It was an ugly moment for Steven Stamkos back on Nov. 11 when he crashed into a heavy iron goalpost during a game against the Boston Bruins.
The image of the 23-year-old desperately trying to get back up on his skates only to quickly crumple back onto the ice in agony, banging his gloved fist on the ice several times as he awaited medical help, was a frightening sight for hockey fans across Canada.
The star centre for the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a broken right shinbone, and with only three months to go before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, it appeared his dream of representing Canada was also shattered.
But Stamkos never lost hope, and thanks to an astonishingly fast rate of recuperation, he forced the hands of the decision-makers in charge of putting together the team that will try to defend Canada's Olympic gold medal in men's hockey. Although Stamkos has only recently resumed skating, his name was among the 25 selected to represent Canada when play in the Olympic tournament begins on Feb. 13.
It is still not a given that Stamkos will have recovered enough to be able to participate. But it is a testament to his reputation as the best pure goal scorer in the National Hockey League that team officials are willing to wait and see if he will be able to play in another month.
Steve Yzerman, executive director of Canada's men's Olympic team and also the general manager of the Lightning, has been able to keep close tabs on the recovery of his star player.
The Lightning concluded a road trip through Western Canada in Winnipeg with a game against the Jets on Tuesday.
The Lightning will then return to Florida where Stamkos will have another X-ray to see how the healing process is continuing exactly two months after the injury.
"All I can tell you is his rehab and recovery are going very well," Yzerman said. "The doctors are pleased with how he looks in X-rays. I think every day people see updates in his skating and whatnot. He's pushing himself extremely hard."
"We'll see how this X-ray goes. He'll continue to work and we'll wait and we'll make that decision [if Stamkos will be able to play for Canada] when we get closer to the Olympics."
Stamkos, of course, is delighted by the news.
"You're on the team right now," Stamkos was quoted as saying by NHL.com after participating in the Lightning's optional morning skate before their game against the Jets. "That really doesn't mean anything if I can't get back and play."This is a dream come true to be named to the team," Stamkos was quoted as saying by NHL.com, "but I still have hard work ahead of me in order to make sure I can play."
Stamkos said the goal now is not to get too excited and push his recovery too fast.
"You can deal with pain," he said. "I think it's, mentally, not trying to push it too hard. Your body is pretty good at letting you know which movements you can and can't try. It's all about not having a setback right now. Could I go out and there and push myself and be able to do some things? Probably, but I don't want that setback. You want to push yourself, you want to go out there, but at the same time you have to be smart."
Having Stamkos in the Olympic lineup would be a big boost for Canada's medal hopes. Twice during his six seasons in the NHL he has led the league in goal scoring, and was off to a strong start this year with 14 goals in his first 17 games when he got injured.
If it is determined that Stamkos is not ready to play in the Olympics, Canada will be allowed to add an additional player before it departs for Russia.
Yzerman said it was a gruelling process having to select 25 names to the team from a Canadian talent pool he said is deeper than it has ever been. He and his management team that included senior NHL executives Doug Armstrong (St. Louis Blues), Peter Chiarelli (Boston), Kevin Lowe (Edmonton Oilers) and Ken Holland (Detroit) made the selections after several months of evaluation.
"I can assure you nobody in Canada has watched more hockey, has discussed the Canadian and NHL players more in-depth and thoroughly, than this group of gentlemen here," Yzerman said.
Even still, Yzerman said it took one more long meeting that dragged into the early morning hours of Tuesday before the list was finalized. "We met in the afternoon, we went for supper, we went back to make sure that we felt really good about all the decisions that we made, because they're incredibly difficult decisions," Holland said.
Chiralli said at times it felt like walking in quicksand when trying to choose one player over another.
"You end up over-evaluating players and you've got to be wary of that," he said. "The difficult decisions we made for the 25 players on this team, we're happy with that. You can go to bed at night and you can feel good about it."