As talented young hockey players and good friends growing up in the Toronto area almost two decades ago, Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain, and Tavares dreamed of one day wearing the blue-and-white Toronto uniform.
Stamkos had the chance to do just that two seasons ago but turned down the Maple Leafs’ attempts to recruit him, re-signing with the Lightning, the team that made the center the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, two days before he would have become an unrestricted free agent.
Tavares was wooed in similar fashion by Toronto this past offseason and he didn’t pass up the chance to play for his hometown team, signing a seven-year, $77 million contract (average annual value $11 million) as an unrestricted free agent after playing the first nine NHL seasons with the New York Islanders, who selected him No. 1 in the 2009 NHL Draft.
The two will play against each other for the first time since Tavares joined the Maple Leafs at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET: TVAS, SUN, SNO, NHL.TV) in a game between the top two teams in the NHL.
They are on different sides of this growing Atlantic Division rivalry because while they idolized the Maple Leafs as kids, one said no to playing for them and the other said yes.
“You make your decision and you live with it,” Stamkos said this week. “It’s worked out great for me here and it’s working out great for him right now. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Going against each other is nothing new for Stamkos and Tavares.
Tavares and Stamkos started playing minor hockey against each other when they were each 9. Their most memorable matchup: Each scored a hat trick in a game in which Stamkos and the Markham Waxers defeated Tavares and the Mississauga Senators 5-3.
They became teammates at age 11 on the Ontario Blues, a summer team that also included future NHLers Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues), Michael Del Zotto (Vancouver Canucks), Cody Hodgson (retired) and Michael Hutchinson (Florida Panthers). Chris Stamkos, Steven’s dad, was one of the facilitators of the team.
Long before they became top players for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, John Tavares (front row, second from r.) and Steven Stamkos (second row, far r.) led the Ontario Blues to a 49-0-1 record over three seasons.
“There were four of us who put the team together — Michael’s dad, Steve Del Zotto, Alex’s dad, Joe Pietrangelo, my friend Tommy Robertson, and myself,” Chris Stamkos said. “I was tired of all these people who were running summer hockey programs for the sake of making money. We wanted to do something for the sake of the kids.”
Thus, the Ontario Blues were born, a team focused on playing tournaments and having fun.
“I think we’d have one practice at the beginning of the summer and that was it,” Chris Stamkos said. “After that, we let the kids play.”
In putting the team together, an invitation was sent out to Tavares.
“He already was a star,” Chris said. “He was much bigger physically than Steven at that age. The puck just followed him around.”
Chris didn’t want to show any favoritism to his son. So when it came time to select numbers, Tavares got first pick.
“John and I both wore 19 growing up,” Steven Stamkos said. “You’d think the coach’s son would have first pick picking the number but I was wrong. He let John pick the number first and he took 19. So it was John’s fault I switched to 91.
“That was the first time I wore 91. My dad said: ‘We really want to get John on the team, we’ll give him whatever number he wants.’
“And then John switched to it later when one of the guys on another team he was on had 19,” said Stamkos, who also wears No. 91 in the NHL. “Imagine that.”
The number incident wasn’t the only thing Stamkos still holds over the head of Tavares when it comes to the Ontario Blues.
The Blues went 49-0-1 over the next couple of seasons. The only loss was a game in which Tavares didn’t score in a sudden-death shootout.
“We had so much fun but I admit it: I bear the burden of our only loss,” Tavares said.
Steven Stamkos hasn’t forgotten.
“We were stacked,” he said. “It was a tournament, we were the top seed, we played the 16th seed, they played really well. It was a sudden-death shootout. Both kids shot at the same time. If one kid scored and the other missed, it was over. They scored, John unfortunately missed and we lost, and forever to this day that was our only loss.
“But again, my dad picked John over me to go in the shootout so there’s still no hard feelings over that.”
Tavares said, “That happened a long time ago, but he never lets me forget it.”
It is one of many childhood memories he and Tavares cherish.
“I remember, for example, when (Stamkos) and I won gold medals with Canada at the 2008 World Juniors as teammates,” Tavares said. “Such a great experience we shared, yet it seems like so long ago.”
