In a small antechamber tucked inside the Hockey Hall of Fame, Martin St. Louis sat on a stage, sandwiched between fellow inductees Willie O’Ree and Alexander Yakushev. There was a slight smile on his face as he toyed with the brand new ring on his finger. The ring made him part of a club that he wasn’t sure he’d ever be a part of - the Hockey Hall of Fame. On Friday, St. Louis along with five other inductees were presented with their Hall of Fame rings and answered questions from the media.
By now, his story is well known to most Lightning fans. Undrafted. Undersized. Cut from the Calgary Flames. Even during his first season with the the Lightning he found himself on the third and fourth lines. “You don’t think about the Hall of Fame when you’re in Calgary,” he said after the ceremony. “You’re thinking about trying to find another game, your place in the league.”
St. Louis eventually found his place in the league, among the great players who have played the game. The stats speak for themselves:
17 years in the NHL
1,134 games played
Stanley Cup Champion
Olympic Gold Medalist
Art Ross, Hart Memorial Trophy, Three Time Lady Byng Winner, Lester B. Pearson Award
Despite all the accolades, it wasn’t until after he retired that he thought about the possibility of being honored with a Hall of Fame induction. “You look around and it’s unbelievable. Being in here I don’t think of myself, ‘Look at everything I did’. Being here is more ‘Look who’s in here’ and now I’m part of that. To me that says it all.”
He talked about how happy he was to be included in a club that contains the legends his father told him about, Maurice Richard and Guy LaFleur. And the ones he watched or played against, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
Lemieux provided his “welcome to the hall” moment when he sent a text to St. Louis congratulating him on the induction and finished the text with “Mario”. Marty did not have his number saved in his phone and was momentarily confused as to who this “Mario” was. It quickly dawned on him that it was Lemieux.
St. Louis also mentioned that Lemieux’s former teammate (and former Lightning coach) Rick Tocchet provided his “welcome to the NHL” moment back when St. Louis was with Calgary. In his words,
“My welcome moment to the NHL was lining up next to Rick Tocchet and I was playing third/fourth line and I had to try and draw a penalty. I leaned into Rick Tocchet a little bit off the face-off and he literally slashed me in the throat...and I was like, ‘I’m messing with the wrong Marine’.”
For fourteen of those seasons he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a feat that makes him the first player who spent the bulk of his career with the Bolts to have the honor of being inducted. When asked how that felt, he immediately deflected claiming that the honor belongs to Dave Andreychuk. “For me he was a Lightning! I guess he would wear Buffalo [if the Hall forced players to identify with one team as the baseball hall of fame does].”
He spoke at length about Andreychuk and the 2003-04 Stanley Cup team. It was obvious the reverence he had for his former captain as well his teammates Brad Richards and Vinny Lecavalier. Nikolai Khabibulin was the “backbone” of the team. While he expressed no regrets about his career, he seemed wistful when thinking about the lockout that denied the Lightning a chance to defend their title the following year. It “took the wind out their sales” to have the league MVP (St. Louis), playoff MVP (Richards) and World Cup MVP (Lecavalier) not be able to take the ice the next season.
The Quebec-native spent almost an hour answering questions and reminiscing about his career in hockey, effortlessly moving between French and English as he fielded all the questions thrown at him. He remembered how cold it was in St. Johns when he played there in early in his career, joking that he was disappointed when he made the team and had to move out of the hotel that was connected to the arena because then he would have to go outside.
He also talked about his departure from Tampa, a move that led to a lot of animosity from the fan base. The emotion, he thinks, enhanced by the impact he had on the franchise. “I had 14 incredible years there. Tampa will always be in my heart and I cheer for them all the time. I think the hurt was magnified by the impact I had on that franchise. I feel their pain, I felt it at the time.”
When it was pointed out that none of the Big Three left on their own terms, he acknowledged that it was part of the modern game but it didn’t affect the way they remember their days in Tampa, “We all cherish our time there. We all are part of why they are where they are today. They’re in such a good place with Mr. Vinik. They’re such a good franchise. We feel like we had something to do with that.”
