Thursday, July 2, 2015

A une fougueuse

If he had he been born a few centuries earlier, he would have been a coureur des bois -- one of those tough, determined Frenchmen who used birchbark canoes to depart what is now known as Quebec, paddling across thousands of miles of rivers in the wild interior of what is now the United States and Canada, trapping beaver as they went and bartering with the indigenous people that some of us (including me) still refer to as American Indians.

The coureur des bois were daring, and so is he... Their tenacity, like his, far exceeded the average man's... They were strong, and so is he... They defied the odds, and so has he.

Martin St. Louis (pronounced Mar-tan San Lou-ee) was born 40 years ago in Laval, Quebec. He lists at 5'8" and 176 pounds, which does not sound like the body of a professional athlete, but a professional athlete is what he is -- and an exceptional one at that. While St. Louis stands neither tall nor massive, he does stand strong, with thighs that have been likened to tree trunks, and he is possessed with the heart of a lion.

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Playing the game of hockey, St. Louis has always been smaller than those he went up against, and has always refused to let that make a difference. As a kid he led his midget league in scoring, only to be left off of the provincial midget team because of his size.

The most direct route to the NHL is to play in junior leagues, and all the junior teams knew how prolific a scorer he was. Nonetheless, because of his size he received little interest from them.

In order to keep his prospects open, he crossed the border and accepted a hockey scholarship from the University of Vermont. Playing there from 1993 to 1997, he was a two-time finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and set school records for points (267) and assists (176). Those records still stand 18 years after his collegiate days came to an end.

The close-mindedness of hockey scouts was confirmed when a career of that caliber generated almost no interest from NHL clubs. St. Louis was never drafted and the only organization to grant him a tryout (Ottawa) did not take him, so he wound up signing a contract with the minor league Cleveland Lumberjacks of the IHL.

Impressed with his production in Cleveland, the Calgary Flames brought him under contract and assigned him to their AHL affiliate in New Brunswick. Though he eventually cracked the Flames' NHL roster in October 1998, he was used sparingly and they left him exposed in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft. Then, when he went untaken in that draft, the Flames let him go.

St. Louis was 25 years old and it looked like his NHL career might be over after a grand total of four goals and zero playoff appearances.

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Fortunately for him and all true hockey fans, the Tampa Bay Lightning gave him another chance and he debuted with them on October 6, 2000.

At first St. Louis struggled to find his mojo in the Sunshine State and did not score for weeks; however, he eventually got going and broke into the big time during the 2002-03 season, when he tied for the team lead with 33 goals and added 37 assists. That season's squad won the first division title in franchise history and put the franchise back into the playoffs for the first time in seven years. St. Louis scored seven goals during those playoffs, three of which were game-winners.

The Bolts faced Washington in the opening round and after dropping the first two games on home ice, they won four in a row to advance past the opening round for the first time in team history. St. Louis scored the series-winning goal in triple overtime of Game Six, and you can watch it by going here (though all 44 seconds are worth your time, the play that ended with the winning goal starts at the 00:32 mark).

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If the 2002-03 season was his coming out party, the 2003-04 season was his exclamation point. With 38 goals and 56 assists in the regular season, he rang up 94 overall points to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer -- then followed that up with 24 points (9 goals, 15 assists) in the playoffs.

In addition to the Art Ross, St. Louis won the Lester B. Pearson Award for the NHL's most valuable player as determined by a vote of the players, plus the Hart Memorial Trophy for the NHL's most valuable player as determined by a vote of the members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.

But ah, those playoffs! Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup that year, and it was during the Cup Finals that Martin St. Louis scored the most memorable goal in franchise history. To put the cherry on top, he scored it against the team that had let him go four years earlier.

The Bolts had the best record in the NHL and had home ice advantage for the finals. However, when Game Six started, they were trailing the Calgary Flames three games to two. That game was played in Calgary and the Flames' red-jerseyed fans were deafeningly loud, doing everything they could to tilt the ice in their team's favor so it could become the first Canada-based franchise to win the Cup in 11 years.