They were born 225 days apart: Stamkos in Markham, Ontario on Feb. 7, 1990; Tavares about 20 miles away in Mississauga, Ontario, on Sept. 20, 1990. Stamkos has 701 NHL points (363 goals, 338 assists), 47 more than Tavares (654 points; 291 goals, 363 assists).
Their friendship wasn’t the only thing they had in common, they each loved the Maple Leafs.
Tavares shared that passion with the world when, upon signing with the Maple Leafs, he posted a photo on social media of himself in a bed with Maple Leafs sheets.
Stamkos was just as much a Toronto fan at the time. Just ask Joe Bowen, the Maple Leafs’ Hall of Fame broadcaster and a longtime friend of the Stamkos family.
“I knew Steven when he was in the stroller and he was decked out in blue and white back then,” Bowen said. “In Toronto, there’s probably a photo in the Stamkos collection that has young Steven decked out in the same type of pajamas that John displayed on social media when he signed.
“That’s one of the reasons I think it will be interesting for [Stamkos] to see Tavares in a (Maple) Leaf uniform on Thursday. It may trigger a few thoughts of ‘Maybe I should have done that.’ We’ll see. They’re maybe the two prominent teams in the Eastern Conference so they’re going to be seeing a lot of each other I think.”
Stamkos said he has no regrets for choosing to stay with the Lightning over the Maple Leafs in 2016, although he gives Toronto credit for trying.
They brought in Toronto mayor John Tory to try to convince him to come home. Michael B. Medline, then-CEO of Canadian Tire, was also present in an attempt to show the sponsorship possibilities that existed.
But Stamkos wanted to stay in Tampa Bay and signed an eight-year, $68 million contract with the Lightning.
“I’d earned the right to check all my options and that’s what I did,” Stamkos said. “But I loved Tampa and the organization. We had made the (2015) Stanley Cup Final two years earlier and the Eastern Conference Final the next year. We were so close to doing something special.”
While Tampa was a strong Stanley Cup contender, the Maple Leafs were in the midst of a rebuild. They had finished last in the then 30-team NHL in 2015-16. Auston Matthews had yet to be selected as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft; Mitchell Marner had yet to play an NHL game.
The situation was far different when Tavares became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Toronto was coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and forwards Matthews, Marner and William Nylander, all 22 and under, were budding stars.
The Islanders, on the other hand, had not made the playoffs since 2016.
“I talked to John,” Stamkos said. “He was open about speaking with me before free agency and I just tried to tell him at the end of the day to do what’s best for you and your family.”
Tavares took his friend’s advice to heart. After agonizing between the Maple Leafs and Islanders, he went home.
“This team wasn’t where it is now when (Stamkos) decided to stay Tampa,” Tavares said of Toronto. “Even if I decided to stay in New York at least I knew what the possibilities were and got to see for myself what was out there. Obviously, that’s what he did and obviously he felt strongly about his position to stay where he was.”
Being back home has been a nice fit for Tavares, who has 33 points (19 goals, 14 assists) in 31 games with the Maple Leafs.
“It’s been pretty cool,” Tavares said. “We have put ourselves in a good position in the first third of the season. And off the ice, people have been fantastic. There have been plenty of times I’ve been out for dinner or walking around my area and no one really says anything. Just go about my daily business. I don’t think I really go out and look for more attention. It kind of comes with the position that I’m in.
There will be plenty of attention on the Lightning and Maple Leafs on Thursday.
Tampa Bay (24-7-1) leads the NHL in points with 49 and has won seven consecutive games. Toronto (21-9-1) is second with 43 points after defeating the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 on Tuesday for its sixth win in eight games (6-1-1).
Tavares celebrated his 700th NHL game by scoring his 19th goal of the season in the win against Carolina. Stamkos celebrated a milestone 24 hours earlier, scoring a hat trick in Tampa Bay’s 6-3 victory over the New York Rangers to eclipse the 700-point mark in the NHL on Monday.
“Being in the same division (Atlantic) as them, you have a lot of respect for that team,” Tavares said. “And when you play a guy of his caliber, you want to up your game.
“It will be fun.”
When it comes to the Stamkos-Tavares relationship, it always has been.