understood what it meants to be a go-to guy before you can take a legal drink: Steven Yzerman. Steven responded positively to the change in command, erasing any doubt that his sophomore breakout was a fluke.

More assertive than ever, he showed that he was more than just a Mike Bossy-like sniper. When he boomed down the left side with the puck, goalies had to worry about his skating, shooting, passing and positioning. When Steven gave up the puck, he was even more of a threat; he and his lethal one-timer were likely to pop up anywhere.

The Lightning finished October at the top of the division for the first time in team history. Steven, meanwhile, led the NHL in scoring, with 19 points in 10 games, including a pair of game-winning goals and his second career hat trick.

It’s a long season, of course, with an infinite number of twists and turns. But with the team headed in the right direction and a new star rising over the horizon, fans in Tampa Bay are getting that warm feeling for the first time in a long time. And it feels great.

STEVEN THE PLAYER

What Barry Melrose failed to see when Steven Stamkos skated in to his first NHL camp was the teenager’s supernatural hand and eye speed. The minute adjustments he is able to make when the puck touches his stick translate into a hard, accurate shot released so swiftly that goalies have almost no chances of stopping it. Even when he receives a poor pass, he can change his body position with his feet to ensure the puck meets his stick dead center.


Steven Stamkos, 2009 Upper Deck
     
 

As Steven gains experience, he gets better and better at setting up on the left side of the ice on the power play while his teammates work the right side. If opponents pay too much attention to him, it creates an opening somewhere else on the ice. If defenses turn their back on him, he’ll slip into a seam and wait for a pass.

More than a sniper, Steven creates scoring opportunities by finding open space while skating at full speed. Most scorers slow down once they cross the blue line. What make Steven so dangerous is that he wheels into scoring position without breaking stride.

Steven’s career is still in its early stages, but he has already shown the guile of a veteran. The next big test for him is performing in the playoffs, where the game is played at a completely different level. Having a mentor like Steve Yzerman will no doubt help him in this area.


Steven Stamkos, autographed photo
     

 

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