My plan was to be a nurse anesthetist.
That’s cool, right?
In 2011, I was getting close to the end of my fourth season with my hometown team, the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. I was 20 years old, and my NHL dream seemed like it was going to remain just that — a dream. As a 5’8” forward, I had already been passed over in the NHL draft a couple of times. I’d been invited to rookie camps, but had never caught on with anybody. So my plan was to play college hockey in Canada — where I had been getting offers from a few schools — when the season was over. That way I could play hockey for a few more years while studying anesthesiology.
But about halfway through the 2010–11 season — while I was looking at schools in British Columbia and Ontario — I hit my stride. I started playing … well, the best hockey of my life. I was scoring at well over a point-per-game pace for a few months before the playoffs, and I went from thinking about scrubs to NHL jerseys.
I was winding down the season and getting ready for the playoffs with Spokane. We were way up north in Prince George, British Columbia, getting ready for a game against the Prince George Cougars when my agent called.
“You’re going to get a call from a GM soon.”
“Who?” I said.
That made me so damn nervous. Like, Why do that to me? I had no idea who was about to call. It could have been anyone. I was sitting in a motel in Prince George, watching the snow pile up outside my window, when my phone buzzed again.
“Hi, Tyler. This is Steve Yzerman.”
“Oh … ah … uh…. Hi.” I think I almost passed out.
He said, “How would you feel about coming down to Tampa to take a look at what we’ve got going on down here?”
I told him that I was gearing up for the playoffs with the Chiefs, and it was going to be hard to manage a few days off. He said he understood, and then he offered to come to Prince George that week. He offered to leave Tampa — in the spring, the best time of year there — and come to Prince George. It’s a small town about nine hours north of Vancouver. He was going to do that. For me.
I thought, This guy is for real.
I’d been passed up in the NHL draft. I’d been ignored at rookie camps. Heck, Spokane didn’t even take me in the 2005 WHL Bantam Draft until the 203rd pick. Some teams actually forfeited their picks before I was drafted. They literally figured that picking nobody was better than taking me.
So, yeah, Steve Yzerman — one of the greatest players in NHL history — was offering to come to the middle of British Columbia to meet with me?
I was sold.
He called my dad a few minutes later and then, of course, my dad called me.
“Tyler … holy cow … you’re not going to believe who I just spoke to.”
“I know, Dad, it w—”
“STEVE YZERMAN!” he said, with what I assume was the biggest grin he’d ever had on his face.
As it turned out, I actually had a few options. It’s still crazy to think about, but I got offers from 14 NHL teams in spring of 2011. Fourteen. A few months before, I had been asking schools if they would let me play hockey while working toward a medical degree. In my mind, before Steve called, I had narrowed my choices down to two teams: Tampa Bay and Chicago.
But, like I said, after that call … I was sold. And every year around this time, I remember that call with Steve. I remember what he and the Lightning made clear to me when they gave me this opportunity: It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you were drafted — if you prove your worth, you’re going to get a chance.
I know it sounds dumb, especially with the way the game is now … but it’s not like that with every other team. To some front offices in the NHL it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done or what your potential might be. If you’re under 5′ 10″ or 5′ 9″, you aren’t going to get a chance. End of story.
Tampa Bay was one of the first teams to kind of push that old-school thinking to the side.
Come to a Bolts game and look around Amalie Arena — whose jersey do you see the most? Stammer? Kuch? Vasy?
Nope. It’s number 26, Martin St. Louis. Stanley Cup winner. Art Ross winner. Hart winner. Six-time All-Star.
Five feet, eight inches.
He’s a legend in Tampa.
And he was one of the big reasons I had been thinking about playing for the Lightning, even before Steve called.
Growing up, I didn’t watch a lot of hockey. Instead, I played it. My parents were involved in the hockey community in the area, so I was on the ice from a young age. Whenever I had free time I was either on the ice or playing the NHL video game.
