TAMPA -- The ache in his heart appeared to exceed any discomfort he might be feeling from his leg.
Steven Stamkos isn't going to the Olympics and the Tampa Bay Lightning center officially threw in the towel, reluctantly, after the morning skate Thursday. The news he was not medically cleared to play came following a CT scan Wednesday, and came out of the blue, taking Stamkos by surprise, especially because he thought he could play Thursday, even earlier than had been expected.
"It was disappointing. I was surprised," Stamkos said. "Going into the meeting I was expecting to play on Thursday, based on how I was feeling and how the previous X-rays had went. It was shocking, to be honest."
There is consolation, of course. Stamkos is 24 years old with lots of hockey ahead. But that wasn't making him feel much better Thursday.
"I wish we would have done that a little earlier so I didn't have my hopes as high as I did heading into the meeting," Stamkos said. "But again, we wanted to be sure that if I were going I wanted to be 100 percent -- we said that from Day One -- and unfortunately it wasn't."
With his Olympic hopes dashed, Stamkos began to look forward to his return to the Lightning.
"When this injury first happened it was going to be me playing in the Olympics or me having two-and-a-half weeks during the season to get this thing going and get it ready for the playoff push," Stamkos said. "So one door closes, another one opens. It gives me a chance to not miss any more games."
That is good news for Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who has kept his team together since his top player fractured his right tibia Nov. 11 in a game against the Boston Bruins.
"We had a little bit of a pity party with our team when it happened, but we circled the calendar and I sat there and counted 41 games," Cooper said. "Exactly half of the season. Game 41 will be Saturday night against Detroit. Pretty much we said we're planning for him not to be here. It was what we thought would be the reality, and unfortunately for him and us, it turned out to be true."
Cooper had high praise for how Stamkos has taken the disappointing news.
"He's definitely OK because I gave him complete option not to be on the ice and he wanted to be out there with his team," Cooper said. "He didn't shy away from any of this; he's accepted what has happened. He's disappointed, but there is no classier kid. His leadership and his character have come spilling out in the last 24 hours. He understands that this is a big blow to a dream of his, but he's not letting that get in the way for his comeback to play for us this year, so it's pretty impressive."
In light of all the diligent work Stamkos had done to try to be ready, Cooper did have a suggestion for him during the upcoming Olympic break.
"Now it's relax the mind; you've worked your tail off for three months to get to this spot and you've got three more weeks to recuperate," Cooper said. "Let's go from there. That'll be good for his mental health. To go somewhere, jump on an island and sip on Mai-Tai's for a week and gather your thoughts. That's what he needs to do."
But that is far from what Stamkos plans. In fact, he may not even watch any of the Olympic action.
"I'm sure I will find myself peeking here and there," Stamkos said. "If the game is on and I'm free I probably will be watching, but I'm not going to miss workout stuff or rehabs to watch the games. I will probably sneak in a few games here and there."
Stamkos keeps reminding himself that what happened is a disappointment, not a total loss.
"It's not a setback," Stamkos said. "If I were sitting here not able to skate or work out for the next two weeks, then that would be a setback, but the doctors want me to keep pushing it and keep going even harder than I have been. It wasn't all bad news. There is still a lot of progression. I'm not sitting here pouting and not skating or working out because I didn't get the chance to play for the Olympics. Of course it is a tough situation for me to swallow, but I got to work even harder now.
"At the end of the day I said I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror one way or the other and say I did everything I could to give myself a chance. I don't think you can put into words the feelings that I've gone through the past 24 hours, but I can honestly sit here and say that we as an organization did everything possible to give myself a chance, and the fact that we're here talking about this, being so close, it's not quite a consolation but at least I can look myself in the mirror."
Ultimately, it was the medical team's decision to end, at least for now, what Stamkos said had been a dream of his since he was a child. If it weren't the doctors' call, it is clear what might have happened.
"I think if the decision was put in his hands we all know what he would have done," Cooper said. "I feel for him."
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