Injuries are a peculiar thing, especially in sports. A violent full speed collision can leave two players with nothing but a lost glove and a helmet knocked askew. On the other hand, simply putting a skate in the wrong spot can lead to every ligament in a player’s knee exploding. There are times, though, that an injury is just as bad as the collision that caused it.
Leading up to a very specific moment, the 12:47 mark of the first period of the 17th game of the 2013-14 Lightning season, things were going very, very well for Steven Stamkos. He had scored a goal in each of the seven previous games. He was atop the goal scoring leaderboard (tied with Alex Steen of all people), and the points leaderboard. Stamkos was having a dominating start to a season, and playing the type of hockey that would make him a shoo-in for Team Canada in the upcoming Olympics.
The team was flying as well with Stamkos leading a team entering a new era. The Vinny Lecavalier era was over, and coach Jon Cooper was guiding a first-place team filled with a tremendous amount of young talent. On the ice with Stamkos that night were the core of the team that would make the run to the Stanley Cup Final and the Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons. Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Andrej Sustr and Richard Panik (well, they all couldn’t stay with the team) all witnessed one of his most painful nights.
It had taken Stamkos a few games to get going, he didn’t score a goal until the fourth game of the season, but once he started, he was rolling like a freight train. A hat trick against the Panthers on October 10th kicked off one of the best 30-day scoring stretches of his career. In the 14 games he would play over the next month, he scored 14 goals and added 7 assists. It’s no surprise that the Lightning won 10 of those 14 games. Stamkos was on the path to another possible 50 or 60 goal season.
Then the clock ticked over to the 12:48 mark of the 17th game of the 2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning season and all of the good was placed on hold:
The play started innocently, Stamkos working hard to back check on a Boston rush. Then, for whatever reason, he lost an edge and started to fall. Having positioned himself in front of Dougie Hamilton meant that the 20-year-old couldn’t get to the puck, but it also meant that all 200 pounds of the defenseman was pushing him into the net.
“He was too fast for me, so he caught me and I guess we both just went into the net.” Hamilton told the Boston Globe, “He fell and hit the post pretty hard. It’s unfortunate and kind of sad to see it happen.”
Stamkos clipped the net with his left skate as he went down, but it wasn’t enough to fully displace the post. It rocked back slightly, but was still in position when his right shin slammed into it. At that point, the shin likely cracked and caused a tremendous amount of pain.
Stamkos tried to get up once, made it halfway up and then stumbled face-first into the crease. He pounded he ice with his fists and tried to get up again, making it to a knee this time before going back down.
By all reports, Stamkos knew it was broken. With Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and head trainer Tommy Mulligan surrounding him he told them, “It’s broken.”
Stamkos was correct about that. Two days later he underwent surgery for a fractured tibia. The operation and rehab cost him three months of a NHL season and a chance to go to the Olympics.
Could it have been worse? Definitely. While some wondered how the post could break his leg when it was designed to come off the pegs when a player collided with it, the inventor of the those pegs, Fred Marsh, defended his creation, telling the Tampa Bay Times, “The pegs reacted the way they should. The net released as soon as he hit the post.”
Marsh was correct, the Marsh Pegs did release when Stamkos’ full weight crashed into them. If he had collided with the old, rigid posts the NHL had prior to the 1991 season things could have been much, much worse.
It is likely that the effort to get back to his feet, sparked by adrenalin, pain and an innate desire to keep moving likely caused the cracked bone to shift, or displace. Would he have been better off just staying on the ice after the initial collision? Maybe. There is speculation that the surgery required by the displacement actually allowed him to recover faster, since he didn’t have to wait for a cast to come off.
The Lightning lost that game 3-0 to the Bruins. Although they would win the next two games, they would lose eight of the eleven games after that as they struggled to fill the void left by their leading scorer.
Going into that night, Stamkos had played in over 340 consecutive games. Since then, he has only played a full 82 game season once. The injuries have been odd, so the broken leg likely had little to do with the blood clot that cost him games in 2015-16, or the torn meniscus that derailed this season. It’s a shame that the broken leg possibly cost him a chance at another great season in his prime.