More than a month into recovery from surgery to repair a fractured right tibia, Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos has surprised himself by how upbeat and energetic he has been since overcoming the initial shock of the first major injury in his NHL career.
"Initially, I thought I'd be a lot more down and frustrated and asking, 'Why me? Why at this time? Why this year, with it being an Olympic year and with our team getting off to a good start?'" Stamkos told NHL.com. "But I've been pretty positive and excited to come to the rink, to work hard, to work my way back onto the ice."
Stamkos is getting closer, even though he admits he's taking only baby steps each day and sometimes those are hard to quantify.
"But those baby steps are toward a goal," Stamkos said. "Now it's about grinding it out."
Stamkos slid hard into the goal post and broke his tibia in a game at TD Garden against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 11. He remembers every detail of the play, from the initial contact with Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton, to the helpless feeling he had when he was sliding legs-first into the cage, to the pain, and finally to the feeling he got when he first tried to stand up.
"When I tried to get up and take a step to the bench I felt the bone move and that's when I went down the second time, that's when I knew for sure that it was broken," said Stamkos, who had surgery Nov. 12 in Boston. "I definitely felt the bone slide and I knew I was in trouble."
The injury stopped Stamkos from having what could have been an MVP season. He had 14 goals in the first 17 games.
The injury stopped the Lightning from building on a strong start. They were 12-5-0 with Stamkos in the lineup; they are 6-5-3 since he's been out.
The injury also may have ruined Stamkos' dream of representing Canada in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, though this one is still to be determined.
Canada is expected to name its initial roster for Sochi on Jan. 7. There's a good chance Stamkos will be on it because it keeps open the option he'll be able to play there.
Stamkos will officially have until Feb. 11, the day before the Olympic tournament begins, to prove to Canada's executives he should stay on the roster. However, that decision likely will be made by Canada executive director Steve Yzerman before the players travel to Russia on Feb. 9, and there's no way of knowing if Stamkos will even be back playing by then.
Yzerman is also the general manager of Tampa Bay.
"Anything you can use as motivation you try to use it, especially an event like that," Stamkos said of the Olympics. "That's something you dream of as a kid, participating in that. I don't think it changes drastically, though. I want to get back as soon as I can where I know I'm 100 percent healthy and I'm not going to be a liability to the team. I want to get back to help the Tampa Bay Lightning win games."
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said he thinks Stamkos is already doing that. Stamkos attends every home game and practice, and joined the team on the road for the first time in Newark, N.J., for its game Saturday against the New Jersey Devils. He also went on the ice in a track suit to do some stickhandling drills just 33 days after the injury.
"He's with us every day at home now and you can just see guys gravitate toward him," Cooper said. "You never really appreciate them until you lose them, right? Wow, what an impact he has on our team. It's remarkable. He is a leader. That kid is going to end up being a captain one day. I don't know if I truly knew that before [the injury]. That guy has got leadership just spewing out of him. It's pretty cool."
Stamkos said it was difficult to watch the Lightning go winless (0-3-1) on their four-game road trip out west last month, so it's a priority for him to be there for his teammates when he can be. With 13 players on the roster who have appeared in fewer than 100 NHL games, he said he can contribute in ways other than scoring goals.
"A conversation can help. A laugh can help," Stamkos said. "When we're home it's great to come to the rink. I get in early and do my stuff, but then it's great to see the guys, go out and watch practice. Those guys are your brothers, you see them every day, and you want to be a part of everything even when you're not playing."
Cooper said he continues to be amazed at how Stamkos interacts with the inexperienced players on the Lightning. He moved his locker stall prior to the season so he could sit closer to second-year forward Alex Killorn and rookies Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik.
Stamkos said it was Cooper's idea for him to relocate in the room. Cooper said Stamkos immediately said yes.
"You think about Steven Stamkos, he's a '90," Cooper said, referring to Stamkos' birth year. "Tyler Johnson is a '90. Palat and Panik are '91s. Killorn is an '89. Stamkos has become so good and so powerful that everybody goes to him but everybody forgets he's their age or younger. It's a pretty good sign of your leadership ability when you transcend your age."
It's also a sign of Stamkos' attitude that he has been able to remain a leader for the Lightning in spite of his injury.
Sure, he's frustrated. He'd absolutely rather be playing. It stinks that he's not. But no matter what kind of attitude Stamkos has, the bone in his right leg won't heal any faster, so why not at least maintain a sense of optimism with an eye on the future?
"You do have to realize that it's going to be a long process and you just have to come to terms with that," Stamkos said. "There's just nothing we can do about it now except have that positive outlook."