By Larry Wigge
Somehow Martin St. Louis can't seem to get that chip off his shoulder. Even after 13 years.
Undrafted for four years at University of Vermont and other spots like Cleveland and St. John's on his journey, saying he was too small. Even today, after a brilliant 13-year NHL career, the 36-year-old can't really appreciative how much it would be to be recognized simply as a hockey player and not a 5-foot-7 player.
Ask any scout and they'll all tell you now that you can't cut into his chest to learn about huge heart he displays and the smarts -- in a list of the intangibles that brings with St. Louis on the ice.
"He's been an incredible leader. He's the little giant," head coach Guy Boucher said. "And when you recognize all that he has done and all that he is still doing under these tough circumstances, it has to inspire not just our players, but little kids and people in society when you can fight through all kinds of things when everybody is telling you, you can't do that.
"He's the perfect representation to be persistent and it's just simply amazing."
The former Laval, Quebec, native, St. Louis contributed his second hat trick within a month. Against New Jersey, he scored three goals and an assist and a 4-3 victory for the Tampa Bay Lightning. His production of 22 goals and 36 assists for 58 points in 57 games -- in just over 900 games, 320 goals and 516 assist for 831 points.
But there's still that lingering question about whether he belongs in the NHL.
"I want to be the player I am, and I want to stay that way," St. Louis explained. But ...
"So what am I fighting now? I'm fighting my age. First I was too small, and now I'm too old, right? It's always going to be something. So for me, it's just preparing myself and trying to stay on top of my game as long as I can."
"You want to fight until the end," continued St. Louis, who has reached the 30-goal mark six times and 20 goals now for the ninth consecutive seasons.
Two things he's done that makes scouts take a second look -- he won a Stanley Cup championship in 2004 and was the NHL's MVP that same season.
It was in that playoff series that St. Louis was playing against the Calgary Flames, but he said he wasn't thinking about sticking it to the team that put him of waivers.
Far from it.
"No way," St. Louis said matter-of-factly. "This isn't about one player or one decision or anything that happened four years ago.
"Honestly, I owe them for giving me a chance to play in the NHL. ... Besides, my dad won't let me forget about my days with the Flames with all of the photos he has of me in his house."
A smile crossed his face.
"I don't know how he got it, but my dad's got a photo of me playing my first NHL game for the Flames when we went to Japan to open the season in 1998," he continued. "I was wearing No. 46 in that game, quite a number, eh? He's got another picture of me wearing a No. 15 Flames jersey."
For the record, St. Louis has always worn No. 26 when he's had a choice -- wearing that number as a tribute to diminutive Mats Naslund, who was Martin's favorite Canadiens player when he was growing up near Montreal.
Once considered too small to play -- let alone excel -- in the NHL, the undrafted Tampa Bay Lightning star is making a career of turning skeptics into believers.
"The first time I saw him, I never thought he could succeed at this level because of his lack of size," Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said of the 5-foot-7, 185-pound St. Louis. "But he quickly changed my mind because he's always moving, always trying to create something on the ice -- and is a much more difficult target out there to hit.
"He reminds me a little of Barry Sanders in his days with the Detroit Lions, when Sanders would dart in and out of traffic and make moves you wouldn't believe like the one St. Louis made tonight."
A quantum leap from 33 goals and 70 points in 2002-03 to 38 goals and 94 points. And he added nine goals and 15 assists in 23 playoff games.
St. Louis isn't just a guy with big heart. He has powerful legs and speeds across the ice. He doesn't care if he is cast as the underdog or as a feel-good story. He just wants to score goals.
"I'll let you write the story," he smiled. "All I know is it has been quite a ride. Whether I get it done with talent or heart, I don't think it matters as long as I bring my best. Some guys get it done with just talent. Some guys have just a good work ethic. I like to think I have a combination of both."
Jay Feaster, who had been the GM in Tampa Bay and currently is the boss in Calgary, said, "To me, there was never a question that he had the skill to play. The issue was, if you're a small player, you have to have some big intangibles to overcome the size issue -- and in our minds he had great character, was strong for a man his size and had wonderful skill and great speed.
"What it shows is when you are a determined young man, you can accomplish a lot of things. Always being told you are too small, too this or too that is enough to make a player determined, don't you think?"
St. Louis remembers when he left Quebec to play college hockey at Vermont because Major Junior teams didn't show a lot of interest -- and besides he wanted to earn his degree, in case he had no career in professional hockey.
"I tried not to listen to other people," he said. "Who cares if they don't think I can do it? They weren't trying to be mean. They just didn't know what made me really tick, what drove me."
Martin St. Louis will never forget that day -- June of 2000.
"I'll never forget that day," St. Louis recalled. "I was playing in (Flyers left winger) John LeClair's charity golf tournament at the University of Vermont when my cellphone went off.
"I remember him saying, 'Calgary just released me,' " Flames center Craig Conroy. "He shanked his next drive and looked like he wanted to just go off somewhere and hide. But after the round he was upbeat and put a typical Marty positive spin on the whole issue, saying that he was going to go out and try to find a team that would give him a chance, would give him a fresh start."
Warrior? There's none better, especially in St. Louis' weight class.
Martin St. Louis says he didn't think the Calgary Flames knew what made him tick when they let him go on that fateful day in July of 2000.
"I'll never quit," he says. "And I'll never let my teammates quit, either."
Intangibles. Heat and soul. Martin St. Louis.