Inside the return of hockey’s top sniper

“The important thing is getting a chance to win,” says Steven Stamkos. “It looks like we're going to have that chance for a couple years." (Scott Audette/Getty)

(This story appears in the March 10 edition of Sportsnet magazine)

Face down, the hockey player tugs his knees under his chest, stands up on his left foot and tries to plant the right. The leg offers no support. He feels the bone move. He drops his stick and slides to the ice again in front of his goaltender’s blue paint. With his forehead pressed against the cold, he pounds the ice four times. Again his knees crunch underneath his torso. He tries again to stand. He sees the stretcher being carted onto the ice. Pride, adrenalin and his job description compel him to try to reach the bench under his own power, but his body screams no.

“He’s in a lot of pain!” play-by-play man Rick Peckham says, crystallizing the obvious. Boston’s TD Garden hushes. Tampa’s head trainer, Tom Mulligan, is first on the scene, instructing his player to stay down and keep still, but Steven Stamkos has no other option. Sprawled in pain, he unsnaps his helmet and flings it up-ice. He grabs a fistful of Mulligan’s jacket. “It’s broken,” Stamkos tells him.

Faces pale and mouths agape, Stamkos’s teammates tap their sticks on the boards as the Bruins medical staff, the Lightning trainers and captain Martin St. Louis lift him onto a stretcher. Fans of his foes applaud loudly as he leaves the ice. Lying on his back, staring up at the arena lights, pain courses through his body and three thoughts bag-skate through his mind. The first: What will this mean for his season, in which he’s currently tied with Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead? The second: What will this mean for his team, looking like a serious contender after two consecutive whiffs at the post-season? And the third: Sochi is three months away. Can he play?

Stamkos is slid into an ambulance, pumped full of pain medication and rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital. Once there, half-conscious, he turns to Lightning assistant trainer Mike Poirier and asks, “Did this really happen? Are we really sitting in a hospital room right now? Shouldn’t we be in Montreal? We have a game tomorrow.”

Only then does it sink in for Poirier, who came into the NHL at the same time as his player: “We’ve just lost Steven Stamkos.”

What happened on the ice was ironic: the game’s most electric offensive talent done in by his defensive responsibility. Backchecking at full speed with 7:12 left in the second period of a Veterans Day matinee, Stamkos got tied up with Boston defenceman Dougie Hamilton. He fell backward, his right shin smashing hard against the post. But the most intriguing aspect of the injury was its timing. Had the accident happened in the first month of the season, Stamkos’s Olympic dream would never have been in doubt. Had it happened a few weeks later, Sochi would have been a write-off. But because there was just enough time for Stamkos to possibly recover for the trip to Russia, his rehab consumed both him and the hockey world. And though he didn’t make it to Sochi, the story of how quickly Stamkos got back on his feet and into skates is remarkable—and the aftershocks of that just-missed deadline could reverberate through the NHL all the way into June.

Stamkos’s tale of resolve begins with an imperative from his surgeon, both symbolic and literal: Stand up as soon as possible. But how do you throw the weight of your body and the heft of your dream onto something that was so fragile the last time you tried? The bone that can bear the most weight in the human body just failed you. How do you learn to trust it again?

One step at a time.

That first step actually came immediately after Stamkos went down—when he tried and failed to stand up. That rub-some-dirt-on-it courage likely made the break worse and displaced his tibia. If true, standing up was the best thing he could have done. “We think he may have had a little crack in there when he first [hit the post], but the fact he stood up may have caused the displacement, which required surgery,” says Poirier. “If it was just a little crack, the doctors said they’d probably just [have] casted it.” And if Stamkos’s leg had been locked in a cast for two or three months, his muscles would have atrophied, and rehab would have been delayed.

Stamkos was working moments after being lifted from the ice, watching the replay on his phone. “During the game, things happen so fast, you don’t really know what happened,” he explains. The flickering footage drowned out the floods of well-wishing calls and texts from friends, family, teammates and opponents like Crosby and Zdeno Chara. The graphic images didn’t bother him. Curiosity drove him to watch the accident over and over. Stamkos admits he allowed himself a moment of self-pity in the back of that ambulance. It sucks this happened right now, he thought. But then: OK, I have three months until the Olympics. I have time to get back.

In the morning, a surgeon hammered a titanium rod through Stamkos’s patella and down the length of his right shin during a two-and-a-half-hour operation. The surgery left Stamkos with a three-inch scar and a chunk of metal that will set off airport detectors for the rest of his life. “I could take a baseball bat to your leg—that rod is not going to move,” Poirier told Stamkos.