He enjoys watching Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov play. Seeing those two work together reminds him of how much fun he had playing with Stamkos. His favorite non-Stanley Cup memory in hockey was helping Stamkos reach 60 goals in 2011-12.
“[He] got it in the third period of the last game [a 4-3 overtime win against Winnipeg. Teddy Purcell had a hat trick, but nobody remembers that]. I don’t know if I shot the puck that game...He knows we’re trying to get him 60. I tried to get him 60 for the last ten games of the season. In a year where we weren’t making the playoffs, it kept us going a little bit.”
A theme he kept returning to during the question-and-answer session was the importance of family and how happy that he was able to share this weekend with them and his closest friends. He acknowledged the strain professional sports puts on family members,
“Being a professional athlete is such a selfish environment. Because it’s all about you. You’ve got to train, you’ve got to sleep, you’ve got to eat. There wasn’t many vacations. My wife would want to go away for a week and I’d be like, ‘No we’re going for three days because I gotta come back to train’.”
Those days are over and his post-career days are filled with coaching his three sons (aged 15, 13 and 10). Practices keep him on the ice Monday through Friday and travelling to games takes up a lot of his weekends. When asked if his current role as coach made him empathize with his former coaches a little more he replied with a smile, “What did I put them though?”
He acknowledged that coaching isn’t easy and explained his coaching philosophy,
“I’m trying to convince them why we do certain things. I think I’ve learned from what I’ve wanted as a player. I know they’re young kids, but it’s still the same message. If you convince your player that that’s the way to do it, usually they’re all in. Don’t just ask them to do something just because you think it’s the right way. Why is it the right way? Why we doing this? It’s not easy to coach, because you’re not just coaching a team, you’re managing individuals. In the NHL you have 22-23 guys, my youth hockey team I have 15, 16, 17 kids. Different personalities different skill levels, you’re managing.”
One thing that he can’t coach, and what he was extremely proud about, was his consistency and longevity in the league. He talked about about playing through injuries as the lights from the TV cameras highlighted the scars on his face, compliments of a career spent playing in a much rougher league then fans see today. He didn’t set out to be a Hall of Fame player, that wasn’t what drove him to play hard. He wanted to play hard for his teammates, to make himself and his team better.
“For me, my goals always changed throughout my career. I like setting short term goals. Try and get in the top-six role, try to be a winning team. We’re in the mix now, let’s go win a cup. You get some setbacks but you always short term your way through. You’ve got to keep your eye on the prize, small picture stuff. If you think big picture you kind of get lost through it all.”
Always known as a player that was all business on the ice, he wanted to let people know that off the ice he was known by his teammates as a bit of prankster and a “little goofball.” He also enjoyed the friendly competition he had with fellow inductee Martin Brodeur. His memory of the longtime Devils goaltender was the little smile or wink that he would give after making a great save. It’s something that St. Louis likes to see in the game, tough competition with a little bit of friendly back and forth. He acknowledges that there is more of that in the game now,
“There’s more of that now. There’s more of that then there used to be. And it’s nice. Play hard and recognize when somebody does something nice. It’s OK. Be human a little bit.”
He believes that his career is a testament to hard work and that “playing hard because you love the game and if the impact you make and you’re valued enough you end up here [the Hall of Fame].” St. Louis seemed at peace with the career he had and was content to leave it up to the committee to make the final decision.
“You go about your business, you’re going to have setbacks. Don’t worry about left and right, just keep looking ahead and put your boots on and put your head down and just go to work. Usually things line up where they should be. So, I’m proud of that.”
He was asked about fiddling with the ring while the other inductees were introduced and it was obvious that it was special. “To get this you’ve got to be in here. The jacket, this (the ring) you’ve got to be part of this club. To me it’s a sign of what club you’re part of.”
Congratulations Marty on joining that club.