Steven Stamkos finally gets his chance at best-on-best hockey

Steven Stamkos spoke about his excitement to play on Team Canada after missing the Sochi Olympics due to injury.

OTTAWA – It’s natural to approach the reborn World Cup with some level of skepticism.

What, observers wonder, will this thing look, feel and be like when the lights go up at the Air Canada Centre? Landing at a time on the calendar usually reserved for NHL exhibition games and using a somewhat experimental format, more than a few are asking:

Will this tournament even matter?

Then you stand across from Steven Stamkos on the first day of Team Canada’s training camp and you’re quickly reminded why we’re all here. One of the sport’s finest players has a pretty unique perspective on what the World Cup means.

“It’s huge,” Stamkos said Monday.

His opinion is shaped by the fact he narrowly missed out on the last two Olympics – getting passed over for the Vancouver team and regretfully pulling out of Sochi because of a broken leg – but also by a big-picture understanding of what this entire thing represents.

Over the course of hockey history, there have only been 12 of these mega-tournaments ever contested: Five Olympics, five Canada Cups and two World Cups.

This will be the 13th and there’s no guarantee the 14th will come two years from now when the Winter Games are staged in Pyeongchang, South Korea. A career in sports passes quickly. It’s difficult to wait.

“You don’t know when you’re going to get those opportunities again,” said Stamkos. “With the talent that Canada has, your window’s pretty limited when it comes to these things.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning captain has endured more than his share of heartache despite all of the achieving he’s done as a pro hockey player. He was named to the Sochi Olympic team two months after breaking his right leg and went through a gruelling rehab process that saw him working for up to six hours per day.

When it came time to make a decision on his status for the 2014 Games, the doctors had an opinion he didn’t want to hear.

“I thought I was ready,” said Stamkos. “The doc thought no. Tough call.”

He was so devastated that he went on a vacation to the Cayman Islands rather than tracking the tournament closely.

Over in Russia, 12 of his current World Cup teammates went on to form arguably the most dominant Team Canada ever. Stamkos did manage to watch them register the gold-medal victory over Sweden and was later presented with a championship ring by Hockey Canada.

“I didn’t expect anything,” he said of that gesture. “I was pretty stunned, to say the least. Pretty cool thing to have, obviously, but not quite the same meaning it would have had if you played in the tournament.”

The 26-year-old was among the initial 16 players selected by Team Canada for the World Cup in early March, but acknowledged feeling a sense of “here we go again” when a blood clot developed near his right collarbone soon after.

The required surgery kept him on the sidelines during another long Lightning playoff run – at least until a dramatic comeback for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in Pittsburgh. However, Tampa lost 2-1 to the eventual Stanley Cup champions and Stamkos remained on a regiment of blood-thinning medication into the summer.

Fortunately, he got clearance to participate here with plenty of time to spare.

“I’m off blood thinners now,” he explained. “I’m fully in gear ready to go. That wasn’t the case when I played the last game against (the Penguins) – we were kind of doing some different things. But I’ve been off them now and am fully healthy, excited.

“I’ve had a great summer of training.”

He also signed a $68-million, eight-year deal with the Lightning after meeting with a couple other NHL teams about potential free-agent opportunities.

Yes, it’s been an eventful few months.

There was an enthusiasm about Stamkos after a practice where he skated on a line with John Tavares and Ryan Getzlaf. He also took drills on a power-play unit that included Sidney Crosby, Tavares, Getzlaf and Drew Doughty.

“That’s like a dream come true to be on a power play with those guys,” Stamkos said.

Good things come to those who wait.

The early indications suggest that No. 91 will play a significant role with this group.

“Certainly he was someone that we wanted on that Sochi team,” said Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong. “He worked very hard to try and get back into that group, he just couldn’t do it. … I think it’s a great tournament for him to finally get to put that flag on.

“He was very close in Vancouver and then the injury (kept him out of Sochi), so it’s been a long time coming.”

No wonder he was smiling so much after being put through a tough, up-tempo practice.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said Stamkos. “I just had a blast on the ice with those guys.”

At this World Cup, he won’t be the only one.

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