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How Martin St. Louis rose to become an all-time great

Once an NHL afterthought, the retired Lightning winger forever left his imprint on a franchise that needed it the most.

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

When Martin St. Louis joined the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 31, 2000 as a free agent, the diminutive winger was just trying to get another NHL game.

The undrafted St. Louis was signed by the Calgary Flames during the 1997-98 season and spent the next two-and-a-half seasons bouncing back and forth between Calgary and the Flames' AHL affiliate in Saint John.

Set adrift by the Flames during a change in management, St. Louis was without a home following the 1999-2000 season. His release generated little interest among NHL teams. One of the few that saw value in the 5-foot-8, 180-pound left wing who averaged over a point a game at Saint John (114 points, 95 games) was the Tampa Bay Lightning.

St. Louis was intrigued.

"Tampa was not a very good team then," St. Louis recalled. "It was at the bottom of the league. For me it was like, 'If I can't play there, where can I play?'"

Sixteen years later, St. Louis is being honored as one of the Tampa Bay franchise's all-time greats.

Thursday, the Lightning announced St. Louis will have his No. 26 retired on January 13, 2017, becoming the first Bolt to have his jersey hang from the rafters. The Lightning will play Columbus during that mid-January game, the Blue Jackets coached by John Tortorella, who was behind the Bolts' bench when St. Louis helped the franchise win its first Stanley Cup.

Video: The Lightning will retire No. 26 on January 13, 2017

"It is a very high standard to have one's jersey retired," Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said while speaking to media Thursday. "Marty St. Louis meets and exceeds that standard. He was a very special player, and he is still very special."

Look up and down the Lightning's record book and St. Louis' name will be found at or near the top of every offensive statistic.

St. Louis owns the Lightning all-time record for points (953), 79 more than second-place Vinny Lecavalier (874). St. Louis also holds the Bolts franchise records for assists (588), game-winning goals (64), shorthanded goals (28), overtime scoring (21 points) and power-play points (300).

His 68-assist season in 2010-11 ranks tied for first all time in franchise history with Brad Richards (2005-06). 

He led the Lightning for goals in a season three times, for assists in a season eight times - including seven-straight seasons from 2006-07 through 2012-13 - and for points in a season four times.

His six NHL All-Star Game appearances are the most in Lightning history, as are the five times he was named to the NHL Postseason All-Star Team, and he remains the only Bolt to be named a first team All-Star Team member.

His trophy case is overflowing with NHL awards. He won the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP as voted by the PHWA) and the Lester B. Pearson Award (NHL MVP as voted by the Players' Association, now known as the Ted Lindsay Award) in 2003-04. He owns two Art Ross Trophies, given to the NHL point leader at the end of the regular season, and three Lady Byng Memorial Trophies, given to the player exhibiting the best sportsmanship while playing at a high standard.

He's second all-time on the Bolts for goals (365), games played (972) and points per game (0.98).

And he scored arguably the most important goal in Tampa Bay Lightning history. 33 seconds into double overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at Calgary, St. Louis pounced on a rebound off Tim Taylor's shot from the point and lifted the puck over the right shoulder of Flames' goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 victory and send the series back to Tampa tied 3-all.

Video: Martin St. Louis wins Game 6 of the Cup Final in 2OT

Two days later at the then-St. Pete Times Forum, the Lightning won their first Stanley Cup.

When St. Louis took the Cup for his celebratory turn around the rink, the bridge of his nose was bloodied and stitched. Another cut opened above his right eye.

Despite his size, St. Louis was a bulldog, his grit and determination legendary inside the Lightning locker room.

"Marty had so many great characteristics on and off the ice, there's no doubt," Vinik said. "One of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker, on the team when he was here and all about winning whether it was Stanley Cups, whether it was making the playoffs in various years, giving for the team. One of the reasons I love the sport of hockey is, there is no question that, in my opinion, of all the major sports, it is a team game. Marty, captain for a while, certainly embodied that and was a great leader here and we'd like to see all of our players work as well together."

St. Louis credited his teammates for the amount of success he had in the NHL. He finished his career having played 1,134 games over 16 seasons for three different teams - Flames, Lightning and New York Rangers - and tallying 1,033 points (391 goals, 642 assists). He announced his retirement following the 2014-15 season.

"I was surrounded by a lot of great players and coaches that believed in me," St. Louis said. "…If you think about my three centers in Tampa, okay I played with Brad Richards, who had 1,000 games, Conn Smythe winner, just unbelievable career. That was my first center really in a top six role. And then I went with Vinny Lecavalier, who clearly, you know, Rocket Richard, unbelievable career and I would bounce back and forth with them. And then I go on to play with Steven Stamkos, who was another Rocket Richard (winner). I was surrounded by so many great athletes that wanted to be here, that wanted to push. For everybody to achieve success, you have to be around people who want to achieve success as well. And I was. And that's just naming my centermen, but I played with unbelievable wingers as well…You can't accomplish any individual milestones unless you're surrounded with people that have the same desire.

"And I did."

Many might have shared the same desire as St. Louis, but only a special few could combine that with the talent St. Louis possessed.

And to think, 16 years ago, St. Louis wondered if he'd ever play another game in the NHL.

"It's definitely an honor to not only get your jersey up there but to be the first," St. Louis said. "There's a lot of other great choices that could have been up there first, and I'm humbled that I'm the first one going up there, and I hope the first of many. To think how far this franchise has come in such a short amount of time and the state that it is right now, it's a great team, great brand, fun place to play for the player, fun place to watch…It's just an amazing rink to watch a game.

"What Mr. Vinik has done since I've met him has been unbelievable. But for me to be up there, it's going to be a special night, and I hope that me and the fans can really enjoy that night and not worry so much about me not finishing my career in Tampa. I had so much fun playing in front of the fans, and I fed off them every night. I grew up there. It wasn't like I was there for two, three years. I was there for a long time. It was special to play in front of that crowd."

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