While in the hospital, Stamkos spent his time replying to phone messages and texts. His girlfriend and Poirier stayed in Boston with him, and Bruins coach Claude Julien paid the injured star a visit, bringing him a Game Ready compression and cold therapy system to aid in his recovery. “I’m going to take my sweet time on his rehab,” Poirier joked with Julien, an assistant coach for Team Canada. “I’m an American. There’s no need to rush him back for the Olympics.” As he prepared to return to Tampa, Stamkos did simple ankle pumps to get the blood flowing and fight stiffness.

Two days after surgery, on blood thinners and with his leg locked, Stamkos boarded a private plane and flew back to Florida, where the real work began. Poirier set up Stamkos’s home with all the necessities: modality equipment, ice and daily benchmarks. Even on that first day at home, Stamkos had to trust the leg, to stand up, even if only for a second or two, even with his nerves racked and his confidence bruised, even with the aid of crutches and a walking boot. As the first week went on, the standing sessions had to be longer. He had to walk around his kitchen island, just once. To film it and send the video to Poirier, who monitored Stamkos’s progress while on a West Coast road trip. Then walk the island twice, film it, and send it to Poirier.

“You think your leg is going to snap again when you put it down,” Stamkos says. “Even the first step with the boot and crutches is tough. I’ve learned the mind is very powerful. Thinking positive helps [with] getting over those hurdles.”

Inquisitive and determined, Stamkos took to Google when not pushing his body. He read up on his injury and watched a YouTube clip of the rather barbaric-looking procedure he underwent (search “surgery to insert daga intramedullary nail in tibia bone,” but do it on an empty stomach). He spoke with other athletes to learn what he should expect from the rehabilitation process. Stuck in bed for most of that first week, he lost 13 lb. of muscle. Because the surgeon cut into his kneecap to fix his leg, Stamkos had to get his glutes and quad muscles firing as soon as possible. He had to stretch and ice them, anything to salvage some of his mobility. “I surprised myself with how positive and calm I was able to stay,” Stamkos says. “If I’m sitting on the couch thinking, ‘Why me? Poor me,’ I’m not going to get better. I’m not going to help myself. I think everything happens for a reason.”

When the Lightning returned from that first post-surgery road trip, Poirier broke Stamkos’s rehab into two-week blocks, marked by an X-ray every 14 days; each fortnight was then broken down further into one-week chunks, and into a daily regimen. There would be no more coasting around the kitchen; it was time for the heavy work. Just 10 days after surgery, Stamkos hit the gym, both his age (then 23) and off-season conditioning on his side. In those first two weeks, he ditched both the crutches and the boot. Fans were comparing Stamkos’s healing powers to Wolverine’s. “This is my first setback due to injury, and I’m looking to come back stronger,” Stamkos recalls thinking.

Those daily rehab sessions were a team effort, a group of trainers and therapists hitting Stamkos’s injured body from every angle. Each day began with the Lightning’s manual therapist, Christian Rivas, who would heat up Stamkos’s muscles and massage his soft tissues. A bone-growth stimulator was used. The crutches and the walking boot could have easily thrown off Stamkos’s gait, so everything got treatment—not just the broken leg but also Stamkos’s opposite hip, his lower back, his neck, his left leg. Poirier worked on getting muscle and strength back to his right ankle through stretches and balancing exercises. Strength coach Mark Lambert designed an upper-body program that also got Stamkos’s heart rate up. He lifted weights to maintain the conditioning in his chest, arms, upper back and shoulders that he had gained through summer training with former NHLer–turned–fitness guru Gary Roberts. The entire ordeal lasted four or five hours every day. Stamkos would return home and make use of his modalities—an ice machine and an air-compression unit—battling the swelling in 30-minute intervals, and trying to keep his leg loose.

Two weeks post-op, he was on the bike. A week after that he was working out on an underwater treadmill—jogging, shuffling and backpedalling—loaned to the Lightning through an affiliation with University of South Florida’s sports medicine program. A month from the injury, the team built a small platform that allowed Stamkos to stand out on the ice in shoes and start stickhandling. At five weeks, on Dec. 16, he was skating laps. Martin St. Louis was there rinkside, filming his friend to show his young sons what perseverance looks like.

