TORONTO - This was a day for another hockey player from Toronto who wears a different coloured Leaf to have centre stage.
Steven Stamkos was back skating on native ice Tuesday, every stride, turn and stop monitored by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the curious Maple Leafs who host the Bolts and of course, a massive media presence. The 15-minute workout went longer than the weekend’s abbreviated attempt at home, but is still far short what’s needed to overcome a broken right leg and be ready for Team Canada in Sochi in less than a month.
“There’s (less) pain in certain areas,” an optimistic Stamkos said. “The bone is really strong, it’s more soft tissue stuff. Over time, we’ll have to deal with it.
“It (a decision) is getting close. We have two weeks at the most. There will be a lot of discussion in the next couple of days. The goal was at least to play in one game before I go to the Olympics (possibly Feb. 6 against the Leafs in Tampa) and we’re still on that track for about nine days from now. I’m trying my best to come back and play for the Lightning and get in the Olympics.
“The strides we’ve made are even better than I expected.”
Stamkos said there might be a glimmer of hope to make the roster even without an NHL game.
“If I don’t play a game and feel great heading into the tournament, that’s a discussion we’ll have to have with our medical staff in Tampa and obviously with Steve Yzerman. We’ll be well aware of what’s going on. It has to feel well in practice in contact. There’s no denying that. At least a couple of hard practices with contact. That’s going to have to happen in the next week or so.”
Yzerman, executive director of Team Canada and Stamkos’s GM with the Lightning, named the centre to the roster in early January in a leap of faith, but has a list of alternates to alert in the next two weeks.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper’s mind wandered back to that fateful Remembrance Day game in Boston.
“We found out about the injury and I went to the schedule and counted 41 games to the Olympic break,” Cooper said. “I thought, if he misses 41 and comes back (after the Games) that would be unbelievable. If he comes back before, that’s just icing on the cake for us.
“It’s all about Steven. As much as I want him in the Olympics, Steve Yzerman wants him, the country wants him, it’s about Steven the person. This is his livelihood, not to push things to jeopardize his future. “But he will come back closer to the minimum time than the maximum for his injury.”
Cooper, who returned to the city where he won the Calder Cup in 2012 when many of these players were farmhands with Norfolk, has shown a quick grasp of the NHL, without Stamkos. Tampa entered Tuesday’s game challenging Boston for first place in the Eastern Conference, seven points ahead of the Leafs.
Cooper’s job has been made easier by goalie Ben Bishop’s 26 wins in 38 games and league-best .934 save percentage.
“The only spot (Stamkos) probably can’t take right now is Bishop’s,” joked Cooper. “He’s done a heck of a job. Goaltending can make coaches look good.”
Martin St. Louis is the other half of the Bolts’ one-two punch, a league high 10-game point streak that kicked in the moment he was informed Yzerman had not picked him for Sochi. St. Louis, 38, says he’s motivated by chasing another Cup, coming up on a decade since the Bolts won their first and showing his three children born since that title that he still has it.
“I want a chance,” St. Louis said. “From 2004, everyone’s gone.”
The Leafs have their own injury re-hab project underway, with centre Dave Bolland skating again and lasting longer than Monday’s workout. The long range is for him to play after the break. He declined comment, but was very upbeat about his progress.
Centre Trevor Smith, who has been out since mid-December with a broken hand, was scheduled for an X-ray Tuesday afternoon that could speed up his return to the lineup if there’s a favourable report.
Jonathan Bernier gets the start for Toronto, his first against the Lightning in his career.