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91 Days of Stamkos: Day 64, Stamkos Returns

This is the second part of the story of Steven Stamkos’s injury in Boston — his recovery.

If a regular person breaks a leg, it gets slapped in a cast and they spend the next six weeks stumbling around on crutches, taking showers with garbage bags wrapped around their legs and generally living an awkward life.

After that six weeks, the doctor cuts the cast off and everyone is repulsed by the smell and how shriveled the leg looks. If they’re lucky, the doctor says everything is okay, hands out contact information for a physical therapy center, and sends them on their way. Hopefully in a year, if they didn’t blow off the rehab exercises, they’re almost normal again.

A highly-paid athlete doesn’t have the luxury to wait a year to feel better.  Luckily, they also have a team of people helping them along with almost unlimited resources to aid in their recovery. That is why, after shattering his leg in Boston, Steven Stamkos was able to take to the ice on March 6th, 2014, just under three months after the injury occurred. He missed 45 games, one ugly trade, and the chance to participate in the Olympics, but his recovery was still remarkable.

His comeback started almost the moment he exited the gruesome surgery.  It’s funny that all of the reports mentioned that Stamkos had a titanium rod “inserted” to help stabilize the leg.  “Insert” makes it sound like a nice, gentle procedure where the docter gently places the rod where it needs to be.  But seriously, there is hammering involved.  Not gentle tapping, but literal hammering.

(Please don’t click on this if you’re squeamish, but this is video of a similar surgery.)

After hammering the rod into place and screwing it down, the easy part for Stamkos was over.  Now began the recovery phase.  The trainers, most notably Mike Poirer, set a schedule for Stamkos to follow.  Even through there was no set date for the center’s return, the rehab was broken down into two-week intervals.  After each interval, an x-ray would be taken to monitor the healing of the cracked bone.

The beginning of the process was literally measured in steps. Just days after the operation, Stamkos was trying to stand, even if for just a few seconds, on the injured leg.  Each day he would have to stand longer, then he would progress to taking a few steps around his kitchen. All the while monitoring and logging the progress.

Even Stamkos admitted the hardest part was getting over the mental block of trusting the leg.

“You think your leg is going to snap again when you put it down,” he told Sportsnet, “Even the first step with the boot and crutches is tough. I’ve learned the mind is very powerful.”

Recovering from a severe injury was a new experience for Steven Stamkos.  His entire NHL career to this point had been relatively pain free. So he did what he does with all new experiences, he gathered as much information about it as possible.  When he wasn’t spending four to five hours actually working to build his strength back up, he was talking with players who had similar injuries or reading online about the process.

At the same time, he was staying close to the team.  Instead of isolating himself, he traveled with the team, crutches and all.  Many doctors and sports physicians believe that one of the keys to a healthy and successful rehab is having the player stay in contact with his teammates. This is especially important for team sports. It makes sense, Stamkos had spent his entire hockey life surrounded by his teammates. Removing that camaraderie on top of the normal doubts about coming back from a devastating injury could send him into depression.

Even with his teammates’ support he still had to put in the work.  A notorious gym rat to begin with, Stamkos elevated his training even further.  He was determined to come back as soon as possible. While it wasn’t a firm date, February 6th was a loose target.  If he was cleared by the doctors at that point he could join Team Canada in Sochi for the Winter Olympics.

“That’s something of a goal of mine.  I want to come back and play hockey for the Tampa Bay Lightning before I go to the Olympics, if that’s the case, and it’s nice to have that goal, something to motivate and push you through the tougher days.”

There were tough days during the rehab process. Even through the training staff did their best to mix up exercises, the sheer repetition and monotony of working out had to be a strain. Knowing that it wasn’t going to be a day or two till he was back in the game was tough, he told NHL.com,

“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 now it’s about seeing those goals and those hidden improvements, whether it’s week-to-week or month-to-month.”

Life doesn’t happen in a montage. The Lightning can cut together some footage together showing his progress, but it can’t show the frustrating moments in between.

From skating five weeks after the surgery to participating in practice after nine weeks seems really fast in retrospect.  Glossed over is the four weeks in between, the 28 days of working out in same gym, staring at the same walls, lifting the same weights for four hours a day; the 28 nights of wondering whether he is going to be the same player he was before the injury.

Staying in the proper mental state really has to be the hardest part.  Physically, Stamkos had done all this before. He lifted weights and rode on exercise bikes before. But having to overcome the mental blocks, and learning to trust that the leg was healed, was something he had never done before.

Stamkos made it through. Unfortunately, not in time for the Olympics. The team doctors weren’t comfortable that the broken tibia was healed to the point where he could play high-level, competitive hockey.  Stamkos was heartbroken.  His childhood dream was taken from him even after he had worked out like a possessed man for the last 12 weeks.

“Today is obviously very disappointing for me,” he told the press, “I honestly believe that we did everything possible in order to have my injured leg ready in time for the Olympics, but I realize you can’t force healing.”

Instead of going to Sochi and having to deal with roaming packs of dogs and half-completed living facilities, Stamkos escaped to the Caymen Islands. With his childhood dream dashed, he needed to get away from it all and so he did.

“It was pretty grueling what I was doing to try to get back to play in the Olympics, and to feel as if I was ready … mentally and physically … and then going to the doctor and not being able to [play], it was pretty crushing,” Stamkos said. “I needed time and space away from everything, so I went on a little vacation.”

It would be another couple of weeks before he was finally cleared to return to the ice. When he did, not only was he coming back as a needed weapon for a Lightning team that was fighting to return to the playoffs for the first time in two seasons, he was coming back as their captain.

During his rehab, he had to watch as the animosity grew between his best friend and mentor, Marty St. Louis, and his general manager Steve Yzerman. Unable to repair the breach between them, Yzerman traded St. Louis to the New York Rangers on the same day that Stamkos was cleared to return from his injury.

As the captain, Stamkos started off slowly, not scoring in his first three games back. But he finally broke the schneid with a goal against Florida in a win on March 13th.  He scored nine goals over the next nine games, and the Lightning picked up points in 11 straight games. The streak was good enough to propel them into the playoffs where they would lose the first round in four games to the Montreal Canadiens.

Stamkos was back and scoring goals. He played all 82 games the next season, and broke the 40 goal plateau for the fourth time in his career, even though a year later he admitted his leg was still occasionally sore or tender and he wondered if it would ever truly be back to wear it was before.

To come back from a broken leg and be an elite player in the NHL in three months is truly a remarkable feat.  It’s a feat he’s trying once again to replicate due to a knee injury suffered earlier this season, but Lightning fans should rest assured that if anyone can do it, it’s Steven Stamkos.

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