clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Martin St. Louis' complicated return to Tampa Bay

New, comment

In January 2014, a series of events set in motion the beginning of the end for one of the greatest players in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and that certainly applies to Martin St. Louis' return to Tampa Bay on Wednesday night.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Martin St. Louis' return to Tampa Bay is just as complicated as when he initially arrived in 2000. While the circumstances that brought him to the Lightning and the circumstances that pushed him away from the Lightning are unique, they share a commonality: They both were the result of St. Louis' competitive spirit.

Having failed to earn an NHL contract after a successful run at The University of Vermont, St. Louis signed with the International Hockey League in hopes of continuing his career. The plan worked out and he was offered a contract with the Calgary Flames. After two seasons in the Flames' organization, St. Louis was left unprotected in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft but went unclaimed.

He was then bought out of his contract by the Flames, signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and became one of the best players in the history of the franchise.

Having won a Stanley Cup in 2004 -- the first in the relatively short history of the Lightning -- St. Louis had established himself as a leader and a fan favorite over the years. In 2013, he became the official leader of the team when he was named captain. With St. Louis at the helm and Steven Stamkos at his side, the Lightning emerged as a legitimate contender to win the Eastern Conference.

Then everything changed.

Oh, Canada

For Canadian-born hockey players, there are few honors as prestigious as representing the country at an international event. Canada takes great pride in its hockey excellence, so much so that it's almost a punchline. But the admiration is very real and being part of a Canadian national team is something that every Canadian born hockey player hopes to do.

Which brings us to January 2014.

The Winter Olympics were scheduled to take place later that year in Sochi, Russia. Canada was a heavy favorite to win the tournament and was coming off a gold medal finish in Vancouver four years earlier. The pressure for a repeat was palpable. The reason expectations were so high was because of the vast talent at the Canadians' disposal. This was a double-edged sword, however, as each nation could only bring 25 players. Canada was so deep that some joked they could field two full teams that would be good enough to qualify for the gold medal game.

That meant some talented players were going to be left behind. Martin St. Louis was one of those players.

The Yzerman Problem

St. Louis was having a fantastic season. Most believed his name was written in pen on the evaluation sheet right next to his line mate, Stamkos. Besides his excellent performance -- and his chemistry with one of Canada's best forwards --many believed St. Louis, the captain of the Lightning, would make the Canadian Olympic team because Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Lightning, was the executive director of the Olympic team.

They were wrong.

Yzerman nervously stumbled through an introductory speech, announced the team's three goaltenders and then passed the torch onto his assistants to announce the team. No one mentioned St. Louis' name until the media brought it up after 25 other names were announced.

St. Louis was visibly devastated by the decision. Stamkos was devastated by the decision. And Yzerman, although acting as one of the individuals involved in the decision, appeared to be devastated by it too.

It was ultimately the beginning of the end of St. Louis' tenure with the Lightning.

To make matters more tense, this wasn't the first time that Yzerman elected not to put St. Louis on the Canadian Olympic team. Having been named the executive director in anticipation of the 2010 Olympics, Yzerman was the primary architect of the gold medal team that put so much pressure on the 2014 team. Primary is the key word, because Yzerman alone doesn't pick the team; he's part of a group who evaluates the nation's talent pool and then comes to a consensus decision on the roster. In 2010, that consensus opinion also resulted in St. Louis not being named to the team.

Yzerman wasn't the general manager of the Lightning at the time, so St. Louis' absence wasn't as disruptive as it would ultimately become.

Interestingly enough, St. Louis eventually was named to the 2014 Canadian roster, replacing Stamkos of all people, because he had sustained a serious leg injury earlier in the season and hadn't rehabilitated enough to play. Canada won gold and many thought things would blow over. They didn't.

New York, New York

Martin St. Louis wanted to join the New York Rangers. This is a desire that predated the 2014 Olympics and Yzerman's appointment as Tampa Bay's general manager.

Brian Lawton, the Lightning general manager before Yzerman, recounted a time in 2009 when St. Louis came to his office and expressed that he was unhappy in Tampa Bay.

He wanted to be traded and he wanted to play for the Rangers, via Raw Charge:

"I can tell you that when I was in Tampa in 2009 right before the trade deadline where Marty was waiting in my office for me and he came in and said that he wasn't happy and wanted to be traded and wanted to be traded to one team which was the New York Rangers. So when I heard this, it's a little bit deja vu."

It was deja vu because reports began to surface after the Olympic announcement that St. Louis had once again requested a trade and would only go to New York. Because of stipulations in his contract, St. Louis could dictate where he would play. St. Louis had an offseason home in Connecticut, had ties to the Rangers organization and once again wanted to leave Tampa Bay.

This time, however, he had a general manager willing to make the request a reality.

On March 4, St. Louis recorded an assist in St. Louis as captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning. On March 5, he was in New York making his debut with the New York Rangers.

The Return

When St. Louis returns to Tampa Bay on Wednesday night, some fans will boo him. They will be justified in that feeling. While some might say that they need to move on, the nature of fandom doesn't require the ability to let history fade. In fact, fandom almost requires the exact opposite.

St. Louis actively decided that he wanted to leave a contending team because of a personal issue with his employer that didn't immediately impact his employment other than the lasting sting of a hurt ego. Considering the 10-game point streak St. Louis went on in the wake of the snub, that hurt ego might not have been such a bad thing.

Just as St. Louis was hurt by Yzerman not fighting harder for him to make the Olympic team, so too were a segment of the Lightning fan base hurt by St. Louis' decision to abandon the team.

They have a right to be hurt and to express that hurt how they see fit and to not be called dumb for wanting to do it.

With that being said, for every one fan who boos, there will be 30 who cheer. And when the Lightning play the Martin St. Louis tribute video during the first stoppage of play, you can rest assured that no jeer could overpower the eruption of applause that will meet one of the greatest players the Tampa Bay franchise has ever known.

That's because Martin St. Louis meant a lot to Tampa Bay and did a lot for Tampa Bay and deserved everything he got in Tampa Bay. While some might not agree with his decision to leave -- or more accurately, the timing of it -- it was something he needed to do to be happy. Considering the way he battled adversity and used it to fuel his outstanding career, it should be no surprise that he would respond to the snub the way he did.

On those levels, everyone can find some way to understand why he'll be entering Tampa Bay as a visitor.

It just won't make it any less complicated.