Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.
Martin St. Louis’ decorated playing career earned him a spot in Toronto at the Hockey Hall of Fame. But he almost didn’t make it to Tampa.
Before he won the Hart Trophy with the Lightning, lifted the Stanley Cup, totaled 1,033 points in 1,134 NHL games and unofficially earned the title of “the best 5-foot-8 player of all-time,” St. Louis was out of a job and almost out of North America.
St. Louis had already taken the long route to the NHL. He went undrafted, played four years in the NCAA and had a stint in the now-defunct International Hockey League. Then, after three up-and-down seasons in the Calgary Flames organization, St. Louis was exposed in the 2000 expansion draft, passed over by Minnesota and Columbus, and bought out by Calgary.
At 25 years old, St. Louis was a free agent with only four NHL goals in 69 games under his belt. The choice seemed like it had been made for him.
“People always look at what a great career I had in Tampa, but sometimes don’t understand,” St. Louis told The Athletic. “I was so close to going to Europe.”
Of course, he didn’t go to Europe. Instead, St. Louis opted to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning that summer.
There have been thousands of words written on St. Louis throughout a career filled with definitive moments. There was the 30-goal breakout season in 2002-03, and his double-overtime heroics en route to a Stanley Cup in 2004, among other goals, trophies and memories that put St. Louis at No. 62 in The Athletic’s ranking of the best players of the modern era of the NHL.
Perhaps no moment was bigger than the bet St. Louis made on himself when he signed in Tampa. The end result was a singular career path and one of the best bet-on-yourself stories in the history of the NHL.
“To face as much (adversity) and end up going to the Hall of Fame,” said Lewis Gross, St. Louis’ long-time agent. “I don’t think you’ll see that again.”
Years before they were teammates on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vincent Lecavalier knew two things about St. Louis.
First, he was the best player on his junior and college teams. Second, it didn’t really matter.
“I would go see him and he’d be unbelievable,” said Lecavalier, whose brother, Philippe, played against St. Louis when they were young and later in the NCAA. “But everybody would just say ‘Yeah, he’s too small.’
“I’ve always known how talented he was. But the problem was in those pre-2005 years (before the rule changes coming out of the 2004-05 lockouts) guys that were smaller-statured never really got a chance.”
That kind of reasoning followed St. Louis throughout the early days of his career.
He was cut from a midget provincial team in Quebec, despite leading his minor hockey league in scoring — the first sign for St. Louis that making it to the NHL would be a tough task — and opted to play in college versus a major junior league. There was interest from 30 college programs, and, if St. Louis couldn’t crack the NHL, at least he could get an education.
St. Louis was a star at the University of Vermont, a three-time All-American, a three-time Hobey Baker finalist as the top player in college hockey, and the school’s all-time leader in points. Since 1990, only one player (Brendan Morrison) has outscored St. Louis’ 267 points in 139 NCAA games.
After his third year of college — his best statistical season — St. Louis had offers to sign an NHL contract, but he turned them down.
“I got one more year,” he thought at the time. “Just graduate. The offers are here now, they’ll be there next year.”
They weren’t. St. Louis graduated from Vermont with a business degree, went undrafted and had no free agency offers.
That’s when St. Louis signed in the IHL with the Cleveland Lumberjacks. There were former NHLers on the team like Rob Pearson, Brad Lauer and Pat Jablonski.
After racking up 50 goals in 56 games, St. Louis thought, “Wow, I can play with those guys, I’m not that far off.”
St. Louis went to the IHL All-Star Game that year. The very next day, he signed a two-way deal with the Flames.
The morning after the 2000 Stanley Cup Final in New Jersey, Craig Button was on a plane to Calgary. As the new Flames general manager, Button had 48 hours to decide who the club would protect in the upcoming expansion draft.
It was a tight turnaround, given he could not start acting as the Calgary GM until the Dallas Stars — for whom Button was the director of player personnel — were eliminated from the playoffs. For two days, Button sat in meetings with his new staff going over the roster. Not once, he said, was St. Louis discussed as someone to be protected.
