Tampa Bay opens a four-game road trip on Tuesday in Toronto with additional stops in Ottawa and Montreal before ending the trip next week in Minnesota. But while the team remains in Canada, more eyes will be focused on who is not playing for the team than anything else surrounding the Lightning.
With only six games remaining before the league shuts down to allow players to participate in the Olympics next month in Sochi, Russia, nearly every Canadian media outlet will want to hear from Stamkos as to whether or not he will be able to play for Team Canada.
Stamkos has been out since breaking his leg on Nov. 11, and though he has been skating for the past month, including participating in practices and morning skates and recently was cleared for light contact over the weekend when he changed from a red no-contact jersey to a gold light contact, there is no clear indication as to whether he will be ready to return to action before teams break off for the Olympics.
“It’s a bigger story right now because there is a deadline, if there wasn’t then we probably would not be having as many conversations as we are because usually when you are hurt you come back whenever you feel ready,’’ Stamkos said. “We are pushing it a little because of the magnitude of the Olympics and me wanting to come back and play in the Olympics, that’s the ideal situation, but if it doesn’t happen then that’s something the management staff of Team Canada and I will have to chat about and whether or not it’s in the best interest of me and the team to go over there. We haven’t had that discussion yet, we are still planning on going over there and hopefully being able to play before the Olympic break. So that’s where the mind-set is right now.’’
The 12-week mark since undergoing surgery to insert a titanium rod in his right leg comes on Feb. 4 when the Lightning are in Minnesota. Stamkos said he wants to be able come back and play for Tampa Bay before deciding if he can play for Canada. Stamkos has been showing steady, positive signs that he might indeed be ready to get back in the lineup by next week, taking part in full practices and morning skates, even participating in some light contact drills along the boards.
But the reality of the situation came back to the forefront on Monday when Stamkos did not practice with the team on a day he hoped to start taking more aggressive contact. The situation, however, is not considered any sort of a setback in his recovery.
“It didn’t feel the best this morning, so I didn’t want to risk anything,’’ Stamkos said. “Right now it’s more day by day, see how it feels when I get up in the morning, when I get to the rink and do some treatments, see how it feels. I went on the ice today before and it just didn’t feel as good as it had in previous days so just erring on the side of caution.’’
No matter what Stamkos’ status is, however, it will be discussed and dissected by every major sports television outlet, reported on by every newspaper and talked about by every radio station with air time to fill. If Stamkos is a major media attraction when he is healthy, it will no doubt be tenfold for the next week while the team traipse through Eastern Canada.
“I have friends and buddies texting me every day, letting me know that Stammer is on Sportscentre, what different colored jersey he’s wearing every day,’’ right wing Teddy Purcell said.
To prepare for the media crush that will descend upon Stamkos following Tuesday’s morning skate - whether he takes to the ice or not - the Lightning public relations staff will likely make use of the Maple Leafs’ media conference room rather than having the swarm of cameras, microphones and recorders stake out his locker stall to handle all the questions, particularly after he missed Monday’s practice.
“There will be a little bit of media around (the team),’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We are just going at his pace (of recovery) so I think there is massive speculation about when he is going to come back. But we are still way before any medical doctor would say that he’s coming back. But things are going well, his X-ray checked out awesome, and he just felt some soreness in the leg today and didn’t feel like banging into people, and I have no problem with that.
“For sure all eyes are going to be on him more than anybody else, but the only concern we have is his health. And we are going to get him back this year, I just don’t know when ... and that will all be up to Stammer and how he is feeling. So things are status quo as far as I’m concerned right now.’’