TORONTO — The last time Canada faced the United States with significant stakes, Steven Stamkos was on the beach in the Cayman Islands.
Stamkos, 26, a Markham, Ontario native, didn't even watch the 2014 Sochi Olympics semifinal on TV.
"I needed time and space away from everything," he said.
Stamkos, left off the 2010 Olympic team, was crushed he couldn't participate in Sochi. He went through an aggressive, grueling rehab from a broken right leg, suffered in November 2013, and felt ready. But the doctors said no. Stamkos watch the gold medal victory and was proud. The team gave him a ring.
"It was bittersweet," he said.
That's what makes this World Cup of Hockey, including tonight's showdown against the United States (8, ESPN), especially meaningful to Stamkos. Finally, Stamkos gets to wear his country's sweater in a best-on-best tournament, and in his hometown in front of family and friends.
"This was something I was really looking forward to ever since, really, the Olympic dream was over," Stamkos said. "When I was named to the team, it was something that was definitely circled on the calendar."
So when Stamkos was diagnosed with a blood clot in his collarbone in late March, it was a here-we-go-again moment. Not again. Stamkos tirelessly worked to rejoin the Lightning playoff run, skating with the team for several weeks, "just in case."
All along, this World Cup was one of his motivators.
"This is always in the back of your mind," Stamkos said.
Stamkos said there was a chance to return for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins. The hope was for the Lightning, up 3-2 in the series, to finish Pittsburgh off at home so Stamkos could come back for the Stanley Cup final. Tampa Bay lost, forcing Game 7.
"As soon as we lost Game 6, I knew I was going to try to come back," he said.
The center was cleared by his surgeon, but it was up to Stamkos to weigh the risks and make the call. Stamkos, then still on blood thinners, got 11:55 of ice time in a season-ending loss.
"You've got to make your own decision,' Stamkos said. "It was a big mental thing for me in the summer that I came back and played and felt pretty good. It was reassuring."
No longer on blood thinners, Stamkos said he feels "night and day" better on the ice now than during Game 7, thanks to a summer of training. "A little better than I thought I'd be," he said. Stamkos is mentally freed of a contract saga that ended June 29 when he re-signed with Tampa Bay for an eight-year, $68 million deal.
And Stamkos has been assured the blood clot won't re-occur. Hockey can be his only focus.
"It's kind of a clean slate," Stamkos said. "As much as you say you're not putting that pressure on yourself or not having any distractions, it was tough. But that's life, and I knew the situation I was in. It's something you go through, learn from it, it makes you stronger mentally. Definitely there's a sense of, not a fresh start, but going in there with nothing on your mind other than what you have to do to help my team win. And that's exciting."
Before the Stanley Cup, it's the World Cup. Stamkos is playing right wing alongside the Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf and the Islanders' John Tavares. They had chances in Saturday's tournament opener, Stamkos picking up an assist.
"We were kind of joking that hopefully we're saving them for the big moments," he said.
Maybe even tonight.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.