At that point, St. Louis had played 69 games with Calgary over two seasons and scored four goals and 20 points. When he played in the minors with the Saint John Flames, St. Louis was dominant. But he couldn’t translate that success to the NHL.
“I don’t think I was ready mentally,” St. Louis says now. “I was putting the NHL on such a pedestal. I was up and down and was so nervous when I got to play in the NHL.”
St. Louis mostly played a bottom-six, checking role with some penalty-kill time in Calgary. He didn’t mind it because it got him in the door. But it didn’t exactly help keep him there. According to Button, the only person to vouch for St. Louis that summer was Tom Watt, then the Flames’ development coach.
“I feel that Marty St. Louis has more than he is showing us,” Watt said at the time. “I think we should be patient with him.”
“I give Tom Watt tons of credit,” Button said. “A lot of other people after the fact wanted to say they knew, and I told them, ‘You’re all full of s—.’”
Fifty-two players were taken in expansion that year by Columbus and Minnesota. St. Louis, whom the Flames signed that summer for the purpose of meeting exposure requirements, was not one of them. He was bought out by the Flames shortly after and became a free agent.
“I don’t blame him (for doing it),” St. Louis said. “I had no statistics to back anything up for a five-foot-nothing player. I definitely made peace and I didn’t hold a grudge.”
It took Rick Dudley a month to convince his bosses with the Lightning something he’d known for a while — that St. Louis was a player worth having on their hockey team.
Dudley had watched St. Louis play in college, the IHL and AHL, and said he saw a player who was small in stature but tenacious, strong on the puck, could win battles, skate and had eye-popping skill. Over a period of viewings, Dudley recalls writing in his scouting book, “This guy can play in the NHL.”
Still, there were several people in the Lightning front office who did not want to sign St. Louis, certainly not to a one-way deal — the kind of shot St. Louis was seeking in free agency.
“Nobody was drafting people on the small side. Nobody was signing free agents on the small side. It was a different time,” Dudley said. “Marty just defied it.”
Dudley dug in and pushed back against people in the organization senior to him. He said it was the most adamant he’d ever been about signing a player. Eventually, the message got through to team president Tom Wilson.
“If Rick feels this way, we should do it,” he said.
So, Dudley called Gross with a one-way deal at league minimum ($250,000).
Gross was on board for a one-year “prove-it” contract. St. Louis, though, wanted an extra year, even if it locked him in at the minimum for a second season.
“If you’re as good as I think you are, we’re going to be the laughingstock of the league in Year 2,” Gross said.
“I wanted one last kick at the can in the NHL,” St. Louis explained. “I took a two-year deal at league minimum just so I could have two years to take my swing at the plate and see if I can hit the ball.”
He was right. He needed some extra time to establish himself.
In his first game with Tampa, St. Louis was sent over the boards four times for exactly one minute and 41 seconds. He still has that game sheet tucked away as a memento.
“It’s not difficult on the body,” St. Louis said with a laugh about playing under two minutes. “It’s difficult on the mind. That’s why your mind has to be stronger than your feelings. The way we are wired as humans, your brain will tell you to quit. That you’ve done enough. You gotta win that fight.
“People think I went to Tampa and killed it right away,” he added. “They don’t understand. … It (could have been) so easy to quit. But quitting guarantees one thing: You’re not going to get what you want.”
If St. Louis failed, it wouldn’t be for lack of effort.
By the 20-game mark of his first year in Tampa, St. Louis was playing minimal minutes, was a healthy scratch and was struggling to make an impact in a bottom-six role, with only two goals and six points. The skill was there still. But the opportunity was not.
“He wasn’t given the chance,” Lecavalier said. “He wasn’t playing that much. It’s hard to produce when you don’t have those minutes.”
“You could see in practice when you play with him, like, ‘S—, Marty is good,’” said Mike Johnson who played 92 games in Tampa from 2000-2001. “You could tell, but you weren’t sure if it would translate into games.”
