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St. Louis' drive eclipses his size

The 5-foot-9 forward has flourished with the Lightning.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Martin St. Louis lives in Tampa with his wife, Heather, and two dogs, including Jordan, above.
TAMPA -- From the evening the youngster asked his mom if he could wear his first pair of ice skates to bed to the two summers he worked in a Quebec lumberyard, Martin St. Louis' determination never swayed.

He was going to make it to the NHL, height be damned, and stay there.

Now in his first full season, St. Louis has made the Lightning look good for signing the 5-foot-9 forward as a free agent last summer.

"I think every general manager would be concerned about my size," said St. Louis, who has 17 goals and 30 assists in 72 games. "Coming into this year, I only played 69 games in the NHL. It's not like I had stats that showed I was the next big thing.

"I think it's a matter of proving them wrong every day, but I've had to deal with that everywhere."

Nobody can accuse St. Louis of taking shortcuts during a career that has shuttled him from his boyhood home in Laval, Quebec, to Burlington, Vermont; Cleveland; St. John, New Brunswick; Calgary and Tampa.

And he remains a fan of Montreal, which plays the Lightning tonight, particularly forward Mats Naslund.

"When I was growing up, I always wanted No. 26 because I was the smallest player on my team," said St. Louis, who wears No. 26 in honor of the 5-7 Naslund. "I met him when I was like 12 or 13. We had a practice at the Forum back then, and I got to shake his hand, and he gave me his stick. It was great."

College coaches recruited St. Louis furiously, though he spoke little English. In the end, St. Louis passed on Maine in favor of Vermont.

Catamounts coach Mike Gilligan jokes that St. Louis' decision added four years to his contract.

"When he touched the puck, the whole place just stood up," Gilligan said. "He lit the place on fire."

St. Louis was a three-time Hobey Baker Award finalist, helped Vermont advance to the NCAA's Frozen Four in 1996 for the first time and left as the school's all-time scoring leader (91 goals, 176 assists).

"Back in Burlington, everybody knows who Martin St. Louis is," said Brown coach Roger Grillo, an assistant at Vermont from 1990-97. "If you just picked up a phone book and called any number in Burlington and said, 'Who is Martin St. Louis?', they would give you a 30-minute-long dissertation on who he is and what he meant to the state and what he meant to the people up there."

Heather St. Louis, however, wasn't as tuned in to the hockey when she met her future husband the summer before their senior year.

"I remember in the beginning he was like, 'My dream is to play in the NHL,' " she said. "It wasn't during the season, so it wasn't as if we started dating and I went and saw one of his games to see the talent he had. I was like, 'Yep. Yep. Uh huh.' I didn't really believe him. Then I saw him play, and he was definitely a superstar in college."

But when his eligibility was up after the 1996-97 season, the NHL didn't call. "I wasn't going to stop chasing my dream because there were a few bumps," St. Louis said. "Some people it takes a little longer."

He signed with Cleveland of the IHL in 1997 and played 56 games. Calgary signed him in February 1998 and sent him to St. John, where he scored 15 goals in 25 games. He played 13 games with the Flames and 53 with St. John the next season and settled with Calgary last season.

St. Louis appeared in 56 games with the Flames, playing primarily a defensive role. "It was great to feel part of something," St. Louis said. "I had a role."

The Flames picked up a year option on his contract for fear St. Louis would be lost in the expansion draft to stock Minnesota and Columbus. But they wound up buying out his contract.

That's when Lightning general manager Rick Dudley came calling. "I remember I said to our scouts, 'This kid can play in the National Hockey League. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind,' " Dudley said. "It was a no-brainer for me."

St. Louis, who signed a two-year contract worth $250,000 per year, played sparingly early but lately has been a fixture on the power play and penalty kill.

He had six goals and four assists in six games from March 8-21.

"We haven't been able to take him out," coach John Tortorella said. "I think he's just full of energy. The big plus for him on his size -- if there is a plus for him being so small -- is the big defensemen can't get to him. He's so quick, he's underneath them. "And he's willing. He's not going to be running all over the place, but he's willing to play in the areas and score a goal. You've got to give him a lot of credit."

"He has no regrets," Heather St. Louis said. "Every game he plays in the NHL, he's so happy and so pleased, I don't think he takes it for granted being here."

Meet Martin St. Louis

TEAM: Tampa Bay Lightning.

POSITION: Right wing.

HT/WT/AGE: 5-9/179/25.

BORN/RESIDES: Laval, Quebec; South Burlington, Vermont.

WIFE: Heather.

DOGS: Jordan and Belle.

SAY IT: San-Loo-EE

Tonight: Lightning vs. Canadiens

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m.; Ice Palace, Tampa

TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: With F Fredrik Modin (thigh), D Andrei Zyuzin (concussion) and C Brian Holzinger (foot) healthy, Tampa Bay reassigned D Mikko Kuparinen and F Dmitry Afanasenkov to the IHL's Detroit Vipers. ... This is the fourth and final meeting between the teams. Tampa Bay leads the season series 2-1. The Canadiens lead the all-time series 15-13-4. ... Montreal ended a four-game winless streak with a 4-2 victory against Carolina on Monday. Before their game against Florida on Wednesday, the Canadiens were unbeaten in their past three road games. ... Montreal D Craig Rivet (shoulder), LW Gino Odjick (wrist), LW Patrick Poulin (ankle, foot), G Jeff Hackett (hand) and RW Jason Ward (knee) are out. ... G Jose Theodore was 5-4-1-1 with a 2.49 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in his past 12 games. ... Rookie Andrei Markov ranked second among rookies in power play assists (14) and third in power play points (16). Lightning C Brad Richards leads all rookies in scoring. ... Modin has two goals in his past two games and six points in his past seven. ... G Kevin Weekes was expected to make his 11th consecutive start. He has faced at least 30 shots in each of the past four games and allowed 12 goals on 105 shots in the past three losses. ... A Lightning victory would set a franchise record for most wins in a month. The Lightning is 7-4-0-1 in March. -- Compiled by Kevin Kelly.

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