When regulation time ended, the game was tied 2-2... Then the Bolts and Flames battled fiercely throughout the first overtime, yet no one scored... Then, 33 seconds into the second overtime, St. Louis pounced on a rebound of Tim Taylor's shot and rifled it into the top of the net to force Game Seven back in Tampa. The Lightning would go on to win Game Seven and secure the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

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Those were the first two consecutive NHL seasons that St. Louis managed to complete in their entirety. He was just shy of his 28th and 29th birthdays when they came to their respective ends, and to put that in perspective, consider that the average age at which an NHL player retires is 28 years and 62 days.

Because those seasons included him winning the Cup and establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with, I am sure he would rank them at the top of his career highlight list. Yet they were "merely" the beginning of his career at hockey's highest level, and over the ensuing decade-plus he made such a mark that he stands a better-than-even chance of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

St. Louis appeared in six All-Star Games... He won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy three times between 2010 and 2013... For the 2006-07 season, he notched a career-high points total of 102 (43 goals, 59 assists)... For 2009-10, he equaled his earlier Art Ross-winning points total of 94, and in 2010-11 he exceeded it with 99... Then, in 2012-13, a full nine years after he first won the Art Ross, St. Louis led the NHL in scoring and won it again at the age of 37. The only player to have gone longer between his first and final times winning the Art Ross was Wayne Gretzky himself -- yet Gretzky was only 33 when he won it for the last time.

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As far as playing style is concerned, St. Louis is best described as a spark plug. He attacked like the Tasmanian Devil of cartoon fame, never giving up on a play, legs constantly moving like pistons in an internal combustion engine.

For much of his career, well into his thirties, speed was his forte. Opponents' hearts stopped whenever he exploded into open ice with the puck on his stick, for it was no secret that he could snap it wherever he wanted in the blink of an eye. And, although he had a sniper's shot, he also had a "Magic Johnson sense" for knowing where he should pass the puck to set better-positioned teammates up to score.

Despite being undersized, he could fight through checks as good as anyone and never shied away from doling out punishment. Although some claimed he was soft on defense, that is belied by the fact he often played on the penalty kill and racked up 29 short-handed goals.

St. Louis's training regimen and off-ice workouts are the stuff of legend. Well after he became an established star and leader, he continued to train so diligently that former GM Jay Feaster quipped that "Martin St. Louis still thinks he could get cut tomorrow."

His reputation for humility was buttressed not only by his belief that he was "cut-able" but by his interaction with people around town. St. Louis did not seek attention but everyone knew him when they saw him, and he was quick to acknowledge their glances and happy to engage in small talk.

A friend of mine has played for years in one of those adult hockey beer leagues, and it just so happens that the year the Lightning won the Stanley Cup was the same year in which my friend's team won the "Stanley Keg" for the second season in a row. The night they won said trophy, they went out to celebrate and ran into none other than Martin St. Louis himself, and the NHL's scoring leader talked to them about hockey and congratulated them on their victory.

Thousands of similar anecdotes regarding the undersized Quebecker exist around this metropolitan area. Another friend of mine encountered him several times at Panera Bread and has nothing but good things to say about him.

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I have been a sports fan for as many of my 44 years as I can recall, and there is no denying that the relationship between fans and players is more familiar and personal in hockey than it is in the other "big four" sports. Yet when it came to Martin St. Louis and the people in the Tampa Bay area, that relationship felt even more familiar. Like my good friend and former co-worker Brooke said two months ago: "His story was our greatest story."

Simply put, he and the Tampa Bay metropolitan area had things in common. The stiff-minded didn't believe that Martin St. Louis could play NHL hockey, and he proved them wrong in spades. Likewise, the stiff-minded didn't believe that Tampa Bay would support an NHL franchise, and we proved them wrong in spades.

No matter how much he succeeded at every level of the game, the naysayers looked down their noses at him until doing so made them seem ridiculous. Likewise, no matter how much we proved that Tampa Bay is hockey country, the naysayers looked down their noses at us.

At long last, he led our team to a championship that proved the naysayers wrong, and as that championship was won, we cheered exuberantly and took delight in knowing that the naysayers were irritated by our happiness.

In a way that probably won't make sense unless you were here, it felt like he and the fans were united. This sounds strange since he was the one doing the work, but on a psychological level it felt like we were with him in that birchbark canoe, thrilled to stick it to the elite with every dip of the oars. His contract even had a no-trade clause, which seemed to be the ultimate confirmation that he was one of us.

