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No small honors for St. Louis

Lightning right wing is an All-Star Game starter, an inspiration to youth.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published February 8, 2004

[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Martin St. Louis, who is 5-8, inspires younger players who are not as tall as their foes.

Martin St. Louis was 12 years old, and his eyes were open wider than ever.

Skating with the Canadiens will do that, especially if you grew up, as St. Louis did, in the Montreal suburb of Laval, Quebec. But skating next to one's hero and getting his stick as a keepsake, well, nothing could be better than that.

"A thrill," St. Louis said recently. "It is a memory that will stick with me."

Mats Naslund, whose stick St. Louis cherished for years, said he does not remember the day St. Louis' peewee team skated at the old Forum. But Naslund knows St. Louis.

In fact, Naslund and his 18-year-old son, Robert, catch as many Lightning games as possible on their satellite system because they consider the right wing a kind of kindred spirit.

Naslund, speaking by phone from his native Sweden, said he sees a lot of himself in St. Louis; Naslund is 5 feet 7, St. Louis is 5-8. Robert, similar in height, uses St. Louis as inspiration for a hoped-for hockey career.

Funny the way things work out. St. Louis used Naslund, the fleet-footed, high-scoring left wing the same way, and wears their shared No.26 as an homage.

"I was hoping that's why he wore it," Naslund said. "It is an honor to see him wear that."

"For Mats to say I remind him of him, that's even more flattering," St. Louis said, "because that's what I wanted to become when I was a kid."

What St. Louis, 28, has become is one of the NHL's most dynamic players.

He is tied for seventh in the league with 24 goals and tied for fifth with 57 points. He leads with six short-handed goals and eight short-handed points, and recently had a 10-game points streak that is the league's fourth-longest of the season.

Powered by thick, muscular thighs, St. Louis skates with speed and can hold the puck

while changing direction and pace. He bounces off checks from the biggest players who can't seem to resist going after a smaller target.

It is his participation in his second All-Star Game today at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., that will legitimize him as one of the NHL's most recognizable stars. No longer just a local flavor, St. Louis was voted a starter by fans across the United States and Canada.

Not that he escaped notice. St. Louis has been featured several times in the Hockey News, the sport's most widely read newspaper. He also is a candidate to play for Canada in this summer's World Cup.

Former Whalers coach Pierre McGuire, a television analyst for Canada's TSN sports network, called him "one of the elite players offensively in the league." Lightning coach John Tortorella said St. Louis is "in the top 5 to 7 percent."

Still, there is something about being voted to an All-Star team by the fans as opposed to being named by the NHL's hockey operations department, which is how St. Louis got to his first All-Star Game last season.

"It's something when you're appreciated for the things you do by more than just your city or whatever," St. Louis said. "It's nice to see."

"It's the nicest thing," Tortorella said. "It's people realizing within the NHL community what this kid has done. It's the people picking him, and I think that's a feather in his cap."

Naslund, though, provided the ultimate compliment. He said he would pay to see St. Louis play.

"Because all the other players on the opposite team are trying to hit him because he's so small," Naslund said. "Everybody tries to take runs at him. But he gets to the net, and he takes rebounds. He shows me a lot of courage."

They like to watch

St. Louis enjoys the publicity and attention his starting position has brought, though he is uncomfortable talking about himself.

"Yeah, a little bit," he said. "It's a team game, and we're all trying to win games as a team. Other guys can talk about me, but I'm not a guy who will pump my own tire, you know?"

There were plenty to pick up the slack, and plenty of comparisons to smaller players - star players, past and present - to whom size was no object.

Former Canadiens great Jean Beliveau said St. Louis reminds him of former Montreal star Yvan Cournoyer because he skates with the same quick strides and has a similar burst of speed and determination to get to the net.

"St. Louis seems to be all over the ice," Beliveau said. "He is always in movement and never stops. He always impresses me. There's no doubt he's a very talented hockey player."

Former Canadiens and Lightning coach Jacques Demers agreed:

"He is one guy you have to have a game plan around. The way he cuts to the net, the way he shifts and doesn't get hit. I coached a guy named Denis Savard. He was the closest thing I saw to Martin St. Louis. And Denny is a Hall of Famer."

McGuire said the way St. Louis ignites Tampa Bay's offense reminds him of Avalanche star Paul Kariya and former Flames star Theo Fleury, though St. Louis never would do the chicken dance to taunt an opponent.

Beliveau threw in slick-skating former Canadiens star Henri Richard. Naslund mentioned former Soviet star Sergei Makarov, who played on the famed KLM line. Not because of his size (Makarov is 5-11) but because of St. Louis' "balance on his skates."

Asked what separates St. Louis from other players, former Bruins coach Don Cherry said, "His touch with the puck, that's the strongest thing. You can teach a million guys how to

check, but you're born with the touch."

Cherry, infamous for the bombastic persona he brandishes as a television analyst on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, said he featured packages of St. Louis clips at least three times this season.

"The reason I do that is to show the kids in Canada," he said. "A lot of them feel because they're small, they can't make it. I want them to know good things come in small packages."

Cherry said the response always is immediate.

"When I go to minor games, a lot of fathers say to me it makes them feel good because sons are small, and to see a guy like Martin doing his thing makes them feel anything is possible," he said.

"It's not something that I dwell on," St. Louis said of his height. "If people are going to keep worrying about it, that's their thing. I think I proved I can play in a bigger guy's game."

On the home front

The knock on St. Louis after a record-setting career at the University of Vermont was he

was too small to play in the NHL. It was the main reason the Flames allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2000.

Back then, no one was equating St. Louis with Cournoyer, Naslund or Makarov, and the Flames had stuck him on a checking line and the penalty kill. St. Louis said the experience made him better. He probably would not have been so defensively aware, he said, had he not played that role with the Flames. Being released made him more determined when he signed with the Lightning for the 2000-01 season.

"It's the first time I learned to play on that side," St. Louis said of his time in Calgary. "I didn't pay attention to that on the other levels. In the NHL, you have to pay attention to that if you want to be an impact guy. It was a good foundation for me."

"The thing that impresses me with Marty is how he's gone through the process to be an NHL player," Tortorella said. "He's been told a number of times, "No, you're not good enough to be on the top line. No, you're not good enough to be in the NHL. You're too small.'

"But he continued to play, and he continued to work on his game. He has become a legitimate All-Star in this league by going through the process and not being touted as a can't-miss kid."

St. Louis demanded during his first Lightning season that then-coach Steve Ludzik give him more ice time. When his game and minutes slipped earlier this season, St. Louis made the same demand of Tortorella.

He now leads Tampa Bay's forwards with a 20:19 average.

"There's nothing better for a coaching staff than to have a player come to you and want the ball," Tortorella said. "You have to give it to him. I think it sends a message to your whole team."

St. Louis also is emerging as a leader. More and more he is a spokesman after games and is not afraid to criticize the team's effort. What he does on the ice already is something to emulate.

That is why Cherry shrugged off the notion of All-Star voting, especially as it applies to St. Louis, as a simple matter of name recognition.

"Absolutely it's a popularity contest," Cherry said. "It's a popularity contest because he does the job. If he wasn't doing the job, he wouldn't be voted in. Fans aren't stupid. They're the ones who pay the freight. People are recognizing him as a great little player."

St. Louis said he will have 15 family and friends at the game.

"It's my second time now so I don't think I'm going to be that nervous," he said. "I can probably relax a little more and enjoy it."

With eyes wide open.

[Last modified February 8, 2004, 01:45:41]

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