The Steven Stamkos clamour got noisier on Tuesday, one day after the Twitterverse was plunged into gloom when he suddenly left a Tampa Bay Lightning practice after the most famous right leg in hockey got sore.
“I felt a lot better today,” Stamkos said after spending about 15 minutes with his teammates during their game-day skate at the Air Canada Centre before an NHL game with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “It's a process. [Monday] I took the day off, did an off-ice workout – felt a lot better today. Obviously we were smart with it, and it paid off.”
This also eased the pain of Canadian hockey fans, as did Stamkos’ pronouncement that, as long as he feels good, he will have no problem making his comeback from a broken leg at the Olympics rather than getting in a game or two with the Lightning first. Head coach Jon Cooper also said Lightning executives, including general manager Steve Yzerman, who is also running the Canadian Olympic team, would be okay with that as well.
Stamkos, 23, said the soreness that made him leave the ice Monday before the Lightning practice, a session in which he hoped to experience light contact, was nothing serious. The pain did not come from his right tibia, which he broke on Nov. 11, putting his participation in the Winter Olympics for Canada in doubt.
“The bone is really strong right now, the X-rays look really good,” he said. “It's more soft tissue stuff, stuff that over time you’re still going to have to deal with. [Monday], we just erred on the side of caution.”
But there was no definitive answer to the question that drew an unusually large media scrum to the game-day skate, even for Toronto: Would Stamkos be able to suit up Feb. 13 on Sidney Crosby’s wing when the Canadian team opens the men’s hockey tournament?
“It’s going to be on how I feel and if I feel capable of playing at that level,” Stamkos, a native of nearby Markham, Ont., said of a decision. “It’s got to feel good in practice, it’s as simple as that.”
Stamkos said he will consult Yzerman before making his decision. “If I don’t play a game and feel great heading into the tournament, that’s a discussion I’ll have to have, first off with our medical staff in Tampa and, obviously, with Steve Yzerman about both teams,” he said. “They’ve been well aware of what’s going on.”
Yzerman told ESPN.com he is “going to keep all the options open and make the appropriate decisions when the time comes.”
Just when the time will come is not certain. The Lightning’s last game before the Olympic break is Feb. 8, and the Canadian Olympic team’s first game is Feb. 13, against Norway. Stamkos is listed on the roster, but teams do not have to declare their final 25-man lineups until 24 hours before their first game. If Stamkos decides he cannot play, the leading candidates to replace him are Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis and Philadelphia Flyers centre Claude Giroux.
Cooper indicated he and Yzerman would not be surprised if Stamkos is unable to get into a game for the Lightning, yet makes his comeback at the Olympics, as long as the decision is made with Stamkos’s long-term health in mind.
“If he comes back before the Olympic break, that’s just icing on the cake for us,” the Lightning coach said. “It’s all up to [Stamkos]. As much as I want him to play in the Olympics, Steve [Yzerman] wants him in the Olympics, everybody wants him in the Olympics. The country wants him in the Olympics.
“But you’ve really got to look at the person. This is his livelihood. We have to look beyond that. Whatever happens, it’s going to be for the right reasons and not to push things [and] jeopardize his future.”
Stamkos is sure that his conditioning will not be an issue even if his first game back is against the best players in the world and on the bigger international ice surface at the Olympics.
“No, it’s the leg,” he said. “The fitness aspect of it? I’ve never had a doubt in my mind. I’ve been working on machines hard off the ice and doing some bag skates here and there.”