Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos stood at the head of the Bolts’ locker room inside Amalie Arena, surrounded by a larger-than-usual collection of media.
The topic? Martin St. Louis and the former Lightning standout’s first return to the area following a trade that sent him to the New York Rangers on March 5.
Stamkos recalled Tampa Bay’s game with the Buffalo Sabres a day after the trade. The Lightning superstar had missed 45 games with a broken leg and was playing again for the first time. He was also selected as the tenth captain in Lightning franchise history prior to his return, replacing his friend and former teammate St. Louis.
“That’s not the way I envisioned it all going down getting the C on your jersey,” Stamkos said, chuckling. “It all happened that same day, so it was throw it out on the table, here we go and now we have to deal with it.”
Since that day last season when St. Louis was sent packing to New York and the Lightning acquired forward Ryan Callahan along with a pair of high draft picks, both sides have moved on and found success.
Tampa Bay Lightning fans will get their first chance to see St. Louis in an opposing sweater on the Amalie Arena ice when the Bolts host the Rangers on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. puck drop).
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said he, like the rest of the hockey world, is anxious to see how St. Louis will be received by the crowd.
“He does have probably a pretty in-depth relationship with the fans, and sometimes family members get in a fight and I think that’s what happened,” Cooper said. “Sometimes they make up, sometimes they don’t and this is a pretty big family. The chances of them all forgiving are probably not there, so I’m sure he’s going to hear both ends of the spectrum. All I ask is people should remember what he did for the organization because he did a lot of great things and that should be remembered. After that, I think he should be treated like a visiting opponent, just like everybody else should.”
Stamkos, who had dinner with St. Louis on Monday night, said he understands why some Tampa Bay fans might feel anger over St. Louis departure. St. Louis requested a trade from the Lightning midway through the 2013-14 season. Stamkos said he spoke with St. Louis at length about wanting him to remain with the Lightning before the trade.
“The situation is what it is,” Stamkos said. “There really is no sugarcoating it. We know what happened. Some people can live with that, some people can move on and some people are going to hold that to their grave probably. I think Marty understands that. I think everyone in here understands that there’s probably going to be mixed emotions tomorrow from the fans, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Following the trade, St. Louis was a key part of the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals, scoring eight goals and registering 15 points over 25 playoff games.
In 20 games with the Lightning last season, Callahan had six goals and five assists. After the season, the Bolts locked up Callahan long term, signing him to a six-year contract.
Callahan currently ranks fifth on the Lightning for points (16), having tallied eight goals and eight assists in 17 games.
When asked if he thought both teams benefitted from the trade, Cooper agreed.
“(New York) took a gamble to get what they wanted and they got it,” Cooper said. “And on our side of things, I think our team’s transitioning, and he gave us an opportunity to make a move that I don’t know we would have been able to make down the road and we took it and I think eventually I think it’s going to pan out for us as well, just in the fact that we gambled and won by re-signing Ryan Callahan. Our thing wasn’t to have Ryan Callahan for 20 games. It was to have Ryan Callahan for prolonged years…I do know on our side it’s helped us because we gained assets and we gained a player that could play right away and it was a piece of our puzzle we really needed as a team.”
Stamkos played together with St. Louis for five full seasons and most of a sixth. A part of Stamkos’ maturation as a professional hockey player came as a result of his friendship with St. Louis.
“I think Marty was a mentor for me in all the time that we got a chance to play together,” Stamkos said. “He just taught me how to be a true professional. You look at his work ethic and his desire and dedication to the game, there’s a correlation to why he’s one of the best players in the world. That rubs off. For me, it was pretty special to see him on a daily basis and learn from him in that regard.”
St. Louis played 14 seasons in Tampa Bay and continues to hold Lightning franchise records for points (953) and assists (588). He helped the Lightning win their only Stanley Cup in franchise history during the 2003-04 season.
But when the puck drops Wednesday, he’ll be an opposing player on a team the Lightning are competing against for a playoff spot.
“I’m sure there’s going to be mixed emotions for him coming in tomorrow,” Stamkos said. “To be honest, I think there’s going to be some cheers and probably some boos and I think he probably knows that. When he made his decision, I’m sure he thought about this day at the time, but for all the things that he did do, I think there are going to be people that remember the good moments.”