Leadership more than a 'C' for St. Louis
BOSTON -- He carries the burden of leadership not because someone pinned a captain's "C" on his jersey or because he was the best kid on every team he ever played for or because he was a high draft pick.
Instead, Martin St. Louis shoulders the weight of leadership because it is in his DNA. As with all great ones, it courses through his veins; it is who he is.
Undrafted, unwanted early in his career, St. Louis has a fierceness about him, even as he barrels toward his 36th birthday, that leaves his teammates in awe and his team one win from an improbable trip to the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.
"I've obviously known about him watching him growing up and on TV, and just to see him every day and to learn things from him. He's a guy I really look up to and really take advice from and really soak in what he says. Before the game, he said this is a time where we've got to step up, and he was our best player," winger Teddy Purcell said after St. Louis delivered a two-goal, one-assist performance in Game 6 to lead Tampa Bay to a 5-4 victory over Boston.
The victory knotted this Eastern Conference finals series at three games apiece with Game 7 set for Friday night in Boston.
"He just does it time in and time in, and that's why he's one of the best players in the league," Purcell added.
Former longtime Philadelphia Flyer Simon Gagne has played with and against St. Louis, and prefers the former.
The last time the two veteran forwards tangled in the postseason was a memorable Eastern Conference final between the Flyers and Lightning in 2004.
The Lightning prevailed in seven games and won the Cup, beating Calgary in seven games in the finals.
Gagne said he has been surprised at how often St. Louis speaks in the Lightning dressing room.
"Marty is a guy that likes talking a lot before games, and I was not seeing that when I was not playing with him. So I was a little bit surprised about that," Gagne said Thursday after the Lightning arrived in Boston.
"He's going to have some good speeches. And he had a good one last night before the game. And that helped the guys to play a little bit more relaxed I think after that and get a little bit pumped for the game," the veteran winger said.
It's been only seven years since that Lightning Stanley Cup run, yet it seems longer. That's what happens when there's a lockout that ruins the following season, and the team struggles and then is beset by ownership issues.
St. Louis said he feels different about this year's playoff run compared to the one that earned him a Stanley Cup ring.
"I'm older. I think I'm, I feel I have that responsibility of leadership a lot more than I did in '04. We had [Dave] Andreychuk, [Tim] Taylor, [Darryl] Sydor, guys that we looked up to. I think as you get older in this league, leadership becomes your responsibility, and luckily, we have a lot of those guys," St. Louis said.
"But it's been different in that way."
Better or just different?
"Different. I wouldn't say better, just different," he said.
Current Calgary GM Jay Feaster was the assistant general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning when then-GM Rick Dudley broached the subject of signing a speedy little guy out of the University of Vermont who the Calgary Flames decided wasn't for them.
Considered one of the game's premier talent evaluators, Dudley required a small player to have something that distinguished himself.
"Duds always said a small player has to have a dimensional element to his game," Feaster told ESPN.com this week. That might be terrific speed, a heavy shot or surprising physical strength, but he had to have something that set him apart.
In the beginning, it was St. Louis' speed that got him in the door with the Lightning.
Feaster remembers asking Dudley, "Are you sure about this?" It seems almost comical now to hear Feaster talk about the discussion about whether to take a chance on one of this generation's greatest players. But at the time, St. Louis had played 69 games for the Flames over two seasons. He had scored four goals and was released by the team.
Even then, the Lightning didn't like to waste money. But Dudley got his way, and St. Louis was signed for $250,000.
"There was no sense this was going to be the player he became," Feaster said.
After scoring 18 and 16 goals in his first two seasons in Tampa, St. Louis' career and the fortunes of the entire franchise took off during coach John Tortorella's second full season behind the bench (2002-03).
"You saw with Marty a guy that was going to buy in," said Feaster, who succeeded Dudley as GM in Tampa in time for the Lightning's Cup run. "He just grew into the player he became."
While the Lightning's Cup run in 2004 was magical and St. Louis was a big part of that with 24 points, Feaster recalls the previous playoff year as a coming out party for St. Louis and the Lightning.
The Bolts trailed Jaromir Jagr and the Washington Capitals 2-0 in the opening round of the playoffs but came back to beat them in six games before losing to New Jersey in the second round. It was the team's first taste of playoff success, and St. Louis was crucial to that success.
"He was so good and his will was so great," Feaster said.
While St. Louis continued to enjoy personal success after the Cup win, playing in the 2004 World Cup of hockey and the 2006 Olympics, the Lightning never got back to the level of play from 2004. They bowed out in the first round of the playoffs in 2006 and again in 2007. Then there was the near-catastrophic ownership change and the rumor that St. Louis wanted out when his contract was up.
But when Steve Yzerman took over as GM following the sale of the team to Jeff Vinik, St. Louis offered perhaps the greatest show of leadership for a new regime by quickly signing a contract extension.
St. Louis responded to the new deal and the new environment with a 99-point regular season and a nomination for the Hart trophy as league MVP.
The 2004 Hart trophy winner said earlier this spring he was a bit surprised by the nomination this season.
But Feaster isn't surprised by any of it.
"Oh, it doesn't surprise me. I knew he was dying the last two years, that it was eating away at him the last two years," Feaster said. "To his credit, he never complained. He just comes out and does what he does."
There are a number of reasons St. Louis continues to occupy the rarified air of the best of the best. His late-blooming career means he hasn't played all that much hockey for a player of his age. In other words, he still has lots in the tank.
"Nobody trains harder. Nobody works harder in the offseason," Feaster said.
More than that, St. Louis continues to be a player who never takes anything for granted. He prepares like a player expecting that tap on the shoulder that tells him his time is up. He doesn't want to leave anything on the table, Feaster said.
"He's the type of player that he's going to make the difference, and you know that. And having a chance now to play with him, it's an honor, and at the same time, it's fun. You know that something good's going to happen every time he's on the ice," Gagne said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.