TORONTO – On an otherwise festive evening, with the accent on having fun while raising money to help find a cure for cancer, Martin St. Louis stands out from the pack in his shocking pink shorts and with his command of the ping pong paddle.
The veteran right wing of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won his second Art Ross Trophy this past season after leading the NHL in scoring, is all smiles as he displays his mastery at the table. The native of Laval, Quebec is clearly as comfortable dishing out impossible-to-return serves with deadly spin as he is digging pucks out of the corner against towering opponents or fighting his way through a crowd on the ice to slap a rebound home.
St. Louis works the adoring crowd, making everyone in his path feel special.
But his joyous demeanor suddenly turns serious when the subject of playing in the Olympics comes up. Make no mistake about it, St. Louis, 38, is thrilled beyond belief to be among the 47 players who will gather in Calgary in late August for Hockey Canada's Olympic orientation camp leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Still, the pain of being left off the team that captured the gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver stings like an open wound.
"It was tough," St. Louis said. "There's no doubt about it. I'm happy they won the gold, but at the same time it was a tough situation for me to have to watch it."
What's interesting is that Steve Yzerman – the man who constructed Canada's roster for the Vancouver Games – is now the general manager of the Lightning. St. Louis said he and his boss have discussed his exclusion from the 2010 team.
"We talked about it early on when he got the job and it's behind us," St. Louis said. "I'm not upset. I told him I'll always be disappointed no matter what he tells me, but they are put in a position to make tough decisions and he had to make the decisions he had to make. Obviously, he made the right ones because they won the gold medal."
If you are thinking St. Louis has been included in this year's camp simply because Yzerman doesn't want his player's nose to be out of joint next season, think again. For starters, St. Louis remains one of the most consistently explosive players in the NHL. Despite his small stature (5-foot-8, 180 pounds), he is a giant when it comes to producing offense and he's a responsible defensive forward too.
The fact of the matter is Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins likely would have led the NHL in scoring had he not been injured for the final month of the season. But in winning the Art Ross, St. Louis held off late-charging Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, not to mention Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos.
Also, Canada is stacked with an overabundance of centers and not nearly enough natural wings. Obviously, a few of those centers will be switched to the wing, but it would be foolhardy to not include a few wings.
"I'll be a natural whatever they want me to be if it means making the team," St. Louis said with a grin. "If I have a chance to play for my country at this stage of my career, I'll do whatever they want. My kids are 10, 8 and 5, and they will remember this event. I take pride in that. My kids are part of everything I do now, and what I get to experience, they get to experience too.
"It's an honor and I'm flattered to be considered among the 47 players that will be there. As a player, you want to play at the highest level you can. I was left off the team in 2010 and I told myself I'd push myself as hard as I could and make it hard for them to not include me in 2014."
St. Louis' attention is not only on making the Olympic team. His No. 1 priority is helping the Lightning fight their way back to respectability. St. Louis has been the model of consistency and an inspirational leader in Tampa Bay, but the team has struggled the past couple of seasons.
The big news this summer in Tampa Bay was the buyout of longtime star and captain Vincent Lecavalier, who later signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Lightning also are hopeful new goalie Ben Bishop will be the answer in net, top draft choice Jonathan Drouin will be given every opportunity to make the team, and center Valtteri Filppula should add important depth. But nothing will likely replace the presence of Lecavalier, who for years was considered the face of the franchise.
"In terms of no Vinny, it's going to be quite different," St. Louis said. "We started pretty much together in Tampa Bay. He was there a few years before me, but we've been together for 13 years. It's not so much the on-ice that will be different, but not being together on the bus or in the airplanes, hotels and dinners; it’s going to be weird that he's not there.
"As a team, we need to make a move this year in terms of where we're going to be in April. It hasn't been good enough the way it has been the past few years, coming off a season where we were one win away from going to the Stanley Cup Final."
That would be the 2010-11 season, when the Lightning, coached by Guy Boucher, dropped a 1-0 decision in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to the eventual champion Boston Bruins. Despite an abundance of scoring power, Boucher prompted his team to take a more defensive posture, limiting the talents of St. Louis, Stamkos, Lecavalier, Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone.
The Lightning struggled under Boucher in the next two seasons, missing the playoffs each year. In March, he was replaced by Jon Cooper, and St. Louis said playing for the new coach gave the players an idea of what to expect. It also gave Cooper a glimpse of what he has at his disposal.
"You want to find yourself in the battle in April and May," St. Louis said. "Not being involved in that, it's tough to watch."
That goes for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Winter Olympics.
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