NHL 06 was my favorite. The one with Vinny Lecavalier on the cover.
You remember the intro? The heavy metal music, Vinny skating in on Miikka Kiprusoff — it was pretty sick. This was the first NHL video game after the lockout and the second since the Lightning won the Cup in ’04. I was just 16 years old so of course I was going to use the best team in the game. And that was Tampa. It was how I really got to know Marty, because we were about the same size. He was so good in NHL 06 it was ridiculous: fast, great dangles, a wicked wrister. My go-to move was to hang around the blue line when we were in our own zone then grab the puck and take off with Marty. Breakaway every time. Goal every time.
As the years went on and I got closer to being draft eligible, I started to watch the real NHL a bit more. Marty was a hero to me. He played the way you have to when you’re undersized: skilled, smart, head on a swivel.
So the day that Steve called me, the first thing I thought of was Marty. I remembered hearing how he’d bounced around a bit before Tampa gave him his first real chance in 2000. It reminded me of my situation. And I couldn’t wait to be in the same room as him.
Two years later, on March 14, 2013, I made my NHL debut and played a few shifts with Marty.
Right away, I could see why everybody in Tampa Bay loved him. He left it all out on the ice and never stopped skating. He would do anything to win. This city — these fans — they want a winner. That’s it. That’s all they want.
I learned that my first day, and it’s been clear ever since.
That’s why 2015 hurt so bad. When I think back to the Cup finals against Chicago, I still feel that pain in my gut — the one that hit me like a punch when Patrick Kane scored the second goal in Game 6 to make it 2–0 with a few minutes to go. I can still hear the Hawks celebrating on the ice after it was over, while we took off our gear in silence. That pain … it’ll never leave me. I’ve won a Memorial Cup in the CHL, a world junior gold medal, a Calder Cup in the AHL — but the thrill of those victories doesn’t offset the feeling of a Cup final loss. Not even close.
People sometimes ask me if I regret not choosing the Hawks. They and the Lightning had been my first choices, after all. But I really fell in love with Tampa during the 2015 playoffs. I knew that this was where I wanted to be. The atmosphere we had in our building was as good as any in the NHL. The crowds watching the game outside the arena in Thunder Alley? We saw you guys, and that support meant the world to us. The city had a buzz about it. I want that feeling again, our whole team does.
We believe we can get there again. That team from 2015 sort of reminds me of the one we have now. There’s just one difference.
This one is better.
We know how tough the playoffs are. Just because we’re confident doesn’t mean we’ve accomplished anything. But there’s a reason to really like us: We’re deep. We can roll four lines, and we have eight D-men who can step in and do a great job. Plus, we’ve got the best goalie in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
We drafted him in 2012, but he didn’t come over from Russia until two years later. I’ve known he was going to be this good for a while, because he robbed me like four times at the 2014 world championships in Belarus. Russia beat us 6-1 in the prelims. In the handshake line, Vasy had a huge smile on his face when he saw me.
“See you in Tampa.”
That’s all he said.
What a savage.
Also, it’s nice to finally see that nobody is sleeping on Nikita Kucherov anymore. He’s always had an insane amount of skill, and when you combine it with the way Stammer is playing — they’re both unstoppable. And the thing about Kuch is when he really wants to do something, most of the time he can. With his combination of skill and confidence, once he gets rolling … he can be downright unstoppable. That’s why I’m excited for the playoffs. A game every other night — I can’t wait to see what he can do.
I could go on all day about why this team is special and why our entire organization believes that this is our year. But we know the task at hand. We’ve been there before. We know that things aren’t going to go our way just because we think they should.
We want to see Thunder Alley in full force. I want to feel the building shake while I’m putting on my gear before warmups. We want another chance.
That’s the word I remember most from my phone call with Steve.
He said, “You come down here, you put on a Lightning sweater, and we’ll give you a chance.
“You just need to take it.”