There won’t be a Winter Classic this season, but Steven Stamkos has found his own version of it in Gary Roberts’ backyard.
Stamkos and a handful of other NHL players hit the outdoor rink this week at the home of the former NHL forward-turned-training guru.
In a year in which the lockout has frozen his superstar career, getting back to the game’s roots on the outdoor sheet has been a welcome development.
"Oh man, it’s been great," Stamkos told ESPN.com Thursday. "Gary just got the outdoor rink up and running this week, so we’ve been out there a couple of times."
You can sense the excitement in the 22-year-old’s voice.
"We had a big game the other night. Steve Downie was out there and James Neal," said the Tampa Bay Lightning center. "Today we had B.J. Crombeen and David Clarkson. We had our workouts in the morning and then hit the outdoor ice. We’re out there mucking it up."
Perhaps if we airlifted Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr to Roberts’ outdoor rink in Uxbridge, Ontario (near Toronto), the sensory impact of watching Stamkos -- the NHL’s top goal scorer -- skate around in open air might remind the two leaders what this is all about and fuel a fleeting breakthrough in talks.
If there is no progress in talks and the NHL season is wiped out, Sidney Crosby won’t be the only NHL superstar looking for a late-season fix in Europe. Crosby’s stated need to play games is shared.
"I’d have to agree with Sid there," Stamkos said. "That was the rationale early on when I sat down with [agents] Donnie [Meehan] and Mark [Guy]. 'Let’s wait this out. Let’s be optimistic that we get something done here and salvage some of the season. So let’s stay in shape here, work out and stay informed and go from there.'
"But if the season is in jeopardy, you’d definitely have to look at getting at least one to two months' worth of competitive games in just so you have something to gauge heading into the summer. Obviously, we hope that’s not the case -- we want to play in the NHL this year -- but if there is a threat of losing the whole year, I’m definitely going to be looking for a place to play."
Stamkos is quick to add that he still believes there will be an NHL season of some sorts -- or at least he’s hoping.
"That’s what I’m planning on anyways. I’m trying to at least tell myself that so that these workouts we’re going through every day [are] going to be beneficial in the end," he said. "We’ve got a couple of weeks here where hopefully we get some good news and we get some sort of season underway. It’s also been frustrating enough not only for the players but for the fans."
Some players talk about the fans because it’s the right thing to do in this politically charged climate. But from the mouth of Stamkos, a polite young man whom fame and money has not changed, it’s a genuine sentiment.
"Being in Atlantic City last weekend for that [Sandy] charity game and seeing all those fans and how much they’re passionate about the game and miss the game, they’re the ones that are being hurt the most right now," Stamkos said.
The Markham, Ontario, native has been largely quiet, publicly, during this lockout. He is still learning the business side of the game. But he has kept tabs on things.
"I went to the one big meeting at the beginning when we gave our initial proposal. I’ve been on some [players’] conference calls and trying to stay as informed as I can," Stamkos said. "Obviously, we have some veteran guys on our team that know a lot more about this process than I do, and I’m just trying to pick their brain on certain questions and get a general understanding of what’s going on."
Stamkos has never gone without competitive hockey this long. It’s killing him.
"The first two to three weeks were agonizing," he said. "You don’t realize how routine-oriented you are as an athlete and as a hockey player. Everything you do is geared toward the season."
He scored his 60th goal last season in his final game of the season, April 7 at Winnipeg. That’s eight months to the day next Friday, I reminded Stamkos.
"Hearing you say that, it’s crazy. Eight months without a competitive game? That’s never happened to me," he said. "Hopefully we get something done."