Really, was there ever any question as to whether Marty St. Louis would be inducted into the NHL Hall Of Fame?
There are different metrics used to assess candidates. Pick any one of them and St. Louis passes with flying colors. Statistics? He finished with over 1,000 points, winning two scoring titles along the way. Champion? His name is on the Stanley Cup. Clutch? He produced big goals at the most critical times. Specifically, he scored two of the Lightning's most important goals: his triple overtime goal against Washington in the 2003 playoffs gave the Lightning their first-ever series victory and his double OT tally at Calgary in Game Six of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final stands, at least in my book, as the most important goal in franchise history. Longevity? He maintained his high standard over a lengthy career - his final NHL game came when he was 39 years old.
Still, there's one other aspect to St. Louis' career that made him a slam-dunk choice for the Hall Of Fame. He was a transformational player. In other words, Marty St. Louis, in clear and indisputable ways, transformed the NHL game.
Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the league altered its rules on obstruction. No longer would defending players be given latitude to clutch, grab, hold, hook, interfere or, by any other means, slow up attacking players. This rule change created opportunities for smaller, faster players to excel in the NHL. But when Marty St. Louis turned pro in 1997, circumstances were very different. The NHL was a big man's league. Players Marty's size (listed at 5'8") usually weren't even given a chance. To be clear, "small" doesn't necessarily mean "weak". Marty's legs were like tree trunks. But the reality for him was that he was giving up a lot of inches and pounds to most players in the league.
So Marty had to prove to the league - General Mangers and Head Coaches in particular - that he belonged. It didn't happen for him immediately. He went undrafted out of the University of Vermont. He spent most of his first two professional seasons playing in the minors. During his third pro year, he saw more time in the NHL, appearing in 53 games with Calgary. But even then, he was used only as a depth player. That trend continued during the early days of his first season with the Lightning, with whom he signed as a free agent in the summer of 2000. But his play demanded more ice time - and soon enough, he was skating on one of the top lines. All Marty needed was a chance - and when he got it, his career took off.
Marty was able to offset his size disadvantage with his exceptional quickness and hockey smarts. His ability to read plays allowed him to quickly track down pucks ahead of bigger, slower defenders. That same quickness helped him elude their efforts to obstruct him (except it wasn't viewed as "obstruction" during that time). The 2002-03 season was St. Louis' breakout year. He recorded 33 goals and 70 points during the regular season, then posted seven goals and 12 points in 11 postseason games. One of those goals was the aforementioned series-clinching triple OT tally in Washington.
The next year was the Lightning's Stanley Cup Championship season. St. Louis' 94 regular season points led the league. In the playoffs, his heroics weren't limited to the Game Six winner in Calgary. In the first round, he ended the Lightning's series against the Islanders with another overtime goal. St. Louis won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP and also the Lester Pearson Trophy (league's best as voted by other players).
The fact that St. Louis accomplished all of this before the rule changes is remarkable. And it had an effect. General Managers recognized that smaller players could not only survive in the league, but excel. Coaches weren't as hesitant to put them in big-minute roles. Furthermore, the kids were watching and gaining inspiration from St. Louis' journey. A "smallish" youth player with NHL dreams learned that his size might no longer be an insurmountable obstacle. Many of those kids idolizing St. Louis in the early 2000s have grown up and are now playing in the NHL.
It's that part of St. Louis' amazing story that is perhaps the most poignant. The rule changes helped. But, as much as anyone, he paved the way and opened doors for generations of players that followed him. Congratulations to Marty on his well-deserved induction!