TAMPA — When the position of Lightning captain became open, there was never any doubt that letter was going to land on the jersey of Steven Stamkos.
But it’s not necessarily for the reasons that come immediately to mind.
Yes, Stamkos is the team’s best player, and you might argue one of the top three players in the league. But a team’s best or most popular player does not always make for the best leader.
Make no mistake, however, Stamkos gets it on all levels.
Since arriving in Tampa after he was drafted first overall in 2008, Stamkos noticed right away the work he was going to have to put forth to become the superstar that was predicted of him coming out of junior hockey. He saw the likes of Gary Roberts and Marty St. Louis prepare, and he figured it out pretty quickly.
That exemplifies the lead-by-example attitude coaches like to see in young players.
But here is what defines Stamkos as captain material — when St. Louis was dealt to the New York Rangers, a trade St. Louis facilitated with a request to leave town — Stamkos did not hide behind the situation. This was a difficult spot for Stamkos to be in and forced him to handle difficult questions from the media when asked about his feelings of seeing not only the team captain, but also one of his best friends, ask his way out of town.
Instead of dodging those questions, or even answering in cliches, he went at them head on while balancing both sides with grace and poise in an unrehearsed way.
“Everyone knows what Marty means to me. He was obviously more than just a teammate. He’s a very close friend of mine, a mentor, someone who took me under his wing when I came here so you can never take that away,’’ Stamkos said Wednesday shortly after the news broke.
“This was a tough situation. Obviously your friendship takes priority and you support your friend in that regard. You don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but I can’t sit here and say I’m happy about the trade. Obviously I wanted Marty here just like everyone did, but it got to a point where you have to take care of yourself and your family. Marty made that decision and he’s going to have to live with it and we are going to have to live with it here in Tampa.’’
And though St. Louis and Stamkos are close friends — and will remain so moving forward — Stamkos completely understood the ramifications of how the situation unfolded and how much heat St. Louis was going to take for it.
Again, Stamkos didn’t hide from the reality of it all, already knowing full well some of the vitriol that was being bantered about by fans.
“He’s not going to get off easy for this,’’ Stamkos said. “Marty is going to have to deal with that in whatever way he chooses, but I think he kind of expected remarks like that. But he has made his decision and he is going to live with it and we are going to live with it here.’’
This wasn’t an easy situation for Stamkos to deal with, particularly when it involved a close friend. But there he stood, facing the questions, answering them from the heart, assessing the situation honestly and knowing the best way to handle a difficult situation.
Just like a strong captain does.