Tampa lost 12 of the first 20 games of the season. If St. Louis couldn’t crack the Lighting lineup, where could he really play? St. Louis decided, if he was going to go down, he was going to go down swinging. So he went into head coach Steve Ludzik’s office one day and said, “Just play me.”
“It’s not like he was the Marty St. Louis of five years after, where (he’s) one of the best players in the league,” Lecavalier said. “For a guy to go there and say, ‘Hey, give me a chance and trust me. You’ll get a lot out of me,’ that just takes a lot of confidence in your game that you know you can do it.”
Gradually, St. Louis started playing more. In January 2001, Ludzik was fired and John Tortorella — who was an associate coach in Tampa that year — took over as head coach of the Lightning. At the end of the year, Tortorella had seen enough to give St. Louis a vote of confidence.
“If you take care of yourself this summer,” he told him, “I’ll give you a chance in the top six.”
“I was always very religious about my summers,” St. Louis said. “I wasn’t worried about if I was going to be ready or not. I knew I was going to be ready.
“Once somebody told me, ‘I believe in you, I think you’re a top-six guy and I’m going to give you the platform,’ I just took the ball, ran with it, and never looked back.”
St. Louis doesn’t feel like he truly arrived in the NHL until the 2003 playoffs.
He scored 33 goals that season and went to the All-Star Game for the first time in his career, but it was in the first round against Washington when he realized he had another level to his game.
He scored five goals in four straight victories over the Capitals in the first round, including the triple-overtime winner in Game 6. It was the Lightning’s first playoff series victory. They lost in the second round to New Jersey, but Tampa had arrived as a team to be reckoned with. And St. Louis was not a player to doubt any longer. “Everybody started to see it in the playoffs,” Lecavalier said.
As games got harder — and more physical — as they do in the playoffs, St. Louis just got better. He set a new standard for himself, one that he would carry into the next season.
“It got me to raise to another level,” he said. “And once I had arrived, I just was not going to be a one-hit wonder.”
St. Louis scored 38 goals and 94 points the next season, winning the Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay trophies. He scored the biggest goal in Lightning history — the double OT winner in Game 6 of the 2004 Cup Final — en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. He won three Lady Byngs, another Art Ross (2013) and a gold medal at the 2014 Olympics with Canada. He scored over 1,000 points in a career that almost didn’t take off. And he did it listed at 5-foot-8 in a time where — as Dudley says — big was all the rage.
“Marty and I are around the same age and yet, I was always parts proud of him and parts inspired by him,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t an easy path for him. And the amount of self belief it took for him to get to where he was is more than most people have. It would have been very easy to give in to the doubt or the lack of opportunity or the people who say you can’t do it.
“Obviously, he was incredibly talented but the willingness to fight for himself to make a career was amazing.”
Now in his second act as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis spends time fielding questions from players like the one he used to be.
Undrafted players. Players from the waiver wire. Players hoping to take the next step in their development. MVP-caliber players. You name it.
“There is not one person on my bench that I don’t understand. I feel I’ve been all those guys,” St. Louis said. “Even the guys that are scratched. The guys that are in the minors when they get called up, the guys that get sent down. There’s not one piece that I haven’t lived.”
St. Louis has been presented with a puzzle of a Montreal team that — as The Athletic’s Arpon Basu recently wrote — would be tricky for even a veteran coach to manage.
But people who know St. Louis and his story aren’t willing to bet against him.
“It’s hard to spend any length of time with Marty and not believe that he’s being honest with you and not believe that he actually cares about what you’re saying,” Dudley said. “And I think that’s a big part of what will hopefully be an outstanding coaching career.”
“He’ll see things that maybe I wouldn’t see because he’s been through these things in his career,” added Lecavalier, who is a special adviser to the Canadiens’ hockey operations department. “I’ve always said about Marty, I think he’s one of the smartest hockey minds that I know. And he can relate to his players.
“When you have a Hall of Famer saying something to you in the locker room, first of all, you’ll listen and you’ll probably try it,” he added. “He just has a lot to offer the Montreal Canadiens, especially a young team like that. They’re really lucky to have him.”
(Top photo: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)