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Hartnett: Lion-Hearted Martin St. Louis Is All Inspiration, All The Time

Martin St. Louis during Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin St. Louis during Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Every time Martin St. Louis laces up his skates, pure effort flows out of every pore. This uncompromising tenacity combined with an unshakable mentality is what separates St. Louis from the other 99 percent in the NHL.

It’s one thing to be a world-class athlete. St. Louis is a world-class athlete with nerves of steel and the heart of a lion. This package of ferocity, poise and skill makes him the rarest breed of hockey player.

Throughout his entire hockey life, St. Louis has made a knack of charging through adversity. After four successful years at the University of Vermont, St. Louis saw the attention of NHL clubs dry up after his production slipped during his senior year. The $150,000 signing bonuses once dangled in front of him to leave college early had been pulled off the table.

As an undrafted 22-year-old free agent, St. Louis caught on with the Ottawa Senators – only to be released prior to the 1997-98 season. St. Louis had to pave his way into the NHL through the now defunct International Hockey League, eventually signing on with the Calgary Flames. Long before his Stanley Cup, Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy year with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, St. Louis struggled to lock down a place on the Flames between 1998-2000. The undersized, 5-foot-8 winger had successfully molded his game to play a checking line role, but the Flames opted to buy him out following the 1999-00 season.

Having found a home in Tampa, St. Louis’ progress continued upward to the point of unquestionable stardom. He established himself as one of the league’s most decorated, dominant and durable players during his 13-year stay with the Lightning. At 38, St. Louis craved a new challenge, and he only had one destination in mind for the next chapter of his career – “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

St. Louis arrived in New York in whirlwind trade deadline fashion, having forced Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman’s hand to complete the “captain swap,” as St. Louis and Ryan Callahan exchanged the uniforms that became synonymous with their names. St. Louis was rushed to the Garden to make his Rangers debut just hours after the trade was given league approval.

“I know this is going to be a challenge for me,” St. Louis said following his Rangers debut. “But I love challenges and I like to rise to the occasion and be put in that position. This is a chance to play the game in one of the biggest markets and I know what comes with it. When things are good, it’s awesome. There’s going to be tough times, but you’ve got to live through it and you’ve got to face it. I am my biggest critic and I’ve always felt that way. And that’s one of the reasons to keep pushing it.”

His words proved to be foretelling. With a change of scenery came the challenge of winning over a fan base that had grown attached to Callahan’s wholehearted efforts. An initial 14-game goalless drought had prompted concerns over whether St. Louis’ magic act had begun to suffer at the hands of time. Such fears were premature. All along, St. Louis was contributing in all areas of the ice – but had hit a rough patch. Eventually, the cream had risen to the top as St. Louis’ undiminished all-world ability shined through.

Yet, all of the challenges St. Louis has faced head-on could have never prepared him for the emotional roller coaster he’s endured over the past five days. On Thursday, St. Louis’ mother, France, passed away at 63. St. Louis flew to Montreal, then rejoined his teammates on Friday before suiting up in the Rangers’ emotional 5-1 Game 5 victory.

ST. LOUIS SCORES ON MOTHER’S DAY IN FRONT OF FATHER AND SISTER

When the Rangers took the ice for Game 6 against Pittsburgh on Mother’s Day, the home fans backed St. Louis with chants of “Mart-y, Mart-y.” At 3:34 into the first period, St. Louis crashed the net and scored the game’s opening goal. Immediately, the emotion came pouring out of St. Louis as he celebrated enthusiastically with teammates.

“When he scored the first goal, I can’t even describe the atmosphere on our bench,” teammate Derick Brassard said. “We’re trying to win a game, but at the same time, he scored a big goal and we all know how important for it is for him. I’m just happy for him.”

After scoring, St. Louis scooped up the puck and later said he would give it to his father. He said he felt that his mother’s spirit had helped him through the game.

“I know she helped me through this,” St. Louis said.

You would have to be made of stone not to be affected. There probably wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist called it “a beautiful moment.”

“When Marty scores that goal, it was such a beautiful moment,” Lundqvist said. “It got really emotional to watch that, and see him and see what he’s been through. I think the entire team was feeding off that momentum and the entire building.”

Brassard said that the Rangers “took off” after St. Louis’ opening goal. The 26-year-old center would later score a hard-earned goal of his own in the second period when he batted a puck in the air past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Through everything, St. Louis has inspired his teammates with his no-quit attitude in the face of adversity. These guys would run through a wall for St. Louis on any night. Considering what he’s been through, their passion for their inspirational teammate has been ramped up to a whole new level.

“He’s really brought us together,” Brassard said of St. Louis. “There’s no better guy to score a first goal for us and get us going. He deserves it, he never quit. He’s one of our leaders on the team. When he plays with emotion, obviously it’s going to have an effect on our team.”

After St. Louis was announced as the game’s number one star, he touched his heart to indicate his appreciation for the Garden faithful supporting him through every shift. He then pointed to the corner of the arena where father Normand and sister Isabelle were seated.

“Mother’s Day, my dad’s here, my sister’s here,” St. Louis said. “It’s been a tough time for my whole family. To be able to get the lead in the first period, it was a good moment.”

ST. LOUIS: ‘I COULDN’T BE PROUDER TO BE A NEW YORK RANGER’

When St. Louis returned to the locker room, it was his duty to pass off the Broadway hat. Having received it after Game 5, St. Louis opted to give it to the entire team instead of passing it off to an individual teammate. His speech was picked up by cameras.

“Great win boys,” St. Louis said in the locker room. “You’ve got to picture it . You’ve got to believe it, you got to see in your head that everything is possible. Everybody pushed tonight. I can’t pick one guy, I’ve got to give it to the whole team. You guys have been nothing but unbelievable to me these past couple days. I’ll never forget that. This is a team win. I couldn’t be prouder to be (expletive) New York Ranger with you guys. Thank you very much.”

The speech summed up exactly who St. Louis is. He’s a selfless, always believing, all-class individual.

ST. LOUIS: ‘WE HAVE TO BELIEVE AND JUST HAVE TO KEEP PUSHING’

Now, St. Louis and the Rangers will look to finish off the Penguins in a winner-takes-all Game 7 on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.

“Everyone is really playing their hearts out,” St. Louis said. “That’s what you need to keep going ahead at this time of year. We’re getting some quality play from all the guys.”

Having played in countless Game 7s, St. Louis’ message to his teammates is simple.

“You’ve got to believe, and you’ve just to keep pushing,” St. Louis said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Brassard said the Rangers aren’t feeling the pressure.

“Honestly, we have no pressure,” Brassard said. “We have nothing to lose. Those were the guys that were winning 3-1 in the series and we tied it. It’s one game, anything can happen, but we’re pretty confident. We’ve been good on the road all year, so I don’t know why anything would change.”

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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