Paging Dr. Stamkos: Forward’s approach to recovery aided in free agency
A few seasons ago, Teddy Purcell and his Tampa Bay teammates were warming up at the rink, playing a handball-type game in the concourse. At one point, chasing after the ball, Purcell slipped underneath a hotdog stand and, in his words, “fileted my ankle.” The cut was too fine to fix with stitches, so trainers poured what Purcell described as “this gunpowder stuff” onto the wound. The powder stung badly enough. The presence of an observer did not help Purcell’s mood, either.
“It was so painful and Stammer was standing right over, looking at the cut,” he says. “I thought I was going to puke, and he was staring over the cut, laughing at me because I was in pain. He was so into it.”
Stammer, of course, would be captain Steven Stamkos. Or, as some have come to know him over eight seasons with the Lightning, Dr. Stamkos. The bulk of his medical degree was earned during frequent visits to the training room, especially while teammates were receiving treatment. “Every MRI and X-ray, he’s looking at,” defenseman Victor Hedman says. “From now on, every second opinion goes through him.” A particular attraction to the grisly also helps. “Like when [former Louisville guard Kevin Ware] snapped his leg, Stammer loves looking at those videos,” Purcell says. “I’m like, ‘Get that away from me.’”
Stamkos explains such intrigue—and the unique way it manifests—as rooted in a genuine desire to learn. “Your tool is your body as an athlete,” he says. “That’s what you need to do your job. I take a lot of interest in knowing exactly what’s going on and what I can do to improve.” Last June, before re-signing with Tampa for eight years and $68 million, Stamkos took a similar approach in surveying his free agency options, a decision that was partially featured in SI’s NHL season preview issue.
Here, however, are some leftovers unmentioned in the story, concerning the most recent major case of Steven Stamkos, M.D.
Picture a nutcracker, specifically the jaw used for the actual cracking. Now picture your collarbone and uppermost rib, hinged together in similar fashion. Running through that narrow mouth is what’s called the subclavian vein, which can get pinched and eventually clot. This resulting condition—known as thoracic outlet syndrome or effort thrombosis—commonly arises in two sets of people: those who work with their arms over their heads, like movers, and those with particularly developed muscles, like professional athletes.
On April 4, Stamkos arrived at Tampa General Hospital already well versed in the type of surgery that Dr. Karl Illig would perform. Just like he watched procedural videos on YouTube after breaking his leg in Nov. 2013, Stamkos had studied up on the blood clots that had formed in the nutcracker’s jaw. Backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had encountered almost the exact same issue, so Stamkos plied him for info. Doctors sent him home with his MRI and ultrasound images, along with explanations of what to look for. “It sounded like he was a doctor explaining it to me,” Purcell says. “I was like, ‘Geez, explain it like I’m a dummy.’”
Before surgery, Illig had presented Stamkos with a choice: Removing the top rib was standard practice in these situations, but he could also elect to repair the affected area using a vein taken from his ankle, which would improve his long-term odds of being symptom-free. Even though the Lightning were in the playoffs, and forgoing venous reconstruction would’ve allowed him to return faster, Stamkos chose the safer route.
Much like he later would handle free agency, the 26-year-old approached his condition with maturity that belied his age. During several meetings at Illig’s office, Stamkos was surrounded by family members, all of whom offered their input. Stamkos, meanwhile, sat quietly, absorbed everything, and issued his final decision at the end. “He wasn’t remotely a passive observer,” Illig says. “He had a very clear opinion of what was right and where he wanted to go with this.”
As Tampa Bay sped through the first and second rounds, beating the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in five games each, rejoining his teammates became a carrot for Stamkos. He injected himself with blood thinners twice daily in the midsection, having chosen this method over an oral pill, so to better control the doses. Nine days post-op, he sent Illig a clandestine video of himself on the ice, skating and taking slap shots; usual protocol calls for three weeks of rest before beginning physical therapy. When his pain medication outlived its usefulness, Stamkos flushed the pills down the toilet. “You don’t need that lying around the house, you don’t need that anywhere near you,” he says. “It helps in the mental aspect of, I’m done and over with that.”
In public, Stamkos faced an endless battery of questions about his health and free agency. During the conference finals against the Penguins, his locker stall became a site of daily congregation for reporters, all of them wondering whether now he could return to game action. He was patient in his responses, always explaining the unpredictability of his condition, but privately remained frustrated.
“Two weeks after surgery, I felt like I could play again,” Stamkos says. “But you’re on the blood thinners. That was the toughest part, feeling physically ready. When you have an injury, broken bone, whatever, you have to respond to how your body’s feeling. I felt fine. That was the challenge in itself, was not being able to be out there, especially in the playoffs, when I felt I was capable of playing.”
Stamkos’s dramatic return came in Game 7 in Pittsburgh, a 2–1 loss in which he skated 11 minutes and 55 seconds, and attempted two shots on goal. Over the following weeks, he would reportedly field pitches from four suitors, including his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. But what Stamkos saw during his absence was proof enough that staying was the best option.
“Never want to do it again, but knowing that I had to go through [the blood clots], it made it a little easier knowing that… I felt great, but knowing that I couldn’t get out there,” he says. “You couldn’t push anything, you couldn’t play through anything, I think that eases your mind a little bit, knowing that O.K., hopefully the guys can get to this point that I can get back.
“I know what type of team we have in Tampa. It was no surprise, to us internally, that we had that run. But the quality of the team and the window of the opportunity to win definitely plays into your decision, for sure. I’ve been to a Stanley Cup Final and three conference finals. The goal is obviously to get there, and this team we have built, it’s built for that. It’s built to consistently be in the mix. That definitely plays into your decision, for sure.”
• The office at Stamkos’s home, located in a gated Tampa community, is stocked with memorabilia: a framing of his first game sheet, the puck from his 60th goal in 2011–12, a ring from Team Canada after it won the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics, even though his broken leg precluded Stamkos from participating.
The office also contains a fancy desk, with what Purcell calls Stamkos’s “nice, obnoxious leather chair.” As Stamkos grappled with his free-agency decision, the two former Lightning teammates would retreat into the office to talk, “write stuff down, pick each others’ brains,” Purcell says. So since Stamkos eventually re-signed with Tampa on June 29, and since Purcell waited until July 1 to find a new home, Stamkos rewarded Purcell for his counsel by letting Purcell sign a one-year deal with Los Angeles from the obnoxious leather chair.
“Once I had signed, he was king of the castle, waiting to see where he was going to sign,” Stamkos says.
• The biggest decision of Stamkos’s life before this June? “To be honest it might be going back to deciding to play in the OHL, instead of going to play the NCAA route,” he says. “That was something that was a big decision for me and my family at that time. So there’s obviously some big decisions. But this one probably was probably the biggest, maybe the most stressful when it comes to all the information I had.”
• Stamkos owns a massive Swiss Mountain dog called Trigger, a name somewhat inspired by his usual role as the one-timer gunner on Tampa Bay’s power play. “We were trying to pick something unique, something we haven’t heard of, but something that revolved around the game of hockey,” he says. “I like scoring goals and shooting the puck, so the correlation was there, but it wasn’t too obvious.”
• On living in Florida: “I joke with people all the time now about how soft I’m getting with the weather, because I’ve been down there for so long. But it makes a difference for me with how I feel, how my body feels.”