The experience was completely new and equally unwelcome for Steven Stamkos. Incredibly injury-free during his career as a junior hockey player and his first six seasons as a two-time National Hockey League scoring champion with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Stamkos had never missed a game due to injury.
Then came November 11, and a collision with the goal at TD Garden in Boston. After crashing hard into the right post, the 23-year-old sustained a displaced fracture of his right tibia, the main bone of the lower leg. His distress was evident after attempting and failing to bear weight, then clutching at the elbow of head athletic trainer Tom Mulligan as he lay prostrate on the ice.
In a hospital bed in Boston, in pain, leg immobilized after surgery to insert a stabilizing titanium rod, Stamkos lamented his misfortune and the inevitably long process of returning to his status as one of the top players in the NHL, but not for long, there was much to do.
“I surprised myself with how positive I tried to stay,” Stamkos said. “The initial shock of the first three, four days, when you’re still lying in a hospital bed are pretty tough. You wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, but when you put things in perspective, they could be a lot worse than that.
“The first few days are really tough, when you can’t really do anything. There’s a lot of pain and you don’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel, but after that week period, when you start getting around the guys and being able to see improvements in it, it’s pretty drastic.”
The Road to Recovery
Drastic comes at a price and Stamkos, Mulligan and assistant athletic trainer Mike Poirier have been paying it since the immediate hours of the Stamkos’ post-operative period. Poirier remained with Stamkos in Boston as the Lightning pushed on to Montreal and has been an integral part of planning his rehabilitation program since.
Repetition equals progress. Lack of pain equals success and the quick transformation from a bed-ridden patient to a rehabilitating athlete was both mentally and physically empowering, Stamkos said. The rebuilding of one of the NHL’s top players began in earnest. Within days of surgery, Mulligan said, the Lightning’s immediate concern when Stamkos returned to Tampa was reducing swelling around the surgical site, then maintaining a range of motion on the right ankle and knee.
“We wanted to start working muscles around [the injury], the quad and the hips. You don’t want any atrophy, you don’t want to lose size in the muscle,” Mulligan said. “So right away you begin. Ankle pumps to keep the blood moving. You don’t want him developing a clot in the lower leg. From day one, post-surgery, we get him going.”
Crucial in the process, Mulligan said, was maintaining the strength Stamkos possessed in his legs and establishing a baseline to push him back into peak physical health for a return to the lineup sometime, hopefully, in February. Stamkos had produced 14 goals and 23 points in 17 games to lead the Eastern Conference before the injury.
The Olympic Dream
The timing of Stamkos’ attempted comeback became a source of conjecture soon after the injury. Stamkos’ speculation after the injury led to speculation he would return for a February 6 home game against Toronto, partly because that would allow him time to play two NHL games before joining Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics. Already embroiled in their daily routine of aquatic treadmilling and weight training, Stamkos and Mulligan said they were amused by an oft-repeated internet meme which made February 6 a hard deadline for his return.
“That’s been floated out there,” Mulligan said. “To be honest, when it was reported, we saw that and the two of us looked at each other and said, “Did you say that?”
“No. Did you?”
“I think a big part of it is people speculating on the Olympics.”
Though Stamkos said neither he nor Mulligan have targeted specific dates, and that pain management and X-ray results are the greatest determiners of a return, setting goals is an important part of pushing through what can be a monotonous process of recovery. The idea of returning on February 6, he said, is therefore extremely valuable.
“To do that and go to the Olympics to play, that’s the goal for sure,” Stamkos said. “That’s something you have to set in your mind and kind of work as hard as you can to reach toward, because I think the earlier I can come back, the better.
“Obviously, I am not going to come back if I am not 100 percent, but if I get the clearance at the end of January, then great. If it’s the beginning of February and that February 6 date, great, also. I want to come back as quick as possible, but at the same time be smart with this and make sure I am 100 percent.”
Stamkos said that although representing Canada in Russia remains a childhood dream, his prime goal is to return as a key part of a Lightning squad that has struggled to score goals and remain competitive in the Atlantic Division without one of the top scoring threats in the league.
“The focus is your long-term health and what you have to do to help Tampa win hockey games,” he said. “Definitely not going to rush it, but you do have to have a goal to work toward.”
Goals are crucial in what can be a monotonous process. While his teammate play through the more familiar daily routine of morning skates, conditioning and games as an outlet, Stamkos has worked through five-to-six hour days of conditioning.
“As hockey players, you are pretty routine-oriented and now it’s starting a new one and getting adjusted to that so it does come easy,” Stamkos said. “I think now it’s definitely longer days. The level of work we’re at, it’s probably four, five, six hours, actually working out or treatment.”
With successful shifts, goals and assists no longer an instant barometer of success, weight loads and set counts have become benchmarks for daily progress.
“We mix it up,” Stamkos said. “I think our trainers do a great job making sure it isn’t the same stuff, because it gets repetitive. Your body gets used to that as well. It’s about mixing the workouts up, even in the pool. They do a great job making sure it just doesn’t become a habit.”
Stamkos walked with a medical boot within two weeks of the injury and was lightly skating on the Tampa Bay Times Forum ice by mid-December as he shot pucks against the boards to main the sharpness of his stickwork. Attempting to find the difficult balance between haste to return and patience not to over-exert himself, Stamkos return pace has been dictated largely by his level of pain with increasingly strenuous exercises and the results of twice-monthly X-rays.
“You don’t want him to have any increase in pain with anything we do, so that’s the primary thing,” Mulligan said. “Number two, you want to maintain the alignment and the X-Ray will show there is no abnormality in the bone. That’s why you have constant X-Rays on that. You want to actually see the bone filling in and taking place and that will give you a guide that you can do a little bit more and be a little more aggressive.”
Stamkos is self-complimentary when discussing the patience he has exhibited during the long rehabilitation process. But his hand begins twisting the end of a mesh bag slung over his shoulder in the Lightning locker room when he recounts the length process. There is a sense that patience has been learned through monotonous repetition, too.
“I think I’ve gotten over that point where you are impatient,” he said. “At the beginning, for sure, it’s tough, it’s frustrating. You know you are going to be out for a prolonged period of time and sometimes mentally that is the tougher part to really come to terms with, but I think now it’s about seeing those goals and those hidden improvements, whether it’s week-to-week or month-to-month.”
And soon, he hopes, goals on the scoreboard.
Note: Stamkos was not able to make his return to the ice before the 2014 Winter Olympics. Stamkos’ first game back from injury was on March 6, 2014 and finished the season with 25 goals and 15 assists, good for 40 points. To read more about how he expects to ramp-up his offseason training in preparation for the 2014-15 season, click here.