Wearing his red Team Canada Olympic jersey, 12-year-old Steven Stamkos watched the 2002 gold medal game with his parents in the family room of their suburban Toronto home. When Joe Sakic scored to give Canada a 5--2 third period lead over Team USA, Steven leaped off the couch and screamed. He was late to his youth hockey game that magical afternoon, but so were a lot of other boys.
"I wore that jersey to the rink," Stamkos recalls. "Then we put it on two hockey sticks and skated laps in warmups with it. People in the crowd were cheering." Nearly eight years later Stamkos deserves another Olympic jersey, this time with his name on the back.
The Lightning center, who was drafted No. 1 in 2008, led Canadian-born players with 12 goals through Sunday, yet he remains a long shot for Team Canada. There is a surfeit of notable centers, and Canada G.M. Steve Yzerman told SI that he envisions just one, possibly two, shifting to the wing. If you pencil in Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, San Jose's Joe Thornton and Philadelphia's Mike Richards, there would be no regular slot for Stamkos, who wasn't invited to the Olympic orientation camp in August. Says Stamkos, "If you weren't at camp, you have to do something that says, 'I'm here. I want to play in the Olympics.'"
Stamkos was buried on the bench early last season by then coach Barry Melrose, and his career didn't start in earnest until Rick Tocchet replaced Melrose in November. Tocchet cultivated the teenager with off-ice tutorials and extra conditioning sessions, and Stamkos responded with 16 goals in his last 26 games. He's quicksilver on skates and picks corners of the net with his industrial-strength shot, an element Canada lacked in 2006 when it failed to qualify for the medal round. As the 13th forward, a power-play specialist stationed at the left half boards or floating near the high slot, Stamkos could putty the one structural crack Canada had in Turin.
"He reminds me of a young Yzerman," says Blackhawks adviser Scotty Bowman, who also counsels Team Canada. Yzerman, who last week began building his depth chart for the Olympic team, demurs. "I didn't have as hard a shot, and he's a better skater. His skating ability has opened eyes. We have to be a team that gets up and down the ice."
Stamkos says he's determined "to keep up the way I'm playing. You want to say stats don't mean a thing, that all that matters is your team winning, but at the end of the day the numbers don't lie." For Stamkos the next big number should be his—on a uniform in Vancouver.
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