Inside the NHL's 'odd couple'
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Two Steves are patiently answering questions for an ESPN.com video outside the Tampa Bay Lightning's practice facility in Brandon, Fla., shortly before heading off on a road trip.
There is little awkwardness that young athletes sometimes exude when faced with even the smallest of cameras. They feed off each other in a way that only those comfortable in their own skins can manage, happily trading barbs about winning strokes on the golf course or who can lift the most at the gym.
Even after the camera is off and the pair head for the parking lot, still joking about how much they really don't like each other, they are laughing heartily until they are out of earshot.
The Two Steves.
Gretzky on Stamkos
Wayne Gretzky weighs in on Steven Stamkos' chances to score 50 goals in 50 games. Cross Checks blog »
They live in the same residential community in the Tampa area. They room together on the road. They traveled to Germany together to play for Canada at the world championships this past spring. They worked out religiously with former teammate Gary Roberts during the offseason. They play golf and work out during the season together. Compete, laugh, compete some more.
But ... inseparable?
One player, Stamkos, was the first overall pick in the 2008 NHL draft; the other, Downie, once received a 20-game suspension, the fourth-longest in NHL history, for a hit in 2007. Now, along with Martin St. Louis, they are part of one of the most dangerous forward lines in the league.
Maybe incongruous? Perhaps, but the friendship is real nonetheless.
Can such a friendship help define a career? Can it help take greatness to another level? Can such a bond help create a change in how a player is perceived?
If there is comfort and strength in friendship, and a greater will to succeed is a result of it, then maybe there is something to The Two Steves.
'The Odd Couple'
Steve No. 1: Downie, 23, was sitting down with a visitor in a room adjacent to the Lightning dressing room after a recent game when teammate Ryan Malone and Malone's son, Will, almost 3, came looking for the rugged Lightning winger.
"He's been looking all over for you," Malone explained with a smile. "He keeps saying, 'Where's Diggity?' He wants to play hockey with you."
Downie smiled and told the youngster he'd be right with him. Will was not happy about the interruption to their postgame ritual.
Steve(n) No. 2: It was a Monday night in Tampa, an off day for the Lightning, and Stamkos, the NHL's leading scorer, arrived at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital of Tampa to act as an honorary judge for the hospital's annual Kids Are Heroes program, which recognizes heroic acts by local youths.
Even before he walked into the foyer, the 20-year-old Stamkos was embraced by a young patient whom he met a year ago. Stamkos greeted him with a smile and received a big hug from the boy's mother. Almost 90 minutes later, Stamkos was still there, posing for pictures with the other judges (who were all young patients at the hospital), signing autographs and talking with parents.
"They might not know who you are, but they know you're someone," Stamkos said while sitting on a bench outside the hospital. "It's actually cool to have that kind of impact on people. I don't mind it at all."
Steve + Steve(n): "Yeah, they are kind of like 'The Odd Couple,'" suggested Stamkos' father, Chris.
Ask them, and both players will laugh at the idea that such a close friendship comes with its hazards.
"There were a couple of moments where we were almost sick of each other," Stamkos said. "It always seems like we're competing with each other in a good way. If one of us is lifting weights, we're not leaving until we both lift the same amount."
Same on the golf course.
"He's always asking for strokes," Stamkos said. "It eventually leads to a couple of arguments here and there."
Although the two did not know each other personally before they became teammates in Tampa, they certainly knew of each other. Both were high-profile junior players in the Ontario Hockey League, although for the most part, Stamkos did his best to avoid the combustible Downie whenever they played.
"I just tried to steer clear of him," Stamkos admitted. "He had a reputation as the kind of guy that could go crazy at any time, and he was always leading in points, so you didn't know what to expect."
He recalled one night when one of his Sarnia Sting teammates took Downie into the boards, and the protective glass in the corner of the arena shattered. Downie just skated by the Sarnia bench with a huge smile as though a monster had just been awakened.
"But it's the old cliché about not judging a book by the cover," Stamkos said. "Especially for him, because so many people have judged him based on his reputation."