Nobody in these parts bothered to use his full name, or even his correct first name. He was simply "Marty." Walk into any bar in the region and use the name "Marty" in conversation, and even if you never said the words "Lightning" or "hockey," there was a one hundred percent chance that everyone knew you were talking about Martin St. Louis.

Then, after that Stanley Cup championship and all those high-scoring years ... after all the awards mentioned above ... after another deep playoff run that saw the Bolts come within a goal of reaching the Cup finals in 2011 ... after almost 14 calendar years of Martin St. Louis going into battle wearing a Lightning uniform ... after all that, the abject weirdness of the 2013-14 season came a-callin'.

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The Bolts were not a floundering team in 2013-14. They were a talented bunch that spent almost the entire season in the thick of the playoff race, and their roster, while young, overflowed with the kind of potential that suggested they might be able to make a Cup run if only "the kids" could perform with the wisdom of players who had a few more years on them.

Martin St. Louis was the team captain. As such, he took the youngsters under his wing to teach them how to succeed in the National Hockey League. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were especially responsive, as they became very productive contributors and ultimately finished second and third in the voting for NHL Rookie of the Year.

When leading scorer Steven Stamkos went down with a grotesquely broken leg, St. Louis put the team on his back and willed them forward. Everyone followed his example and the team kept pace in the playoff chase. With his 39th birthday months away, he continued making crisp assists and slipping pucks into nets.

But when Canada's Olympic roster was announced in mid-season and he was not on it, his reaction, even in public, was infantile. Steve Yzerman was not only the Lightning's general manager, he was also the executive director of Canada's national team, and rumors quickly "escaped" claiming that 1) St. Louis blamed Yzerman for not convincing the rest of the committee to name him to the team, and 2) he therefore felt like he could not be associated with Yzerman.

St. Louis did nothing to quell the rumors once they "escaped" into the international press. Constantly asked about them, all he did was offer pouty-faced remarks that he was "not going to talk about that." In other words, he repeatedly confirmed his self-absorbed discontent without saying the words. Not exactly what a leader is supposed to do.

Eventually, he of the no-trade clause demanded that he be traded, and on top of that, demanded that he be traded specifically to the New York Rangers. Because of the no-trade clause in his contract, he could veto any trade Yzerman worked out with a team other than the Rangers, and he made it clear that he would do that even as he made it clear he did not want to play for the Lightning any more.

Essentially, he held the team that once rescued his career hostage, and in so doing he held the fans who admired him hostage. Again, not exactly what a leader is supposed to do. What must rookies like Johnson, Palat, and Nikita Kucherov have thought when they saw their captain behaving like a child?

Eventually Martin St. Louis got his wish. He was dealt to the Rangers, and when he got to New York, one of the first things he said to the assembled media was that he was excited to finally play "in a big market." It reeked not only of a player wanting to play for a different team, but of a player telling his longtime fans that they weren't good enough for him. It reeked of an entitled prima donna grown a thousand times too big for his britches. In short, it reeked of everything he was not supposed to be, and those of us in the Bay Area took his exit far more personally that we have taken the exit of any other pro athlete who has ever plied his trade in these parts.

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It was -- is -- hard to believe that a man could flush 14 years of goodwill down the crapper over not making an Olympic team that he was unlikely to make in the first place. He had been left off of previous Olympic teams, and in 2014 he was no spring chicken and there were plenty of much younger, equally qualified players available for what he perceived as "his" spot.

Rumors trickled out that St. Louis was using the Olympic matter as a red herring, and I find these rumors to be more compelling than him forcing a trade solely because he felt snubbed.

Some of the rumors held that St. Louis's wife, Heather, had been pressuring him for years to move to New York so she could be closer to family (she is from Connecticut just outside of NYC). These rumors imply that by exploiting the Olympic matter, he protected Heather from a public backlash. I would also add that if this rumor tells the whole story, exploiting the Olympics also protected him from being ridiculed as a vaginal sort of person who can't stand up to his wife.

Other rumors held that he wanted to move to New York because his sons, who are becoming involved in competitive hockey, would not have to travel far from home to face the kind of top-tier competition that will be preferable for them to perfect their skills and garner the most attention from pro scouts and college recruiters.

Both of those rumors make sense and I suspect that there is some truth to both of them. Perhaps the Olympic matter also played some part. Perhaps there were other issues no one has speculated about. And I do believe that he is under no obligation to tell us.

