Friday, 3 July 2015

Marty St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning are Linked Forever

Martin St. Louis, the man who defined everything Lightning for 13 seasons, announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday.

In some ways, this is a day we all knew was coming.  In other ways, though, it felt like he might play forever.  He truly was a little engine that could.  His undisputed willingness to lay everything out on the line helped turn the undrafted forward into one of the NHL's greatest of all time.  Some readers might scoff at the idea of calling him one of the best, but take a look at this resume:

  • 2004 Stanley Cup Champion
  • Art Ross Trophy (x2)
  • Lester B. Pearson Award
  • Hart Memorial Trophy
  • Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (x3)
  • World Cup of Hockey Champion
  • Olympic Gold Medalist
  • 1,033 NHL Points

That's a Hockey Hall of Fame-worthy resume right there.  He was never a guy who got the obscene amount of national attention like a Sidney Crosby or an Alex Ovechkin or even a Steven Stamkos, but for most of those years between 2000 and 2015 he was an incredibly productive forward.  He was the undisputed leader on a Lightning team that often looked like a boat lost in the fog.  When the team on the ice was bad, Marty St. Louis was there to entertain the diehard fans.  When the ownership situation was messy, Marty St. Louis was there to distract us all.  He made everything about watching Bolts hockey enjoyable for a lot of years.  He was the one constant through an era of tremendous change.  

When you sit back and think about the Lightning franchise as a whole, it's hard to avoid using the word 'underdog' to describe it.  Hockey can't work in Florida, can it?  Northerners laughed at the idea.  Living in Edmonton, I can't count the number of times I've been told that the Lightning should be relocated.  People still can't believe that hockey is surviving and thriving in such a warm, beautiful place.  

And, yet, it does.  

This Lightning team is thriving in the face of all odds.  The doubters are reevaluating, as they've seen this group win a Stanley Cup and make it to a second Final appearance.  The building is full nearly every night, and people are passionate about wearing Bolts blue.  The odds said that a sunbelt team could never achieve so much success.  The Tampa Bay Lightning defied expectations as they forged the growth of a truly wonderful franchise.

Now, here's the thing: Everything I just said about the Lightning can be said about Marty St. Louis, too.  He was too small.  He wasn't good enough.  He didn't have what it takes to be an NHL player.  Just like people doubted the Lightning, people essentially wrote off Marty St. Louis.  In the face of all those doubts, though, a young player turned into one of the league's brightest stars.  He didn't just stick around in the NHL like, say, the Arizona Coyotes; rather, he thrived like the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Few gave Marty even a chance to succeed, just like many expected the Lightning to fail.

In short, Marty St. Louis defined everything Lightning.  He was, for all intents and purposes, the 'mascot' for the team and its fans.  You and I could relate our beloved team to Number-26 on the ice.  His character was the team's character.  His voice was the team's voice.  It was a unique and incredible relationship.

I think that's why Marty's departure from Tampa was so difficult for so many fans.  Hell, it was tough for me to understand and I've never even lived in Florida.  The man who defined the franchise wanted to leave the franchise.  It stung.  But, that's the beauty of a finite hockey career.  Marty won't be wearing a New York Rangers jersey when he returns to Tampa to have his Number-26 hung from the rafters.  Marty won't be wearing a New York Rangers jersey when his name heads to the Hall, either.  Even playing at Madison Square Garden during the last two seasons, he was still a Bolt.  And he'll always be a Bolt... the greatest Bolt to ever wear the jersey.

It won't be New York fans who look back on Marty as one of their greats.  It won't be Calgary fans who remember him fondly.  Instead, it'll be us.  It'll be you.  It'll be me.  It'll be every Lightning fan who received countless hours of entertainment from Number-26.  This franchise and this player will be forever linked, and that's a really neat thing.

Congrats on a great career, Marty.  And thanks for all the memories.

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