Steven Stamkos is getting the LeBron question.
It’s July 2014, and Stamkos has two more years on his 5-year, $37.5-million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then he becomes an unrestricted free agent, free to sign the NHL's first $12-million annual contract with any team named the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He’s getting the LeBron question because LeBron showed you can take your talents to Florida and then take them back home again. If you’re thinking “yeah, but Stamkos never played for the Maple Leafs in the first place, like LeBron did with the Cavs,” you’d both be correct and missing one of the singular charms of the Centre of the Hockey Universe, which is that every NHL player born in Ontario is on loan to the rest of the League until their inevitable return to lead the Maple Leafs to their first Stanley Cup since the year “The Graduate” was released.
Mr. Stamkos … are you trying to seduce us?
“I’m from around here and grew up cheering for the Leafs, so any time I get a chance to come back here I enjoy it, and any time I get a chance to play against the Leafs it’s fun,” he said at a Coca-Cola ball-hockey promotional event in Toronto.
“It’s also fun beating them, too, because a lot of my friends are still Leaf fans.”
(God’s work, really.)
Then there was Favored Tweet Gate, as Stamkos took a page from Evander Kane’s “How To Tantalize The Media And Irritate Your Own Fans” book by endorsing speculation about being LeafBron and heading home to join Toronto in two years.
All of this speculation has history working against it, in that all of the star players in their prime that are supposed to return to their Canadian roots and lead their teams to glory never actually do.
Brampton’s Rick Nash wielded his no-trade clause to ensure he didn’t go to Toronto. Quebec’s Vinny Lecavalier did the same for the Montreal Canadiens. Players disregard their alleged “responsibility” to play for their boyhood idols every summer.
And it’s easy to understand why: On top of the family, friends, hangers-on and everyone else from the old neighborhood that’s suddenly back in your orbit asking for sticks, pucks and tickets, you have the searing intensity and all-seeing eye of the Canadian media on your ass 24/7 and expectations that weight exponentially heavier in a market like Toronto than they do in Tampa.
“I think that’s the great thing about playing in Tampa is hockey isn’t the mecca that it is here in Toronto and you can kind of go about your life and kind of get away from the game when you need to,” said Stamkos, asked by Canadian reporters at a ball-hockey event in July.
The last consideration does speak to another problem plaguing the Leafs in their pursuit of elite players, no matter their birthplace: The winning thing.
Say what you will about those other obstacles, but if the Leafs weren’t a team with one playoff series appearance in nine seasons and a franchise that’s just finding some semblance of a rudder now (as it slowly eradicates the last of Brian Burke's mistakes), they'd be harder for homegrown players to ignore. Winning can be a cure-all, or at the very least a distractor. Hell, free agents might be OK with breathing Nassau Coliseum asbestos for another year or two if the Islanders were a championship-caliber team.
But why did LeBron go back to Cleveland?
Boil down all the PR pap in his Sports Illustrated letter, and you get these bare bones: “When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two.”
Would LeBron be back in Cleveland if he hadn’t? Not until his sunset years. He’d leave Miami and combine his powers with some other SuperFriends (that are younger than Dwayne Wade) in some other city and try to get an elusive ring.
So when Steven Stamkos says the following, we listen: "The goal for me is to win a championship."
In two years, Steven Stamkos will have a chance to leave the Tampa Bay Lightning. They’re going to be a Cup contender by then, if not sooner, given their coach, their franchise defenseman, their potential franchise guy in goal and a collection of great young talent up front (including the arrival of Jonathan Drouin). If the goal is a championship, there’s every chance the Lightning might be near the top of those contending teams, with one of the best management groups in the League.
I think Stamkos is made of the stern stuff needed to play in Toronto. Out of all the players who could have come home, Stamkos strikes me as one that would accept the challenge – he’s as driven, focused and confident as any player in the NHL. He’s always seemed like a Canadian kid that wouldn’t mind winning in Canada. Hell, the Lightning's newest sweaters seem to be prepping us all for his Leafs-wear.
But more than that, he’s a Canadian kid that wants to win, and in the end that might sway his decision in two years more than heritage or history or Don Cherry blathering about Ontarian responsibility.
So, Leafs fans, if you want Steven Stamkos, the answer is as clear as Messianic grin on LeBron’s face:
Root for the Lightning to win a Cup in the next two seasons.
It’s much, much easier to become a hometown hero when you’re a conquering one.