In the end, it was as good a consolation prize as Steven Stamkos could have hoped for.
Martin St. Louis, his close friend and teammate with the Tampa Bay Lightning, will be getting his spot on the Canadian Olympic team, and the chance to prove those who left him off it in the first place wrong.
“I’m very excited for Marty,” Stamkos said. “He probably deserved to be on that team from Day 1.”
Stamkos was stunned only 24 hours earlier, when the results of a CT scan by team doctors showed his broken leg hadn’t fully healed, ruling him out of not only the Lightning’s final two NHL games before the Winter Games break but his first Olympic participation entirely.
Given the way he had been skating and training, he believed there was a good chance he would be in the lineup against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.
The surprise diagnosis quickly put Canadian men’s team executive director and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman in a difficult situation, as he would have to potentially snub the captain of his NHL team twice in short order had St. Louis not been the choice.
As it worked out, there was a happy ending of sorts, even if St. Louis wasn’t particularly jumping for joy. The NHL’s leading scorer last season, he admitted to some bitterness after being left off the team when it was initially named on Jan. 7.
Viewed as undersized, and undrafted at the start of his pro career, he noted he has long been an underdog in the sport and likened how he was named to the Olympic team for the second time to going through the “back door.”
“It was tough to be left off of it, and I was trying to move past it,” St. Louis said. “I’m just happy I’m getting the opportunity.
“I feel my whole career, I came in this league kind of a back-door entrance. And this is kind of the same way. So I’m going to go there and bring what I can bring. Do the things that I’ve been doing in this league.”
His 10 minutes with the media Thursday were a good portrait of who Martin St. Louis is. Part of what’s made him so successful, at 5-foot-8 and now 38, is his fiery, intense personality – and that’s what Canada will try to tap wherever it inserts him into the lineup.
But that also made for a trying situation for Yzerman, who had to balance what the Canadian coaching staff and other executives wanted with his own personal situation in Tampa, where St. Louis has become an icon, winning a Stanley Cup in 2004.
St. Louis responded to the initial snub with a huge run, scoring eight goals and adding eight assists in his next 14 games to make the Canadian committee’s decision that much easier.
“Everyone that knows me, they know I’m a pretty emotional guy,” said St. Louis, who was part of Canada’s disastrous seventh-place finish in Turin in 2006, and noted Sochi would be even more special, given his kids can now watch him play. “There’s been a lot of that the past month.”
“I don’t think anyone would question Marty,” Stamkos said. “The character that he has, the way he has played in big games in the past. … I think he’s going to play a big role in Canada doing very well.”
Where St. Louis fits in exactly will take the next week to sort out. Stamkos had been expected to slot in alongside captain Sidney Crosby on a dynamic first line, with the Lightning star’s world-class shooting skills the perfect complement to Crosby’s playmaking.
Minus those contributions, someone like Jeff Carter could get that assignment, meaning St. Louis would fill a right wing hole further down the lineup.
In 2006, he finished tied for second in scoring on Canada with three points in six games, and his 14 shots on goal were one of the highest marks on the team.
St. Louis is also much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and unlike Stamkos, is highly unlikely to get another Olympic opportunity, even if the NHL decides to send its players to the 2018 Games in South Korea.
But Stamkos, who is still only 24, hasn’t yet allowed himself to think that far ahead. He gave an uncertain answer when asked if he’ll even watch Canada’s games in Sochi but added that he will try to take comfort in knowing he did all he could to attempt to heal in time.
In hindsight, he admitted that was always going to be a tough proposition, what with how bad the break was and the three month window between the injury and the opening of the Games.
Despite the bad news, Stamkos revealed that he actually never suffered any setbacks and remains on (or even slightly ahead of) schedule in his recovery.
Not that that has cushioned the blow any.
“I don’t think you can put into words the feelings that I’ve gone through the past 24 hours,” Stamkos said. “This has obviously been a dream of mine since I was a kid.”
St. Louis will try to use the fact he is replacing his friend and teammate as added motivation. He knows what going would have meant to Stamkos and also what a significant hole his absence leaves on the team.
“I feel terrible for Stammer that he’s in that situation,” St. Louis said. “Canada’s going to miss him. I think if you asked Stammer, if anybody could replace him, I know he would want me. So I’m going to go there and do the best I can.”
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