DULUTH - Barely out of his hospital bed, Joel Stepp sat gingerly in a cavernous hall at the Gwinnett Convention Center on May 14. The Gwinnett Gladiators forward smiled for the fans who came over to wish him a speedy recovery, but when he was again alone, his expression said it all.
Stepp watched the video feed from Toledo with a grim intensity. The Gladiators were playing Game 4 of the ECHL American Conference finals and he wasn't with them.
Stepp had been a big part of Gwinnett's playoff run before suffering a ruptured spleen in Game 2 against Toledo. The centerman was only days removed from surgery and came to support his team in the only way left to him.
"We were in the conference finals - that's the last time you want to get hurt," Stepp said. "You want to be out there helping your team all you can. It's just frustrating. I was sitting in a hospital bed. I hate hospitals."
It wasn't the first time Stepp needed surgery. Twice prior to turning pro in 2003, Stepp went under the knife.
When he was 15, Stepp had his forearm broken in half. It required a plate and several screws that remain in his arm. His last year of junior hockey with the Red Deer Rebels, Stepp's wrist was broken.
"They just thought it was a sprained wrist," the 23-year-old Canadian said. "Then I went to Anaheim (which had drafted him in 2001) and they ended up X-raying it. They had to do a bone graft and everything because the bone was dead because it hadn't been in a cast. I'd been using it for six or eight months.
"I was in a cast for 12 weeks. I missed 55 games. It was pretty rough."
At least with this most recent injury there's no chance of it happening again. You only have one spleen.
Still, after a hit caused Stepp to need a splenectomy, he'd have every right to be a little leery of continuing to play the same physical game that earned him an NHL contract out of junior hockey.
But Stepp is back to his old tricks with the Gladiators this season. Skilled and smart, Stepp hasn't been shy about handing out the hits.
"It's one of those injuries, once it's healed, you don't really think about it," said Stepp, who has 18 points in 21 games so far this season. "My speen's gone. I can't hurt it again.
"I skated during the summer but it wasn't contact. So the first couple games you get hit or hit a guy and it doesn't hurt, it just builds your confidence."
The injury did put Stepp behind most other players during the offseason though. He had to take more than two months off before starting any kind of workout regime, but that didn't keep several teams from expressing an interest in signing the fourth-year professional.
The contract offers were two-way deals with teams in the American Hockey League, which would mean Stepp could only be called up by that single AHL team.
Coming off his initial three-year NHL contract with Anaheim, Stepp decided to keep his options open and signed a straight ECHL contract with Gwinnett. Stepp was assigned to the Gladiators on Feb. 28 after being acquired in a trade between Anaheim and Atlanta, Gwinnett's parent club. Stepp enjoyed his time with the Gladiators and called head coach Jeff Pyle over the summer to say he was interested in returning.
Pyle wasn't expecting Stepp to be available and wasted little time getting a deal done. Pyle said on more than one occasion after the end of last season how big a difference Stepp would have made in the Kelly Cup finals (which Gwinnett lost to Alaska).
"He's physical, he's got skill," Pyle said. "When he's motivated, he's as good as anybody. That's the thing with him. He's come off the surgery now, he's been playing long enough he should be getting into pretty good shape right now. This is the time of year where we need him to step up."
Pyle wants Stepp to take on more of a leadership role now that Jeff Campbell has been called up to the AHL (likely for good) and captain Paul Flache is out for at least the next six weeks with a back injury.
"He's an intelligent player with skill, with toughness," Pyle said. "When he plays to those strengths and works as hard as he can work, he's dominant. That's what I need him to be."
Those statements echo what Pyle has said about his team in general these last couple weeks.
The Gladiators (13-7-4) have played well for the most part and are tied for second in the division standings with 30 points. The consistency, shift to shift, has been an issue.
"Guys are having brain-farts out there and forget to pick up their guy," Stepp said. "Right now the little bounces, the little mistakes that we are having, they're ending up in the back of our net.
"We've got a lot of offense and talent. We've just got to play better defense and work for the two young goalies we've got on our team."
Gwinnett has an excellent weekend opportunity. The Gladiators play at home tonight against Pensacola and Sunday against Charlotte with Saturday off.
"We're in good shape, but now comes the commitment of how good do we want to be?" Pyle said. "We're at home now. There's no excuses. We're not short-handed. Everybody's got to step up their play."
Including, he said, Stepp.