The big gains came early. Stamkos couldn’t balance on his right leg at all the first day he tried; the next day he could do it for three seconds. But frustrating plateaus and painful hiccups were part of the process, too. Some days the leg awoke sore and screamed during certain movements; it couldn’t take the torque. You can have all the motivation and high-tech machinery in the world, but the second-largest bone in the human body heals in its own damn time. “A lot can go wrong,” Poirier says of the process. The increments in weight and speed were small, five to 10 percent at a time. Stamkos went from walking one mile per hour on a treadmill to 1.2 mph to 1.4 mph, until gradually he reached full sprint.

The average person with a mortgage and a bum knee can’t identify with this kind of recovery. “[Athletes are] more gifted than normal people. You’re physically better. You heal better,” says Poirier, who has worked in pro sports for 12 years, first with the NFL. “If you’re getting care from a team of people four or five hours a day, you’ll get back faster.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper wanted Stamkos to travel with the team after one missed road trip. So he did, eating dinners and joking with his teammates, riding the bike or lifting weights in Newark, Detroit and Vancouver while he watched his teammates play on television. Game time for everyone. “Sometimes you get hurt and you’re on your own schedule. You don’t see the guys much and you miss out even more,” teammate Ryan Malone says on one of those trips. “For him to be around helps keep him in good spirits, and we try to keep him loose and let him know when the time’s right, we’ll be ready to go.”

In the January of his coldest winter, Stamkos hobbles off a team bus in Winnipeg and leans on his crutches. It’s one of those days when the aching is a little louder after a morning skate. The outside temperature is minus-80 degrees, at least by Poirier’s estimate, and a couple of people are trying to flag Stamkos down for an autograph.

“Hey! Mr. Stamkos!”

The wounded sniper ambles his way over, smiles, and signs whatever they want. He chats with the starry-eyed kids. This is who he is. And then the game is played and the team moves on, and the rehab continues—work, gain, plateau, work harder, repeat—until one day, in early February, the clock runs out. Nothing bad has happened to his tibia. Nothing has gone wrong with his rehab. But Canada’s first game is eight days away and now, finally, Steven Stamkos admits he is simply out of time. “I can at least look myself in the mirror and say I did everything possible to give myself a chance,” he says.

He makes the announcement that he won’t be playing for Canada, that his everything was not enough to heal the stubborn human body. His teammate, St. Louis, will take his place. “If anyone could replace him, I know he would want me,” St. Louis says. “I don’t see this as Marty replacing me. I see this as Marty deserving to go,” Stamkos says, ever the supportive teammate, his expression stronger than his tibia. Perhaps the only evidence the public sees of just how hard falling just this short is for him comes when he admits he isn’t certain he’ll even watch all of Team Canada’s games. After all, he’s focused on a new deadline now.

While St. Louis and other stars skate in Sochi, and the rest of his NHL peers lounge on beaches and eat cheeseburgers, Stamkos keeps rehabbing, always rehabbing. The new deadline is, technically, as soon as possible—but really it’s April 16. Opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

After whiffing on the post-season for two consecutive years, the Lightning have been the most pleasant surprise of the Eastern Conference. Goaltender Ben Bishop is enjoying a Vezina-calibre season, rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson have quickly become reliable NHL forwards, off-season acquisition Valtteri Filppula is on pace for a career year, and defenceman Victor Hedman is quietly building a case for the Norris. In his first full campaign, Cooper has led his club to second place in the Atlantic Division and to a 21-15-5 record without Stamkos. And now, Steve Yzerman can watch his fellow GMs scramble on March 5 knowing the biggest trade-deadline acquisition will be the return of a 60-goal scorer to a Lightning lineup that will be a threat to spoil the Penguins’ and Bruins’ bids for a Stanley Cup final berth.

When Stamkos first went down, Cooper pulled up the team’s schedule and began counting games. “I thought, if we can get through and he misses 41 games and comes back after the Olympic break, that would be unbelievable for us,” says Cooper. “You’re sitting there thinking, if he comes back, well… now it’s a matter of when.”

With his assignment’s exact return date looming, Poirier re-watches the video of Stamkos’s baby steps around his kitchen island from two months ago. He considers all the progress he’s made, each pound, each rep, each circled pylon recorded in the log. He’s as anxious as Stamkos for that first game back. Possibly more. “And I will not sleep the entire night before,” Poirier says. “Is he ready? Are you sure we tested him every possible way? It’ll be nerve-racking. That first shift, that first hit…You know everything’s fine, but you hold your breath.”