The official announcement of Team Canada’s men’s ice hockey team roster was still two months away, but there Steven Stamkos was, a proud, smiling, determined face, promoting our nation’s golden dreams in Sochi.
Not yet an Olympian himself but a slam-dunk come February, Stamkos sat on a panel of corporate-sponsored Sochi-bound athletes upstairs in the old Maple Leaf Gardens next to Hayley Wickenheiser, Greg Westlake, Marie-Eve Drolet and Michael Gilday – Olympians all – and spoke about his dream.
How badly did he want to pull on a Team Canada sweater and play for his home country in Russia this February?
“It means everything,” Stamkos said. “It’s amazing to be here today knowing I can potentially be on that team.”
And then he fondly recalled his attachment to the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics.
After Stamkos’s favourite player, Joe Sakic, scored four points and led Canada to a 5-2 win over Team USA in the Winter Olympics’ gold-medal game in Utah, young Stamkos grabbed his gear and headed off to a minor hockey league game in Markham, Ont. During warm-up, Stamkos and his teammates taped Team Canada sweaters to their sticks and circled the rink with the red and white held high.
From the perspective of the Tampa Bay Lightning, atop the Eastern Conference and hoping to squelch their two-year playoff drought, the loss of Stamkos – the NHL’s leader in goals (14) and points (23) going into Tuesday night’s action – is massive. From the point of view of Team Canada, Stamkos’ broken tibia (he undergoes surgery Tuesday and is out indefinitely) is devastating.
But from Stamkos’s perspective, the timing of this horrific accident – which, by various estimates, could keep him out anywhere from two to six months – must be crushing.
Sochi could signify Stamkos’s only chance to be an Olympian. With the 2018 Winter Games being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, it appears unlikely that the NHL and NHLPA will agree to send professionals. Commissioner Gary Bettman has voiced his favouring of a World Cup instead.
And despite scoring 51 goals in 2009-10, Stamkos was left off Canada’s gold-medal-winning 2010 roster (he and teammate Martin St. Louis were healthy reserves only).
“It was tough. You want to make every team you try out for, so it was disappointing,” Stamkos told sportsnet.ca in October. “At the same time, I’m a realist. I was 19 years old at the time, and there’s so many good players and guys that have had more experience than you at that level. So you use it as a little motivation and hope that next time you get your name called.”
Between getting passed over in 2010 and Monday’s sickening injury, Stamkos has been the NHL’s most prolific and consistent goal scorer, capturing two Rocket Richard trophies. He’s also been remarkably healthy. Not since his 2008-09 rookie season has Stamkos missed a single game. Training diligently under the scrutiny of strength and nutrition guru Gary Roberts, Stamkos turned himself into the poster boy for the well-conditioned hockey player.
“It maybe put a little extra wood in the fire,” Stamkos said of not getting to skate in Vancouver, “but I can’t say I did that to prove something to anyone. You try to prove to yourself and your teammates the kind of player you can be.”
Stamkos is the model player, in terms of work ethic, shooting accuracy, sure, but also in terms of dealing with fans, media, peers, corporate bigwigs and general managers.
“It happened to one of the golden children of the league,” Jeremy Roenick told Sportsnet The FAN 590. “He’s one of the nicest guys.”
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said Monday that Stamkos will be named him to Canada’s 25-man roster in the hopes he’ll recover in time. If his leg doesn’t heal in time, Canada can replace Stamkos as late as 24 hours before the Games commence.
Roberts will start working with Stamkos after his surgery.
“There is no doubt his conditioning will help him rehab faster,” Roberts told HC @ Noon Tuesday (watch above). “If there’s a way Steve Stamkos can do it, he’s going to try and do it.”
The goal will be to stretch and work on surrounding muscles to prevent atrophy in his right leg, but of course the main concern is Stamkos’s long-term health and not a three-month, five-ring deadline.
“I know how much this year meant to him, to be in the Olympics,” Roenick said. “He got passed by last time, which I think crushed him. He’s shown people why he deserves to be one of the best players in the world. And for this to happen now, it’s so detrimental to him, to Canada, to the Lightning. That’s how important Steven Stamkos is. Literally, I’m sick to my stomach.”
The Winter Olympics kick off on Feb. 7, the same day Stamkos turns 24 years old. Here’s hoping for a birthday miracle.