You can hear it in Steven Stamkos’s voice, how the Sochi Olympics broke his heart.
How he spent a couple of months in gruelling rehab, four or five or sometimes six hours a day, desperately trying to rehabilitate a badly broken leg in time to skate for Canada in what would have been his first best-on-best tournament. Only to have doctors pull the plug on his comeback at the last minute, a week before the Winter Games.
Two-and-a-half years later, he still calls the experience “crushing.”
“It was just so much mental and physical energy kind of wiped from me,” Stamkos said on Monday after practice as Team Canada prepared to face the United States in Tuesday’s pivotal second game at the World Cup of Hockey. “I needed some space.”
At the urging of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s training staff, the team’s captain disappeared to the tropics and tried to forget about hockey during the NHL’s 2014 Olympic hiatus. Stamkos wasn’t even watching when Canada played the United States in the semi-final at Sochi – despite the fact he had a championship ring on the line, if the Canadians went on to win gold.
He couldn’t handle it.
On Tuesday, Stamkos will be playing in the first meaningful U.S.-Canada rematch since then, a game that could eliminate the Americans just two games into the tournament. He will skate with Ryan Getzlaf as his centre and John Tavares on the opposite wing, an integral weapon on what is likely one of the best hockey teams ever assembled.
It will be a game – and a tournament – that likely means more to Stamkos than any of the other 183 players involved; he was snubbed in 2010 for the Vancouver Games, and then was injured four years later.
Eight years after he entered the NHL, this is the first chance for the best Canadian goal scorer of his generation to compete at this level. And he gets to do it at home – a short drive from friends and family, whom he visits in suburban Markham after every practice and game.
“It was special,” Stamkos said of Canada’s 6-0 win over the Czech Republic on the weekend; in 16 minutes of playing time, he had an assist and several chances to score. “Just even playing in that rink, with that jersey on, it felt completely different than going in as a visitor [with the Lightning]. It was a much better feeling, that was for sure. And to see the emotion from the fans. Hopefully it just keeps growing and gets bigger and better as the tournament goes along.”
Stamkos has had a tough road, from Sochi to here. There was more heartbreak on the ice when the Lightning lost in the 2015 Stanley Cup final in six games. Then he suffered another major health scare when a blood clot was discovered near his collarbone in April, cutting short last season.
Again, he pushed to get back, his work paying off when he was able to appear in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. But, again, it ended in disappointment, when the Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the Lightning and went on to win the Cup.
All the while, Stamkos’s contract status was headline news, a season-long distraction that was finally resolved two days before free agency opened when he re-signed on an eight-year deal. Finally, he felt like he could breathe again – and look forward to playing hockey.
Strangely enough, his return would come in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs had been one of the contenders for his services.
Finally, too, he would play in a best-on-best tournament, something he had circled on his calendar as soon as it was announced.
Coach Mike Babcock said Monday he is glad to finally have him.
“He likes hockey,” Babcock said. “That’s the thing I’m amazed at when you’re around these guys. It’s so energizing because they love the game so much. They’re so dedicated. … They’re all in, every day, trying to get better. That’s why they’re great. Everyone says it’s skill – and it is – but it’s their drive train. It’s their will to get better.”
“Stammer works so hard,” Getzlaf added, explaining his appreciation for his linemate being far more than just a finisher. “He gets in the corners. He does the dirty work, too.”
This edition of Team Canada is unique in part because of how often these players have already won at these high-profile events. Eight members of this roster were on the team that took gold in Vancouver. More than half won in Sochi. That was a bigger stage, and it would be natural for this to be a comedown.
Stamkos, meanwhile, has 31 more goals than any other Canadian player the past five seasons, but only one gold medal internationally – at the 2008 world junior championship – and one world championship silver in three appearances. It’s stories like his that are helping motivate the Canadians to win again this time around.
“I’ve worked extremely hard,” Stamkos said. “I think it’s paying off. I feel really good. … It’s definitely nice to know that I can get back to feeling that way.”Report Typo/Error