TAMPA -- Steven Stamkos walked into the media room in the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Monday, and he did it without crutches, without a cast or a walking boot and with only a barely perceptible limp.
It was the sort of progress from a broken right tibia sustained less than two weeks ago that few expected, even Stamkos.
"The thing that shocked me the most was, you think of a broken leg and most people are in a cast for 6-8 weeks," Stamkos said. "For this specific injury, because it did break almost in half, it allowed them to put a rod in there. With the rod there it's almost full strength. The bone just has to heal. It hasn't even been two weeks and I've been walking on it without any support for the last two days."
The recovery seems swift, even for someone in Stamkos' physical condition, but there were some difficult days.
"The initial four days were pretty miserable," Stamkos said. "I couldn't even lift my leg off the bed. It just felt like my leg was dead. There was a lot of pain and even trying to travel back and get on the plane was an unbelievable challenge for me.
"It's amazing how much you take for granted doing the little things in life: getting up, going to the fridge, getting up to go to the washroom or just sitting up. I couldn't do any of that, and that really puts things in perspective. In the course of a week, to be able to do what I'm doing now and being able to move around on my own, I'd say I've overcome the initial shock and frustration and disappointment, and now it's all about what do I have to do to get back as quick as possible."
But don't look for Stamkos to return to the ice anytime soon. Although he is up and walking, he is just at the beginning point of a protracted rehabilitation, and he won't be rushing it.
"The outlook? I don't know," Stamkos said. "I've never really had an injury like this. In regards to the time frame, I couldn't really give you anything. I'd like to think that being able to walk in two weeks without crutches or a walking boot is a good sign. I've started rehab. I'm starting to do certain movements and exercises that, if you had asked me the day after the surgery, I didn't think I'd be able to do at this time."
For Stamkos, the injury is really the first of any kind he has endured in his career.
"I never missed a game in juniors," he said. "I broke my foot my last year in junior hockey, but I played through it. I'd have to go back to maybe when I was 8 or 9 years old and missed a game for something. It's tough not having been in that situation before and never having to miss a game due to injuries."
If it is difficult for Stamkos to sit out, it is equally trying for the Lightning to be without him. They lost four straight games during a recent road trip.
"It's been tough watching the team on the West Coast road swing," Stamkos said. "For me, I've never been in this situation. That's been the hardest part, to sit there knowing you can't do anything to help your team win, especially when they are going through a tough time like they are right now."
"At the time, I remember thinking that he did give me a shove and it was kind of a dangerous area, but the more you look at it the more you realize that it is a hockey play," Stamkos said. "There is physical contact in those areas. Was there a little shove? I believe there was. Was it intentional? No.
"I've watched the play several times. Watching it doesn't bug me. I wanted to see exactly what happened. It happened so fast. I knew I hit my leg on the post, but I didn't know exactly where or what position I was in when it happened, so to be able to watch it and see the leg snap back a little bit, it made it pretty clear what happened.
"It was just a routine play, just a backcheck. There probably wasn't any intentional contact, but there was contact and I just lost my footing. Those are areas that when you go down it's kind of an uh-oh moment and you can't really do anything to protect yourself. I went sliding into the post pretty hard and knew something was wrong but didn't really know until I tried to stand up and skate back to the bench. Then, I could actually feel the bone move. That's when I knew that something was wrong."
Anyone who has seen the play in which he was injured and the immediate aftermath will recall Stamkos pounding the ice in what appeared to be excruciating pain, but he said at the moment, it was more frustration than pain driving him.
"At the time I didn't know it was broken, but I had a pretty good idea," Stamkos said. "The way the season was going for the team and me personally, things were pretty good, almost too good to be true. It's like the old saying that something is bound to happen. I remember especially being on the stretcher, leaving the ice, all that was going through my head. The Olympics, that's something that went through my head as well.
"The Olympics are something I was looking forward to taking part in. It's still on the back burner right now, but my focus is to get to a place where I can get healthy and get back on the ice. That's the short-term goal right now. I want to get back and play for Tampa, and if everything works out, which I'm hoping that it does, maybe I'll get a chance to play in the Olympics. That would be great. We're not going to rush anything or take chances because of that."
"I thought that was pretty classy," Stamkos said.
Julien, who will be an associate coach for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, just wanted to wish Stamkos the best.
"Well, because I knew him and I had him at the Olympic Camp and I got to know Steve the person," Julien said Monday. "And when you look at what he is in the League and what he's accomplished, to have that happen to him, I thought it was just important to go by and see how he was doing. It was as simple as that.
"Again, it's a guy -- I said that after the game -- he's one of those players that people from all the different cities come up to watch and play and he's one of the reasons we fill buildings, and you hate to see that, from anybody's point of view, to see a guy like that get injured that way. So I stopped by, and he certainly feels like he wants that opportunity to represent his country and he's going to do everything he can, and I just went there and kind of showed my support."
So for now, Stamkos sits and watches. It's a position he is most unaccustomed to, but one he has no choice but to endure. But while he watches, Stamkos keeps the faith.
"I definitely think our team is good enough to make the playoffs no matter what," he said. "We have the guys that are capable of that. I think, whether I'm in the lineup or not, that this team can win."
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