The past is closer for some than it is for others. For Downie, or at least those outside his sphere, the past is sometimes a shadow attached to the present. People assume this Steve Downie is the same Steve Downie they see on YouTube crushing Dean McAmmond into the end boards during a preseason game in September 2007 (resulting in that 20-game suspension), or the one they've read about him attacking junior teammate Akim Aliu two years earlier.
Who among us is the same person he was when he did something stupid or regrettable? Does one not try to grow from such moments?
"I'm learning how to use my emotions," Downie said. "It's been a learning experience."
Last season, playing mostly with Stamkos and St. Louis, Downie took a big step toward revising the wildly held opinion that he is merely a menace on skates. Under then-coach Rick Tocchet, Downie harnessed that considerable emotion and became an important offensive cog; he controlled the puck down low, crashed the crease and opened up space for his two talented linemates. He finished with 22 goals and 46 points and 208 penalty minutes.
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman acknowledged he didn't know exactly what to expect from Downie when he took the job during the offseason. "He was much different than I anticipated," Yzerman said recently.
But Yzerman knows what he has now, and he's not at all surprised Downie and Stamkos have become such good friends.
"Steve Downie's a pretty witty guy, a pretty funny guy," Yzerman said. "He's a real gentleman, a polite guy. He's well-liked by his teammates."
On the ice, where the bottom line is always tabulated, the GM is equally impressed.
"He's got skill and hockey sense, and he can keep up with Steve and Marty [St. Louis] with no problem," he said.
But the past is still part of the fabric of Stamkos and Downie's relationship.
Sometimes Stamkos' friends will pull him aside and ask whether rumors they've heard about Downie are true.
"'Does he really do this? Does he really do that?'" Stamkos said, shaking his head.
Such as Downie's reputation for being a party animal.
The two room together on the road, and Stamkos said it's Downie who is most often lights-out at 10 p.m. Getting Downie up in the morning may be another matter, but Stamkos said there is never a doubt about which way his linemate is pointed, and it's forward. Eager to practice, never quick to leave a workout.
"He just has that mentality," Stamkos said. "And until you know him, you'd never know that."
Stamkos also describes his tough-as-nails friend as a softy at heart.
"He'll probably kill me for saying that," Stamkos said.
Downie gives one of those "I bit into something awful" faces when told this.
"Oh, there's got to be a better word than that," Downie said.
Deep down, though, we believe he is tickled.
Evolution, Part I
Ann Downie mentioned it in passing, almost as an afterthought, in a wide-ranging discussion about her son and his friendship with Stamkos.
She pointed out that it's unlikely the Stamkos family has seen the kinds of ebbs and flows the Downie family has had. It is a comment made without rancor or bitterness or envy or anything other than to point out the markedly different paths the two close friends have followed to this point. In short, Ann Downie is merely pointing out the obvious.
Stamkos was the first overall pick in the major junior draft (2006) and NHL draft (2008). His mother read hockey cards to him at night before bed. Stamkos asked to be quizzed on the stats printed on the back. He worked at a butcher shop in downtown Toronto where he learned to interact with the public. He has assumed a natural confidence that reminds us of a Sidney Crosby or a Jonathan Toews, regardless of whether it's in the middle of a game or when he's out in public or dealing with the media.
Chris Stamkos was reminded of his son's impressive growth into manhood and celebrity this past summer at a charity baseball event, and how easily he accepted the attention.
As of Tuesday, Stamkos leads the league in goals and points, and there is a buzz about him that is beyond the norm, even in this age of dynamic young stars.
Yes, the first part of Stamkos' rookie season wasn't a picnic; but follow Stamkos' career arc, and you pretty soon get to the top of the page.
Follow Downie's career arc, and you're more likely to trace out a Rorschach drawing. "He takes you up here, and then he can drop you just as quickly," his mom said.
In the beginning, the Downies -- Ann, husband John, older son Greg and Steve -- spent the winters playing hockey on the big pond John used to clear off. He ran a trout farm in a rural area outside Toronto, so the winter months were his downtime. The kids learned to skate by pushing a chair on the pond and would spend hours playing shinny with John and neighborhood kids.
But they had lives outside hockey. The family loved snowmobiling, so it eschewed organized hockey for pond hockey and weekends of carefree snowmobiling for a long time.
