“Look for a Window”: The Hall of Fame journey of Martin St. Louis

Martin St. Louis is a hall of famer because he never gave up.

Late Friday afternoon, underneath the stained glass ceiling of the Esso Great Hall and surrounded by the plaques of the great players in hockey history, Martin St. Louis talked about the short term goals he had set for himself throughout his career. In his mind, he said,  “If you think big picture you kind of get lost in it all.”

On Monday night, underneath the vaulted ceiling of the Allen Lambert Gallaria, the biggest picture, he was officially inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Gary Bettman, Willie O’Ree, Alexander Yakushev, Jayna Hefford, and Martin Brodeur.

As was typical of Marty St. Louis, he did not speak of his accomplishments. Instead he spoke of his family and of his teammates. “As a winger, the most important guy on the ice is your centerman. I went from playing with Brad Richards to Vinny Lecavalier and to Steven Stamkos. That’s unbelievable...thank you so much, boys.”

So what were those short term goals? He listed them when talking to the media on Friday.

“I was just trying to get to the NHL”

The story of his NHL career begins with being overlooked, constantly. He didn’t get drafted in QMJHL until the last pick of the 11th round in the 1992 draft. Instead of fighting through juniors, he went the somewhat unorthodox route of playing college hockey at the University of Vermont. Despite putting up leading the Catamounts to a ECAC title and being named an All-American in three seasons he was passed over by the NHL draft.

After a failed tryout with the Ottawa Senators in 1997 his professional hockey career began in Cleveland. He played well enough in 56 games (50 points) to attract the attention of the Calgary Flames. They offered him a contract and he was dispatched to the frozen reaches of St. Johns, Newfoundland in the middle of February, a place so cold that he didn’t really want to go outside. He played well for the Flames, helping them advance to the Calder Cup Finals.

The next two seasons saw him split time between St. John’s and Calgary. He made the NHL, but was relegated to the third and fourth line. He could light the lamp in the AHL (114 points in 95 career games) but didn’t have the same output in his brief career in the NHL. He was in danger of becoming a “tweener”, a player shuffled back and forth between the two leagues, good enough to have a career in hockey, but never becoming a star.

Following the 2000 season the Flames changed management. St. Louis was exposed in the expansion draft and then bought out of his contract, passing through waivers without a claim. His NHL dream was on the verge of being over.

“Find another game, {find} your place in the league”

Enter Rick Dudley and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Dudley, then the Lightning general manager, took a chance on the free agent, signing him to a contract in the summer. A new team, but the same old misconceptions. He started the season with a bottom six role for a young Lightning team that had the nucleus of the squad that would win the Stanley Cup in just a few short seasons.

Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards were 20. Pavel Kubina was 23. The team also had young prospects like Paul Mara (20), Sheldon Keefe (19) and Ben Clymer (22). At 25-years-old St. Louis was one of the older players on the team.

But he had a chance to keep playing hockey at the NHL level and that was all he needed.

“Try and get a top six role”

In December, he met with coach Steve Ludzik about his role with the team. His minutes started to go up. From 11 minutes a so a game up to 18-20 per game. The points weren’t flooding in yet as he adjusted to his new role. Unfortunately for Ludzik, the team wasn’t playing any better and he was replaced by John Tortorella in early January of 2001.

St. Louis now had to convince another head coach that he was worthy of top line minutes. Tortorella gave him that chance and St. Louis took off with it. Per Vincent Lecavalier, “Once he got that opportunity, he ran with it.” He finished that season with 40 points. The next season he had 33 points in 48 games when he broke his leg in a game against Pittsburgh in late January. He would miss all but the last five games of the season.

Despite the injury the Lightning rewarded him with a contract for the next season. He responded with his best season, scoring 70 points and leading the team with 33 goals. It was also his second season with Dave Andreychuk and when he started to see the potential of the team to be something more than a decent team.

“Try to be a winning team”

The 2002-03 ,Tampa Bay Lightning team marked the organization’s return to the playoffs. With Andreychuk as their undisputed leader, the team found its offensive groove and St. Louis was a huge part of it. He was one of four players to record 70 or more points and his 33 goals were tied for the team lead with Lecavalier. Most importantly he played all 82 games.

This was the season that he had what he described as his “coming out party”. The Lightning finished with 93 points, edging out the Washington Capitals by a point to capture the Southeast Division (R.I.P) title. Their reward - taking on the Capitals in the first round.

They dropped their first two games on home ice and headed to Washington in desperate need of a victory. St. Louis scored his first playoff goal in the third period to give the Lightning a brief lead. The Caps tied it up, but Lecavalier won it in overtime. St. Louis scored twice in Game 4, a 3-1 Lightning win and added the game-winning goal in Game 5, a 2-1 win back in Tampa.

The series returned to Washington for Game 6 which happened to fall on Easter Sunday. The teams traded power play goals in the second period. After that it was all goaltending. Nikolai Khabibulin ended up making 60 saves, 36 saves of them during the overtime periods. That’s right, multiple sudden-death periods. In the third OT, the Caps took a too-many men on the ice penalty. Eighteen seconds into the power play, St. Louis took a pass from Lecavalier behind the Washington net, wheeled out in front and roofed a shot over Olaf Kolzig’s shoulder and under the crossbar for the game winner. The game and the series were over. The Lightning had won the first playoff season in franchise history. They were officially a winning team.

In Lecavalier’s words, “It changed the way we looked at ourselves and started to believe in what we could do and obviously Marty is a big part of that”

“Let’s go win a cup”

The ride ended in the next round with a 4-1 series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils (backstopped by fellow inductee Martin Brodeur) but the Lightning were on the map as a team on the upswing.