But still. Why give a middle finger to the Lightning and their fans? Why behave in a way that contradicts your entire reputation? After all, that reputation has so much to do with both your current success and your potential future success once your playing days are far behind you.

The question of why? resonates, and gives rise to the question of whether the fans had been taken for a ride all along.

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We, the fans, did move on. We have lives to live, and we accepted the situation as one of those things that sucks but isn't worth losing sleep over.

Or so we thought, until the 2015 playoffs rolled around and the paths of Martin St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning crossed in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Rangers and Bolts met with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line, which meant it was no regular season game and suddenly the thought of St. Louis's current team advancing at our expense was one of the worst things imaginable.

In Game Two, St. Louis was positioned at the point during a 5-on-3 power play. A pass came to him and when he turned to take it, he slipped and fell to the ice, leaving the puck exposed. Tyler Johnson scooped it up, raced the other way, and scored a short-handed goal that shifted the momentum of the game, which the Lightning wound up winning 6-2. It almost seemed like divine retribution, as if God himself had pushed St. Louis over to teach him a lesson about the wages of pride.

In Game Four, when St. Louis scored 5:08 into the third period, he poured gas on the fire by pointing up toward the Amalie Arena stands and yelling "fuck you guys." The cameras caught it and it didn't require much acumen to read his lips. Admittedly, his gesture might have been intended for the owner's box and his barb meant for Yzerman and Tampa Bay management, not for Tampa Bay fans, but the optics were what they were -- and even if he was cursing management, doesn't that prove that his peevish departure from here really was over something petty and not over more important family issues?

When the series ended with the Lightning defeating the Rangers in seven games, many Tampa Bay fans were just as happy about our team being the one that prevented St. Louis from winning another Stanley Cup than they were about our team keeping itself in the running for the Cup.

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His 2014-15 season was not up to his standards, but was still productive. 21 goals and 31 assists in 74 games, with a plus-minus of +12, is very respectable. Especially for someone his age.

His playoffs, however, were far from good. There were fanned shots galore and he finished at -1 with a paltry 3.1% shooting percentage. Before this year, his worst-ever playoff shooting percentage had been 14.5%. His best-ever is the 28.0% he shot in 2003.

After Game Seven, St. Louis was open about the fact that his production wasn't what he wanted of himself, and wasn't what should inspire the up-against-the-salary-cap Rangers to offer him a new contract when his expired at the end of June. He said he would have to weigh his options about continuing to play in the NHL. It was unlike anything else he had ever said, and even for those of us who harbor bitter feelings about his inglorious departure from Florida, it was hard not to feel for him.

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June ended two days ago, and St. Louis's contract ended along with it.

The New York Rangers, for whom he so wanted to play, made no attempt to re-sign him, even at a reduced rate.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils came calling. But apparently he thought whatever they offered wasn't worth the added wear and tear on his body, or he decided that he didn't want to keep playing when he couldn't hold his own the way he used to.

As I type this sentence it is 10:14 p.m. Eastern Time on July 2, 2015, and Martin St. Louis announced his retirement earlier today.

Part of me is filled with schadenfreude. That part of me feels happy that he did not win a championship with another team.

Part of me is filled with regret. That part of me feels sorry to see him go, because he was one for the ages and was extremely good for the game; and, let's face it, my team would not have become a champion without him.

His statement this morning said this: I have been blessed to play for 16 years in the NHL, it has been an amazing ride. I would like to thank the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers organizations and owners for providing me the opportunity to play the sport I love for so many years. I could never have played for so long or accomplished all that I have without the unwavering love and support from my wife, Heather, our three sons, Ryan, Lucas, and Mason, and my parents.

There is decency in those words, and perhaps an outstretched hand.

And I believe they are his own words, not those of a publicist or sports agent. After all, they don't bother to thank the Flames organization that gave up on him.

I don't know what to say Marty, and I know I am not alone when it comes to having mixed emotions tonight, but I do know it's unfair to ignore 14 years of excellence and exceedingly fond memories all because of a few months of rancor.

You succeeded in your sport because you are what you Francophones would refer to as A une fougueuse -- a feisty one -- and for that I am grateful.

Merci pour les souvenirs.

Martin St. Louis' time with the Tampa Bay Lightning included helping the team win the Stanley Cup in 2004.

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