At that ball hockey camp in Calgary back in August, when most of Canada's best hockey players were not allowed near ice because of the insurance concerns, Steven Stamkos was asked if he was a lock for Sochi 2014. "I wouldn't say anyone's a lock," said the 23-year-old, who at the least was Canada's best goal scorer. "Injuries happen. Unforeseen circumstances."
Stamkos snapped his tibia on Monday, crashing into his own goalpost while backchecking at high speed, and it was gruesome to watch. He tried to get up, tried again, collapsed and calmly told the trainer, "It's broken." Stamkos underwent surgery in Boston Tuesday morning, and a metal rod was inserted. The wide range of estimates were eight to 10 weeks for the bone to heal, and then one to three months of rehab before a realistic return to elite hockey. The short end of that estimate adds up to just less than three months. Canada plays its first game, against Norway, three months and one day after the surgery. It's a slim hope at best.
"In the brief period that I did speak to him - and it's not surprising if you know him - he was particularly upbeat," Steve Yzerman, the general manager for both Tampa Bay and Canada's Olympic hockey team, said Tuesday. "Said, 'I'll come back stronger than ever.' We'd hope that he'd be healthy for the Olympics, but I have no idea at this stage."
It was a screamingly awful injury, made worse because Stamkos is one of the guys in the NHL that is impossible for anybody to hate. He's an elite and thrilling talent, a diligent worker, a good kid. He returned after having a piece of his nose carved off by a puck in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference final at age 20. Boston fans still respect that.
And this season, he had a league-leading 14 goals and 23 points in his first 17 games, and Tampa Bay was first in the East, and he has worked so hard to become a reliable player everywhere - on faceoffs, backchecking - which is a prerequisite both for Canada and for true stardom. Back in 2011, then-Lightning coach Guy Boucher said, "If he keeps it up, he's going to be a real winner. There's a difference between being a winner and a star, and I think he's figured that out."
Canada will try to construct its roster with him, and also without him. Hockey Canada's staff met Tuesday night and watched games and was set for a more formal meeting Wednesday morning, where Yzerman said they would establish the team's core players, and then toss around names on the bubble. There are good things being said about Dallas's Jamie Benn, Matt Duchene of Colorado, maybe even Milan Lucic. Already this season Rick Nash of the Rangers has suffered a serious concussion, Edmonton's Taylor Hall has sprained his left knee and Claude Giroux has been afflicted by whatever is plaguing the Philadelphia Flyers. Things can be fluid.
But it seems so far away right now and it's a shame. Stamkos was said to be deeply disappointed when he didn't make the roster for that once-in-a-lifetime Olympics in Vancouver, and when asked at an event earlier this year what playing in Sochi would mean, he said, "Getting the chance to represent your country, it means everything to me." This could well be the final Olympics for the NHL, with commissioner Gary Bettman openly talking about a future filled with league-controlled World Cups. According to Yzerman, Steven Stamkos started rehabilitating right away. The race is on.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos is taken off the ice on a stretcher after banging into the goalpost during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston in Boston on Monday
Photograph by: Elise Amendola, The Associated Press, The Leader-Post