"My kids were snowmobiling before they could walk," Ann said. "Everything was always outside."
But eventually, the kids wanted what other kids wanted: to be on teams, to travel and play. So when Downie was 7 and Greg was 8, they went into minor hockey. Before that first minor hockey season was over, John was dead, killed in a car accident en route to one of Steve's hockey practices. Steve was in the vehicle.
The Downies grieved but never turned away from the game during that difficult time. "There was never any thought about quitting," Ann said.
Despite the tragedy, she wanted her boys' lives to be as normal as possible, and that meant playing hockey. When Downie thinks of his childhood, those are the memories that flood back to him. He and his brother and mother piling into the family vehicle and driving off to a rink somewhere.
"It was all three of us. For a long time it was, 'OK, let's go,'" Downie said. "It was what it was. Hockey was everything."
Ann never remarried. For a long time, hockey was her life, too. For the better part of a decade, winter meant countless nights in one arena or another with one or both of her boys.
"I needed it. It was a great social life for me," she said. "Some of my best friends today are from hockey."
At 16, Steve left home to play junior hockey in Windsor. Ann would drive there for the Spits' Thursday night home games. She would meet her son after the game for a pizza or snack, then get up at 5 a.m. and head home.
During the season, the two talk almost every day, even on nights Downie is playing. Even if her son is out on the West Coast, Ann still waits by the phone.
"I still wait for that call just to say, 'Good game.' They're still kids. They're not, but they are," she said, trying to articulate the difficulty all parents experience as their children become something more.
The only times there aren't phone calls are on "those nights" when Downie has done something wrong, has run afoul of the rules or is in trouble. There have been fewer of those nights, though.
"He's really happy there, and it shows," Ann said. "It's a nice place to be at. He's learned the hard way, but I think he's past that. He's harder on himself than anyone else would ever be."
Evolution, Part II
The story of this friendship has much to do with Downie's evolution as a person, but no less compelling has been Stamkos' evolution as a player.
After tying Sidney Crosby for the Rocket Richard Trophy last season, Stamkos has taken the hockey world by storm. Yzerman, for one, is not surprised.
"He gets at least four great chances to score a game," Yzerman said. "[With his speed and shot], he's a threat as soon as he gets over the blue line."
It's not hard to draw a line from Stamkos' increased physical power on the ice to his work with Roberts. The longtime NHL forward jokes that his buddies have implored him not to pass along his foot speed or his hands to Stamkos.
Not to worry there. But Roberts has helped develop Stamkos' core strength, which is evident almost every time the young forward unleashes what is the most deadly one-timer in the NHL.
But his game is far more than just a wicked shot.
"You're not going to score 30 goals from the top of the circle," Roberts said. "You're going to have to have some ugly Gary Roberts goals. That's what's going to put him on a different plane as a player."
Lightning first-year coach Guy Boucher agreed.
"People always talk about his one-timer, [but] more than half his goals are not the one-timer, they're because he pays the price in front of the net and he gets rebounds and tips, so he goes to the areas where it hurts. That's why he's getting that many goals.
"I think that's something that young people have to know. You want to play like Steven Stamkos? Don't just practice your one-timer. You better go in front of the net and pay the price, because that's what he does. As long as he does that, he's going to continue to get a lot of goals, not just the pretty ones."
Just the game
Would Stamkos be on his way to Hart Trophy consideration and a second Rocket Richard Trophy were it not for his friendship with linemate Downie?
Would Downie have become such an important part of one of the most dangerous forward lines in the league, not to mention taken a huge step in rehabilitating a gruesome reputation, if he and Stamkos had not become fast friends?
Hard to say, but if you spend enough time with the two players, it's obvious they drive each other.
"In my opinion, he's one of the best players in the league at what he does," Stamkos said.
"He is so focused. He's all about hockey and determination," Downie said about Stamkos. "I'm never met someone so determined during a game."
But despite their friendship, there is an almost unspoken rule: When the game is on, that's all there is; no small talk on the bench, just the game.
"I love that about him," Downie said. "That makes me work even harder."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.