TORONTO - The longest hiatus Steven Stamkos has ever taken from high-level hockey is not without its occasional good moments.
There are always plenty of laughs when the NHL star takes the ice for a weekly pickup game with his father Chris and some buddies, a handful of whom are almost three times his age. There is the extra time spent in the gym alongside close friend and mentor Gary Roberts, who Stamkos jokes is dangerously close to making him too big.
And then there is the anticipation of next week's Christmas celebration, the first one he'll get to enjoy at home with family in Markham, Ont., in six or seven years.
"As tough as it is, as frustrating as it is, you try to pick up some positives," said Stamkos.
But it's clear the NHL's most dangerous goal-scorer is feeling the pain of the lockout. Standing under the signature sloped roof at the building formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens on Monday afternoon, the locked-out Tampa Bay Lightning forward couldn't help but slip in a few references to his growing displeasure while speaking with reporters.
"It's frustrating," said Stamkos. "You do something for your whole life and you don't really think anything of it. Everything you do is geared towards playing hockey. Now when you don't have that, it's tough."
Catching himself, the 22-year-old quickly steered the conversation back to a charity game on Wednesday night, where he'll captain a team that plays against one led by Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban.
For Stamkos, it represents the chance to make the best of a bad situation. He'll get to skate alongside James Neal, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and Logan Couture, among others, with all of the proceeds from the soldout Mattamy Athletic Centre benefiting the NHLPA's Goals & Dreams Fund and the RBC Play Hockey program.
"When there's no hockey you try to find other things to do and a great cause to be part of," said Stamkos. "This is one of them."
It was during another charity game last month where Stamkos was reminded of exactly what he has been missing during the NHL's labour dispute.
The atmosphere was electric for "Operation Hat Trick" in Atlantic City, N.J., which raised more than US$500,000 for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Among the chants the fans screamed in Boardwalk Hall? "We want hockey!"
The feeling was mutual.
"I got the itch back when we were in Atlantic City," said Stamkos. "Obviously, it was a little bigger venue than this (the revamped Maple Leaf Gardens seats about 2,500), there was I think 10,000 people at the game. And you can just feel the passion that the hockey fans have — those are the guys that are really truly hurting right now.
"We feel bad for them, but we're obviously trying to get something done."
Stamkos has kept some distance from the ongoing collective bargaining talks.
He's leaned on Roberts and veteran Lightning teammates Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier for advice, and attempted to keep on top of the issues. However, he admits he never expected the lockout to drag into mid-December.
"I thought we'd be able to work something out but that's the nature of the beast," said Stamkos. "For the guys that have been through this before, they've told me it's a long process. Sometimes it looks like it's going to be happening in the near future and then something happens.
"There's so many ups and downs and highs and lows. For me this is my first (lockout). You just try to stay informed and learn from it and just try to stay ready."
It seems like ages ago that Stamkos became just the 20th player in NHL history to hit the 60-goal barrier. More than eight months have passed since he fired the puck past Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec on the final day of the regular season — a goal that earned him a standing at Winnipeg's MTS Centre.
Stamkos scored 28 times over his final 34 games to hit the milestone, but has been denied the opportunity to try and carry the momentum into a new season.
"For me this is the longest that I've gone without playing a competitive game," said Stamkos. "I know I'm a very competitive person and I know a lot of guys in the league are. I miss that.
"You can play pickup games, you can play shinny games, you can play on the outdoor rink — but nothing matches getting into a game atmosphere."