By Sean Hartnett
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It was painful watching Martin St. Louis disintegrate during his final playoff run with the Rangers. Though his enormous heart was on display for all to see, his body was betraying him before our very eyes. His legs were a step slow, his razor-sharp reactions were dulled – this wasn’t the St. Louis that had dominated the playoffs year after year.

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St. Louis had always been an adroit character, constantly finding new ways to defy Father Time. Studying him during last September’s training camp, there wasn’t any sign that age was about to catch up to the player whose entire career was built on proving doubters wrong.

“I know I’m 39, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel like,” St. Louis said in late September. “I feel really good, and my testing shows that I feel really good. I’m trying to approach it as just a number and go play. For the last four or five years, everybody says, ‘He’s going to slow down and this and that.’ I haven’t felt like that.”

It always seemed that St. Louis’ incredible dedication would stretch his career beyond the age of 40, as it did for Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne and still active 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr.

“Now, I look at guys like Jagr and Selanne — guys who played well into their 40s,” St. Louis said in the same preseason interview. “Well, if they did it, why can’t I?”

It wasn’t to be. Similar to an aging boxer robbed of his quick reactions, St. Louis could still think the game as well as anyone – but his execution was lacking. His decline came fast and sudden. St. Louis finished the 2015 playoffs with one goal and six assists in 19 games as the Rangers were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a seesaw seven-game Eastern Conference Final. He had finally run out of gas just before his 40th birthday.

This isn’t the way Rangers fans should remember St. Louis. Even though his time in New York seemed to flash by like a snappy two-minute punk rock hit, he created a collection of unforgettable memories in his brief time as a Ranger.

St. Louis should be remembered for his unparalleled desire, his limitless will and his ability to push himself and his teammates to find that extra gear. There’s a lot of great players around the league that wear ‘Cs’ or ‘As’ on the front of their jersey. St. Louis was the ultimate leader in that his on-ice intensity and legendary work ethic forced teammates to search for that extra level of effort they previously might have thought was impossible.

When he spoke, everyone in the Rangers’ dressing room paid full attention to soak up his wisdom. He was a leader of men.

“He’s a big talker in the room,” Benoit Pouliot said in March 2014. “When he talks, everybody listens. He’s always talking, always telling you what’s the right thing to do on the ice.”

St. Louis gave everything for the Rangers sweater. His burning desire was there for all to see in his intense glare. His eyes told his story, and so did his heart.

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At the hardest moment of his life, St. Louis proved just how big his heart was by returning to play Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal a day after flying home to Quebec to see his mother, France, just before her passing on May 8, 2014. St. Louis had described France as “the best human being (he) had ever known in his life.”

His return rallied the Rangers into doing what many believed was the impossible – coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against a Penguins team that outscored the Rangers 9-2 between Games 2 and 4. His inspiring return to the ice sparked the Rangers into completing a 5-1 series-extending victory at Consol Energy Center. The image of teammate Derick Brassard embracing St. Louis on the bench will be forever burned into our memories.

“The way this guy responded, what he did for our hockey club, that was a tough thing for him to go through — tough for all of us,” former Rangers general manager Glen Sather said at Stanley Cup media day in 2014. “That tells you the kind of person he is. Someone that can rise up to the occasion through all that tragedy.”

Game 5 of the series fell on Mother’s Day — just four days after France’s passing — and there wasn’t a dry eye inside Madison Square Garden when St. Louis scored the game’s opening goal. With his father, Normand, and sister Isabelle among the crowd, MSG exploded into a cauldron of noise. There was no way that the Rangers were going to lose this game or the series.

After defeating the Penguins 3-1, it was St. Louis’ duty to pass the Broadway hat to the game-winning hero. Instead, St. Louis dedicated it to the entire team for helping him during his time of grief.

“You’ve got to picture it,” St. Louis said. “You’ve got to believe it and see it 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 for me these past couple days, and I’ll never forget that. This is a team win. I couldn’t be prouder to be a (expletive) New York Rangers with you guys.”

The surefire Hall of Famer announced his retirement on Thursday afternoon. While the Rangers fell short of their Stanley Cup goal in each of their two seasons with St. Louis, he made an indelible impact on his teammates — the kind that will serve them well in future playoff campaigns.

Youngsters like J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast have benefited greatly from the experience of playing alongside St. Louis, seeing his work habits firsthand and soaking up his 16 years of wisdom.

“Whenever I get the chance, I pick his brain about skills and stuff,” Miller said during last September’s training camp. “As a young guy, I pay attention to what he does on the rink and how he treats himself away from the ice. Anything I can take from that will be helpful.”

“Marty does wonders for the young guys and for the locker room in general,” Kreider said. “He’s so helpful. He’s a kid out there. It’s his passion. He’s going to get off the ice when they kick him off the ice. That’s fun. That’s something he instills in a lot of guys. It’s great to see.”

St. Louis left the Rangers with a parting gift. Every teammate he touched gained something extra by following Marty’s all-effort example. Congratulations to No. 26 on an unbelievable career.

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Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.