TAMPA – Cameras, microphones and onlookers surrounded them, standing 10-deep. No other player scrum at the Stanley Cup Final's media day came close to the intensity of interest surrounding them. No player's words were as scrutinized or parsed.
“We’re excited to be here,” said Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “We’re going to show it tomorrow [in Game 1].”
Stamkos and Toews both wear the ‘C’ for their teams. They both have an insatiable desire to win. They’re both Canadian.
“They have a couple things really in common. They’re really good people, very high-character guys. They’re both pretty humble. They’re confident but humble guys,” said Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.
That’s pretty much where the comparisons end.
Stamkos is the blonde, personable, can’t-miss No. 1 draft pick who is considered the second greatest goal scorer of his generation, right there with Alex Ovechkin. He's won the Richard Trophy for the League's top goal scorer twice. Like Ovechkin, he’s never won Olympic gold or a Stanley Cup. He became captain in 2014 at age 24, after the Lightning traded Marty St. Louis.
“He’s a great captain. Obviously on the ice he’s an example for everybody. He works hard both ways. At the same time, off the ice, he’s good in the room, I feel like he steps up and talks when he needs to, he doesn’t when there’s nothing that needs to be said," said Valterri Filppula, Stamkos’ linemate and former member of the Detroit Red Wings. "He’s been really mature even though he doesn’t have that much experience being captain yet. And lot of the same things I saw in [Nick] Lidstrom and [Henrik] Zetterberg."
Toews, the dark-haired, stoic, No. 3 overall pick who has two Olympic golds and two Stanley Cup rings. He’s never led the league in a major offensive category, and he’s never cracked 80 points in a season. But while Stamkos has earned his offensive dynamo stripes, Toews is considered perhaps the best all-around player in hockey. He became captain in 2008 at 20 years old, the third-youngest captain in NHL history.
“Focus and preparation is as good as I’ve seen in any player. The more important the stage, the more important the situation, he wants to be out there, he wants to be successful. He’ll find a way to make it successful. It’s an uncanny ability he has that you don’t see in too many players. It’s will, competitive, warrior, leader. He’s got all the intangibles that you’d like to see in a hockey player,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville.
They say age ain’t nuthin’ but a number, but Jonathan Toews had to prove to many that a player who couldn’t legally buy a drink in the U.S. could captain an NHL team.
He wanted the captaincy back in 2008, telling Blackhawks management that the honor wouldn’t adversely affect his play on the ice. "I'm just going to let my play speak for itself. I'm not the only guy out there. I just happen to be the guy with the C,” he told ESPN.com in 2008.
Expectations for the Blackhawks seemed to change when Toews was given the captaincy. They had a burgeoning young core of players – Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith among them – and slowly the momentum was building in a moribund market.
Their captain would never settle for mediocrity, and neither would the franchise. Hence, four games into Toews’ first season as captain, coach Denis Savard was sent packing and Joel Quenneville was moved behind the bench.
Since then, Toews has become a model captain: Winning the Conn Smythe in 2010, becoming the face of the franchise, validating the comparisons to that other No. 19, Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who captained the Detroit Red Wings at 21.
“Over the course of my career, my play evolved and became through Scotty Bowman the way he wanted our team to play. All of us became kind of more defensive-minded players, more well-rounded players. Jonathan has been that since day one, since he came in the league. He’s a complete hockey player,” said Yzerman.
Toews has also grown significantly as a captain. “I was named captain at a very young age. My understanding of what that meant at that age is very different than what it is now,” he said.
“Win or lose you take responsibility for it, but at the end of the day it’s a lot of fun to be part of a group with guys like that that understand the same things and you try to learn from those guys as well.”
Where Toews has grown as a captain: Not simply trying to lead men, but being a leader among men.
“That’s maybe something that I’ve learned to step outside of my own world a little bit as I’ve gone along in my career. I think when you have control of your own game and what makes you a successful hockey player and successful person you’re able to kind of widen your focus and understand your teammates a little bit more. That’s something I definitely need to learn a lot more about. Understand the dynamic of the locker room. It’s no simple thing. You continue to try and learn every day. Try to understand what your teammates go through, especially some guys who are going through tough times,” he said.
“Whether it’s being on the ice or guys who aren’t playing, especially throughout the playoffs you try and lend a hand and pick those guys up as well. That’s definitely part of being a captain. Showing that understanding to all those guys in the locker room.”
And, of course, understanding what they need out of a captain.
“This is not like Disney when I guy stands up in the dressing room and talks to us like we are kids,” said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. “He’s a guy who is very focused and very driven. He’s passionate about hockey. I think because he is so passionate and driven it leads to his success on the ice. I think guys take note of that.”
Stamkos took over the Lightning’s captaincy last March partly out of necessity, as Marty St. Louis took his ‘C’ to Broadway, but because it was finally his time.
Vinny Lecavalier had been the captain before St. Louis. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he didn’t step up to be a leader until Vinny had moved on. The same procession of leadership had Stamkos waiting to be more vocal until St. Louis left.
“You could see that Stammer had those leadership qualities, but they don’t want to step on those other guys’ toes. They’re there as a supporting group, but ultimately the captain is there to do his job and these guys are there to help. When Marty departed, it was Stammer’s turn to take over. He went through process of watching the leaders ahead of him,” said Cooper.
Like Ovechkin, Stamkos took the captaincy as his team’s unquestioned offensive leader. While Toews had others in the lineup – Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa – that were veteran offensive leaders, Stamkos felt he needed to be the guy who carried the totality of the offensive load for the Lightning.
Part of his evolution as a captain was to understand that it’s OK for the star to defer to his supporting cast.
“Really in this last year and a half, with our group anyway, he’s understood that we need other guys to step up. It just can’t be Stammer to do this all the time if the team is going to have success,” said Cooper. “He’s really pushed the team ahead of himself. I think ultimately that’s what a leader does. He doesn’t think of himself, he just thinks of everybody else around him.”
He also started to do what Toews has excelled at doing in the postseason, which is to become a different kind of player when the situations calls for it.
“For a guy that scored a lot of goals, has done a lot of unbelievable things in this league, Stammer pushed everybody ahead of himself. I think you’ve watched his playoff progression, especially early on when he was getting hammered when he wasn’t scoring in the Detroit series. But nobody talked about how he was playing defensively or how he was winning face-offs, how he was doing this.
He accepted different roles with the team,” said Cooper.
“Ultimately that is the ultimate sacrifice. You’re saying, ‘Okay, I’ll do this, this and this for our team to win.’ He never complained about this. Just know this is part of the process, how it works. That’s what makes him a great leader.”
Toews has nine goals and nine assists in 18 games. Stamkos has seven goals and 10 assists in 20 games. Toews is playing about three minutes more per game than Stamkos with 21:12 TOI for Toews vs. Stamkos at 18:03. (The disparity partially comes from Toews killing penalties while Stamkos does not.)
One of them will be the first to hoist he Cup before handing it off to a teammate. Which is only appropriate, as their maturation as leaders occurred when they realized how vital it was to give the rest of the room the chance to play the hero as much as they do.
In the words of Dave Andreychuk, the only Tampa Bay captain to have previously lifted the Cup:
“These are good players, players who lead their teams and not solely on the ice, but off the ice as well,” he said. “But it’s really not about one guy wearing a letter, it’s about a bunch of guys that are with him.”
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