The 2003-04 Lightning were a juggernaut, racking up an Eastern Conference 106 points and Martin St. Louis was their leader. He led the league in points, assists, +/-, and short-handed goals. He won the Art Ross, Lester Pearson and Hart Trophies while finishing fourth in the Selke race.

Learning from their playoff disappointment the previous year, the Lightning didn’t let up as they steamrolled through the first two playoff rounds winning eight out of nine games over the Islanders and Canadiens. The next round was a brutal seven game series against the Philadelphia Flyers that ended on home ice with a 2-1 Lightning victory. St. Louis only scored one goal, but he had six assists in the series.

The Stanley Cup final was another brutal match-up as the Flames and Lightning traded goals and blows for seven more games. St. Louis was once again a Game 6 hero as he scored (or didn’t) thirty-three seconds into the second overtime in Calgary to send the series back to Tampa.

It was vintage St. Louis. He starts the play by fighting in the corner with Jordan Leopold, then he makes the correct read. As the puck trickles out to Tim Taylor, St. Louis goes to the net. He’s in the right spot for the rebound and somehow tucks the puck past Miikka Kiprusoff to set off the celebration.

Game Seven was a tightly played affair. With the Lightning nursing a one-goal lead and less than 90 seconds to play, St. Louis was behind the Calgary net when he was absolutely trucked and driven into the boards by Andrew Ference. If that hit happens today, Ference would probably be suspended. In 2004, announcer Gary Thorne was amazed a penalty was actually called. St. Louis was dazed and cut open (the post game stiching resulted in one of the great Lightning photos). He described it as a “chaotic, high-intensity moment.” It was part of doing “whatever you need to do to win”.

The Lightning, former laughingstock of the NHL, were the champions and Marty St. Louis, passed over by every team in the draft, unclaimed by two expansion teams, and passed over by every team again on waivers, lifted the Cup as their offensive leader.

“Everything I did, I did with my heart”

The Lightning didn’t get a chance to defend their title as the league was locked out in 2004-05. By the time they returned to the ice the team was different. The backbone of the team, Nikolai Khabibulin, was gone. The league was different as well. It was more open and teams caught up to the speed and skill that the Lightning had used in their Stanley Cup season.

They lost to the Senators in the first round of the playoffs after posting another 90+ point season. St. Louis had another 30-goal season, his third in a row and was officially a superstar in the league appearing on the cover of ESPN’s NHL 2k5 video game.

He was also playing with the weight of a new contract, having signed a 6-year $31.5 million contact. He lived up to the weight of the new deal by being exactly what the Lightning signed him to be, a durable consistent scorer. He averaged 81 games a season and averaging 86 points a season. In 2006-07, he had the best season of his career with 43 goals and 102 points. The last two seasons of that deal he put up 94 and 99 points respectively. Not bad for a player who was 35 years old.

In the summer of 2010, he extended his deal for another four seasons showing his commitment to the new regime that had taken over. Following a disappointing 2009-10 season and a disastrous OK Hockey ownership regime, he questioned his future in Tampa. New General Manager Steve Yzerman convinced him to stay and it looked like he would end his career in Tampa.

He was no longer the unknown underdog. Instead, as Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor retired and Brad Richards was traded, Marty St. Louis became a leader for a new generation of Lightning players who had grown up watching him play. Teddy Purcell was one of them, “He included everybody...the chance to play with him was awesome.”

Ryan Malone played against him as young player with the Pittsburgh Penguins, “He was a little quicker than I was..he was a very smart player. He really analyzed the details of the game.”

Once Malone signed with the Lightning, St. Louis taught him those little details. “He helped make myself a better player.” Malone considers himself lucky to have played with St. Louis and plans to pass the knowledge the Hall of Famer shared with him along to his kids.

As the years went on the Lightning had the long run in 2010-11, making it all the way to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals. St. Louis had another fantastic postseason racking up 20 points in 18 games. He had 8 points in the opening round against Pittsburgh as the Lightning battled back from 3-1 deficit to win the series in seven games.

With the Lightning on the brink of elimination in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins, St. Louis responded with a three-point night including the eventual game-winning goal. It would be his last great playoff performance in a Lightning uniform. The Lightning stumbled as an organization over the next few seasons.

He did his best to keep the Lightning in the race and had won one final Art Ross trophy in the strike-shortened 2012-13 season, recording 60 points in 48 games. While he was providing highlights on the ice, off the ice things were moving in a different direction.

Within a year he would be traded to the New York Rangers after an acrimonious winter with management. The parting of the Lightning and Marty St. Louis wasn’t pretty, but when two strong-willed personalities collide with different ideas about the future it is rarely pretty. In the end, things most likely ended for the best. The Lightning restocked their prospect cabinet and St. Louis had a chance to be closer to family and have a run at another Stanley Cup with the Rangers.

Time has healed the rift a bit between St. Louis and the Lightning. As he put it, “I think we’re at peace.” His number has been retired and there are plans for a Hall of Fame celebration later this month at Amalie Arena. He cherishes the time he spent in Tampa, the place where “he grew up” and the city will be “always be in {his} heart.”

He closed his speech with some advice to the next generation. Advice that he personified throughout his career. “For all the kids out there listening, follow your dreams. Believe in yourself. When it seems like all of the doors are closing, look for a window and find a way in. The reason that some people don’t reach their full potential is because they quit too soon. Most importantly be a good teammate both on the ice and in life.”

Martin St. Louis reached his full potential.