TAMPA – Marty St. Louis was just about out of options. The Flames had just quit on him after less than a full season’s worth of games and with one notable exception, every other team in a league that never really wanted him in the first place had passed on him yet again.
“Tampa was my last play,’’ St. Louis said Thursday of his decision to sign with the Lightning back in the summer of 2000. It was a card played largely out of desperation but the undrafted product of Laval, Quebec could not have played it much better.
Long considered too small to make any kind of an impact, St. Louis grew into one of the NHL’s greatest stars during his 10-plus years in Tampa, where the Lightning will put aside the fact he asked for a divorce three years ago and honor him at Amalie Arena on Jan. 17.
Amid the cries of “too soon’’ that came pouring in from still-angry fans on social media, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik announced on Thursday that St. Louis’ No. 26 jersey will become the first retired by the Lightning and hoisted to the Amalie Arena rafters.
“When you look at Marty St. Louis’ career, what he did for the Tampa Bay Lightning, what he did for this community, this is one of the best athletes in the history of Tampa Bay sports,’’ Vinik said. “So he deserves to be honored in this way and this is the right time to do it.’’
Some will forever argue that St. Louis forfeited any rights he might have had to such an honor when he demanded a trade to the New York Rangers three years ago while he was still the captain of a young Lightning team fighting to get back to the playoffs.
Vinik said, however, that he and a small committee of team officials that included Steve Yzerman–the general manager who cut the deal that sent St. Louis to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan and a package of draft picks–agreed that St. Louis’s body of work made him worthy of the honor.
On that front, it’s hard to disagree. When the 2016-17 season begins next week St. Louis will still rank first in franchise history in total points (953), assists (588) and game-winning goals (64), while also ranking second behind Vincent Lecavalier in goals (365) and games played (972).
St. Louis also has what many, including Vinik, consider to be the signature moment in team history, one in which he scored the overtime game winner in Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals against Calgary, whom Tampa Bay beat two nights later to secure its only Cup title.
“I was just thinking about that ’04 team the other day,’’ St. Louis said. “I won the MVP of the regular season that year; Brad Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs and two months later Vinny Lecavalier won the MVP of the World Cup. And we were all on the same team.
“When does that happen? It’s just unbelievable. So it’s not just one guy that does that, it’s three different guys. And those two or three years there where we were in the playoffs, it was kind of a coming-out party for a lot of guys. Sometimes you don’t realize how special it is until you look back on it, but it was a quality experience and I wouldn’t change anything.’’
That goes for the divorce, too. Hockey was still important to St. Louis when he asked for that trade late in 2014, but it had clearly become second on his list of priorities to his family and its needs. He says he can only hope Lightning fans eventually come to understand that.
“I wish that can be behind us,’’ St. Louis said. “In life you make decisions and sometimes you make hard ones. For me, I hope they remember me for what I brought to the team. I came in 2000 to a last place team and I feel that I left that team in way better shape than when I came.
“It would probably have been a better story if I had finished my career there but there are a lot of variables that come along the way as you get older, after you have kids, and I don’t want to go back in to it but things happen sometimes and you have make tough decisions.
“And I respect the fans opinion. They are entitled to it, and that’s just the way it went. I finished my career somewhere else. But it wasn’t just a me decision. My kids, a better transition for them and their hockey (was part of it) as well. I hope they can forgive me in that sense.
“But I understand their pain, it wasn’t easy for me to do that either. I love Tampa. I loved playing there. I loved everything about it. It was just time to move on for bigger reasons than just me. I gave everything I had to the Lightning for many years.
“I hope they can remember that and not just the decision that I made that hurt their feelings. I respect the fans and I understand their pain, I was hurting then, too. They didn’t deserve that, but it was just a decision that I had to make at that time.’’