More than 16 years later, St. Louis is coming home because the team that gave him a chance, the one he helped build and put on the NHL map, is ready to give him an honor only one person can receive.
At Amalie Arena on Friday, St. Louis' No. 26 will be the first retired by the Lightning. The ceremony will be held prior to a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets (8 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, SUN, FS-O, NHL.TV), who are coached by John Tortorella, who was Tampa Bay coach when St. Louis and the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
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"It's an honor," St. Louis said. "Just getting your jersey retired is quite the honor, and obviously to be the first one I think makes it even more special."
St. Louis played with the Lightning from 2000-01 until he was traded at his request to the New York Rangers on March 5, 2014.
He is the Lightning leader in points (953), assists (588), power-play points (300), shorthanded goals (28), shorthanded points (44), game-winning goals (64) and overtime goals (10). His 365 goals and 972 games played are second behind Vincent Lecavalier (383 goals; 1,037 games).
St. Louis also is the Lightning leader in Stanley Cup Playoff goals (33), assists (35) and points (68). He is the only Lightning player to win the Hart Trophy (2003-04) and the Art Ross Trophy, which he won twice (2003-04, 2012-13). He won the Lady Byng Trophy three times (2009-10, 2010-11, 2012-13).
"Vinny was the first-round pick and the face of the franchise, but I would say Marty was the heart and soul," former Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle said. "A lot of people identify with the underdog, with that story. It doesn't have to be hockey related. Anybody undersized or underappreciated in their jobs identified with Marty, and that's why the fans reacted to him the way they did."
St. Louis didn't know how to react when he broke into the NHL with the Calgary Flames in 1998. He was an undrafted 23-year-old out of the University of Vermont playing alongside his childhood idol, Theo Fleury. He struggled to believe he belonged.
"I was so intimidated by the NHL," St. Louis said. "Physically I had the tools and everything, but mentally I was so impressed with the NHL that it slowed me down development-wise, I think."
Following the 1999-00 season, St. Louis, who played 69 games in two seasons with the Flames, signed with the Lightning. He went to a new team with a new mindset.
Video: BUF@TBL: St. Louis and his sons drop ceremonial puck
"I had two years, 69 NHL games, 150 or so minor-league games, where I was over a point-per-game producer," he said. "I felt good about myself by the time I got to Tampa. I thought I was prepared for that opportunity."
He had 18 goals and 40 points in 78 games primarily as a bottom-six forward in the 2000-01 season. It wasn't until his second season with the Lightning, Tortorella's first full season as coach, when St. Louis was given an opportunity to play in a top-six role. He had 35 points in 53 games but broke his leg halfway through the season.
But he made an impression on his coach.
"This has nothing to do with me giving him an opportunity," Tortorella said. "I have to look at the players, watch them practice, watch them play. They're the ones who determine ice time. Marty St. Louis broke down the door with me. Once he cracked the door, he broke it down. I couldn't keep him off the ice just by the way he played."
St. Louis built on his 53 games with 33 goals and 70 points in 82 games in 2002-03. Then in 2003-04, St. Louis led the NHL with 94 points, won the Hart Trophy, and the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
He would take off from there, with 43 goals and 102 points in 2006-07, and would average 89 points from 2007-11.
"I wasn't intimidated anymore," St. Louis said. "Did I have to catch myself sometimes and not be in shock? Yeah. You definitely have to talk to yourself because you look at all these guys up there with me and they're first-rounders, some very high picks, and here I am, undrafted. So you have to consistently tell yourself, 'This is accurate and I'm supposed to be there.'"
St. Louis eventually felt he needed a change, something different, for himself and his family, which includes his wife, Heather, and his three sons, Ryan, Lucas and Mason. It was a decision that had nothing to do with the Lightning that prompted him to consider his options.
Video: Martin St. Louis wins Game 6 of the Cup Final in 2OT
St. Louis was hurt when Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, in his role as Canada executive director, didn't put him on the original roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He eventually made it as a replacement for Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos.
"It wasn't 100 percent that, but it opened up some thoughts that we had as a family," St. Louis said. "It was like a trigger point that made us realize, 'What can we do to make our family benefit, for the kids?'"
One idea, St. Louis said, was to find a way to best transition his boys into dad's post-NHL career life, which, as planned, was going to be spent in Greenwich, Connecticut, Heather's hometown. St. Louis felt if the family moved there before he retired it would be a smoother transition for his children.
"It's a huge life change," he said.
St. Louis asked for a trade to the Rangers. Yzerman eventually granted it, and got a big haul in return, including forward Ryan Callahan, a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, and a conditional pick that turned into a first-round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft when the Rangers reached the 2014 Eastern Conference Final.
"It was a hard decision to make, but it was the right one for many reasons, for my kids, for myself," said St. Louis, who played a big role in the Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup Final.
He likened it to when he left home in Laval, Quebec, to go to the University of Vermont by saying, "It was sad but I needed to do that."
St. Louis added that he harbors no ill-will toward Yzerman.
"I respected him as a GM and I respected his decisions," St. Louis, 41, said. "I didn't like some of them, but I respected them. I guarantee you he didn't like some of my decisions, but he respected them. I think we have that understanding."
With bygones being bygones, St. Louis and the Lightning, two forces that badly needed each other more than 16 years ago, are ready to resume their relationship Friday, when No. 26 will begin to hang over the franchise for all the right reasons.
"I'll always be a Lightning," St. Louis said. "I'm Lightning first."