Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

For Lightning's sake, Stamkos should pass on Team Canada

I like Canada. Even the bacon.

I like the Olympics. Especially the anthems.

I like all-star hockey. Flags and all.

To be honest, however, I do not give a ding-dong darn about Canada's Olympic hockey team. Given the greater good that is the future of the Tampa Bay Lightning, I assume that feeling is widespread.

And so you look as the grinning kid in the red jersey moves across the ice. You watch his wheels, just to see if he falters a bit. You watch his stick, just to see if it has the old magic. You watch his eyes, which seem to focus all the way to Sochi.

At this point, part of you wants to caution Steven Stamkos to slow it down a little bit.

You know, just to be sure.

On Thursday morning, Stamkos went through his first full morning skate with his Lightning teammates. It had been 66 days since he fractured his tibia, 31 games since he was in the team's lineup. And, already, Stamkos was going through drills. Soon, he will return, and soon after, there is a spot on the Canadian Olympic team waiting.

Stamkos wants to play. Of course he wants to play. He is a competitor, for goodness' sake. He has been gone far too long from his sport. He loves his country. If you know Stamkos a little bit, you know how hungry he is for these Games.

On the other hand, the Lightning is battling for first place, and in the days to come, it will need Stamkos badly. Doesn't it make more sense for Stamkos to sit the Olympics out, to make his leg stronger for the stretch run?

Could Stamkos play in the Olympics? Perhaps.

Should he play? That's a harder question.

Can anyone honestly say that Stamkos isn't risking an injury — this one or another one — by returning to the ice after so long a layover? Patriotism is one thing, but professionalism is another.

For the record, Stamkos swears he will not play if he feels it is a risk. There is too much career ahead for that.

"No, that's one of the things we're able to track by getting an X-ray every two weeks,'' Stamkos said. "For instance, a couple of weeks ago, the leg wasn't feeling that great. I didn't skate. It's just a rest day and you hope it feels better the next day. It's a long process. There are going to be ups and downs, days when it feels sore and days it feels great. You just have to monitor that.

"I've said from the beginning. First, there has to be clearance (before playing in the Olympics). And second, I have to feel 100 percent. That's where the doctors come in and be the arbitrator. They know what the bone needs to look like. Until it's 100 percent, they're not going to clear me.''

On the other hand, Stamkos, 23, is a hockey player, and no athlete swallows more pain than those guys. Could Stamkos' own competitiveness override common sense?

"The most important thing is my long-term health,'' Stamkos said. "That's the way I'm looking at it. If I can get back to 100 percent and go over there and play, it's icing on the cake. If not, I have another 2½ weeks to prepare me for the season. If I'm not 100 percent, I could look at myself and say, 'I did everything I could do.' ''

It seems amazing that Stamkos has bounced back so quickly. His original prognosis, remember, was 3-6 months. Yet, there he was, barely more than two months since his injury, skating around the arena. It is safe to say he looked as if he had skated before.

At one point, Stamkos jumped into a two-on-one drill … and passed the puck. When he moved back to the middle, coach Jon Cooper leaned over to him and said, "I hope you're not coming back as an assist guy. We've got enough of those guys.''

Cooper grinned. Stamkos grinned.

Yeah, this team misses him. The season the Lightning has gone on to have without him has been remarkable, of course. But for it to end in a storybook manner, it will need that gifted stick of his.

So why risk all of that for a big game against Slovakia?

Or, for that matter, Slovenia?

Why? Because hockey players play hockey, that's why. It doesn't matter if blood is pouring down their faces or if there are fresh scars on their foreheads. You might as well question why sharks bite.

For Stamkos, the grand plan is to play a couple of games for the Lightning before the Olympic break. That means he would have to be on the ice by Feb. 6, which works out to three weeks from Thursday's skate. In other words, Stamkos is in a bit of a hurry.

"The one thing that's gone on this whole time is we've never put him in a situation where he can get hurt worse,'' Cooper said. "When you see him out there, this has been totally medically cleared. Barring he's going to skate down the ice and try to reenact what he did and slide himself into the post, he's going to be okay.

"To tell you the truth, the bum leg is probably less bum than the other one. He's got a rod in there, so what we're waiting for is the bone to heal around. Once that's done, I think it's going to be the mental hurdle of knowing he can go into a corner and he's going to come out okay.''

There are times when Stamkos is moving around the ice that 20 days doesn't seem like much of an obstacle. The guy heals on fast-forward. Then there are other times that remind you how fresh this wound is.

"There is still pain, still hesitation in certain movements,'' Stamkos said. "Crossovers and turns, anything that puts more torque on the leg, But it's definitely improved. Even compared to 1½, two weeks ago, it's improved.''

And so the kid skates on, his still-healing leg beneath him. Pain, he can handle. Soreness, he can deal with.

Absence? That's harder.

So yeah, the easy thing is to argue that Stamkos should skip the Olympics.

First, however, someone needs to hide his passport.

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