Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos bouncing back strong

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TAMPA

In the dark days following the gruesome injury that just about snapped his right tibia in two, Lightning star Steven Stamkos felt it all.

Pain. Frustration. Helplessness. Anger.

But one emotion pretty much summed it up.

"Miserable," Stamkos said.

It was pure agony just to go to the restroom, or get a drink from the kitchen. Just sitting up took all his might.

"I couldn't even lift my own leg off the bed," Stamkos said. "It just felt like my leg was dead. And there was a lot of pain."

Forget hockey. Stamkos only wished to feel normal again.

But slowly and miserably, the days passed, and here he was Monday — exactly two weeks from when he crashed into the goal post in Boston and broke his leg — incredibly walking without the aid of a crutch, cane or walking boot. And, believe it or not, he's talking about playing hockey again. This season.

"That's the goal and, hopefully, that's the reality when it's all said and done," Stamkos said in his first public comments since the injury.

A return this season seems miraculous. Two weeks ago today, doctors hammered a steel rod into his lower leg and secured it into place with screws.

Yet, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said Monday: "I think there's a very good chance you'll see him this season. I'm expecting that. I don't know exactly when, but I'm expecting him back."

The initial prognosis was Stamkos would miss three to six months, but Yzerman said, "Barring any unforeseen setbacks, I think it's reasonable to say he could be on the earlier side of that."

Hard to believe when you think back to that Monday afternoon in Boston.

Stamkos remembers every detail. He remembers back-checking toward his own goal. He remembers Boston's Dougie Hamilton giving him a little shove just as they approached the net. He remembers thinking "Uh-oh" as he sped toward the post with no way to stop.

And after the crash, after Stamkos tried to skate and actually felt the bone moving inside his skin, he crumbled to the ice and began pounding it with his fist.

Not because of the pain of breaking his leg, but because he knew what a broken leg meant.

Stamkos was leading the NHL in scoring. The Lightning was in first place. He was a lock to play in the upcoming Olympics for his native Canada.

All of it felt crushed like dust.

"I remember, especially being on the stretcher, all of that kind of going through my head," Stamkos said. "It's tough. You know that something is wrong and you're going to miss an extended period of time."

Even before surgery, Stamkos said he pinched himself, hoping it would wake him up from his worst nightmare. A day after surgery, Stamkos tried to stand. Still woozy from the medication and yet still in excruciating pain, Stamkos said he thought: "I just want to climb back into bed and there's no way I'll be walking anytime soon."

But after a few days of feeling that misery and watching replays of the injury over and over, Stamkos set his sights on his recovery.

"I think I surprised myself with how positive and upbeat I've tried to be," Stamkos said.

He has received plenty of support. Lightning fans gave him a rousing ovation when he walked onto the ice during Monday's pregame ceremonies celebrating Marty St. Louis' 1,000th NHL game. Teammates, friends and family, of course, have reached out to Stamkos. But it was the reaction from all of hockey that shows just how respected he is.

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara sent Stamkos a text on behalf of the Boston players, wishing him a speedy recovery. Bruins coach Claude Julien visited Stamkos in the hospital.

"I thought that was pretty classy," Stamkos said.

So now what?

Under the care of the Lightning medical team, Stamkos has begun daily rehabilitation.

For as exciting as this all sounds, the truth is Stamkos remains a long way from playing. Yes, he was walking Monday, but he was doing so with a heavy limp. It's still hard to picture him skating with a 230-pound defenseman leaning on him.

Yzerman, also the GM of the Canadian Olympic team, said the Lightning will not rush Stamkos back. The overall health of the 23-year-old is the priority, not the Lightning season and certainly not the Olympics.

Coach Jon Cooper said the Lightning's best plan is to act as if Stamkos is not coming back until he does come back.

Obviously, the Lightning needs him. Cooper thinks his absence costs the Lightning a goal a game. Let's be real: the Lightning is a postseason longshot without him.

That Monday two weeks ago was the worst day of the season for the Lightning. The best day will be the one when Stamkos returns … if he returns.

Monday? That was a good day.

Steps in the right direction.

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