St. Louis not too small for Hart

Peruse the list of Hart Trophy winners over the last 30 or 40 years and they have several common traits, not the least of which is that their coming was foretold.

Whether they were heralded from the time they were teenagers as the savior of a franchise (Mario Lemieux) or The Next One (Eric Lindros) or simply The Great One (Wayne Gretzky), their ascension to the league's highest individual honor, from last year's winner Peter Forsberg on through Guy Lafleur and Bobby Hull and Bernie Geoffrion and Gordie Howe was not so much a surprise as a given, a natural evolution for the game's greatest players.

Check that list again.

Let's see if we can find a player who was considered such a long shot that he was not drafted.

How about one that was cast away by one moribund franchise and then ignored by 29 others before finally finding a team that would give him a chance -- and then only reluctantly.

You won't find such a name on that list. Not yet. Check again in two months, though, and chances are you'll find the name Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning.

"He ought to be the poster boy, not just for small players, but for any player who dreams of making it," said Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster.

When then-general manager Rick Dudley told Lightning senior management he wanted to sign St. Louis to a two-year deal at $250,000 per year, they balked. Jagr, a Hart Trophy alumnus, lights his cigars with $250,000. Forsberg leaves that as a tip.

But, ownership pointed out, St. Louis had been cast out of Calgary after playing in only four games in two years.


And he was, well, short. The league's record and guide book puts St. Louis at 5-foot-9. Next time perhaps they'll wait until St. Louis takes off the blades before getting out the measuring tape.

But Dudley, now the general manager of the Florida Panthers, was undeterred and told his bosses that at the very least they'd have a good minor-league scorer. They finally agreed to bring aboard the man who is now the sentimental if not consensus pick to win the Hart Trophy this year.

"I thought he could score at the NHL level," said Dudley. "Did I know that it would turn out like it has today? No."

Dudley deserves full marks for honesty.

"I'm usually a guy that likes size," Dudley added. "But he's a guy that defies that. The character is probably the thing that drew me to him."

St. Louis says the height issue has been around essentially as long as he's been playing hockey. When he was starring in squirt hockey, observers scoffed and predicted that when he moved up to peewee hockey the players would be bigger and the slick-skating St. Louis would disappear.

Then when he moved up to bantam hockey, where checking starts in St. Louis' home province of Quebec, no one figured he could stand the contact. When he played junior hockey in Laval and led the league in scoring with 103 points in 42 games, it was the same story.

Same thing at the University of Vermont, where he played four years on a full scholarship, earning ECAC first all-star recognition three times and player of the year once as well as three Hobey Baker Award nominations.

And, of course, it was the same when he got to the NHL.

"I don't know when I'll be big enough to play," St. Louis said good-naturedly.

And even though one might excuse him a big, fat "How do you like me now?" to the hockey world, it's not really St. Louis' style.

In fact, he is thankful to the Calgary Flames for giving him a chance at all, even if they bought him out of his contract after the 2000 season.

"I don't hold grudges against that organization," said St. Louis, who was relegated to a checking role under Brian Sutter and then cut loose when Sutter was fired and Greg Gilbert took over. "They went a different direction."

It is one thing to enjoy success against the odds; it is quite another to become a player many believe is the most valuable in the entire league.
But the facts are not in dispute.

Last season St. Louis had a career-best 70 points, but it was in the playoffs that he began to assert himself as the team's go-to guy. Three games in a row St. Louis delivered game-winning goals as the Lightning rebounded from a 0-2 series deficit against Washington to earn the franchise's first playoff series victory. One of those game-winning goals came shorthanded and the third came in triple overtime and ended the series.

With a week to go in the regular season, St. Louis leads former Hart Trophy winner Joe Sakic in the race for the NHL scoring title by four points. He is tied for second in the league with a plus-33 rating. He leads the NHL with seven shorthanded goals. He became the first player since Gretzky in 1986-87 to earn Player of the Month honors in back to back months (January and February). Since Dec. 18, St. Louis is tied for the league lead in goals (29) and leads all players with 68 points.

The Lightning, challenging for their first-ever Presidents' Trophy for best point total in the league, are 39-6-3-4 when St. Louis registers a point.

Sound like a Hart Trophy recipe?

"Oh yes," said Dudley, who has his own Hart Trophy hopeful in goaltender Roberto Luongo. "I think he's the heart and soul of that hockey team. It's pretty easy to make a case for him. He's what they're all about."

He is, said Atlanta coach Bob Hartley, one of the best two-way players in the game.

"He's not a Joe Sakic, but he's very close," said Hartley. "You can't rattle him. He's going to take a hit; he's going to give a hit. He won't change his game. I think it's a great success story."

"I understand that for people from the outside, it's kind of like, 'wow, where did this come from?' kind of thing," said close friend and teammate Fredrik Modin. "With us, of course we notice it, but it just kind of turns into something we more or less expect out of Marty.

"Everybody keeps talking about his height and his size. But he plays big. He plays like a big guy."

St. Louis says this breakout year is really about the evolution of his game. But he also acknowledges a meeting with coach John Tortorella that helped change the course of events.

In December, when the Lightning looked as though they might be suffering a season-long letdown after their division win and playoff successes of a year ago, Tortorella challenged St. Louis and the rest of the team's big guns, Modin, Vincent Lecavalier, Cory Stillman and Brad Richards, to step up.

St. Louis was the first guy through Tortorella's door, saying he wanted that, too, but to deliver he needed not just more ice time but more quality ice time, power-play time, last-minute-of-the-period time, offensive-zone-faceoff time.

"Game-breaking time," St. Louis said.

He got it, and the team has been on a tear since.

"I think it was a defining moment for us," St. Louis said. "Coach expects a lot out of his go-to guys. Sometimes as a player you know you're in a funk, but you know you're close to coming out. You can feel it. I needed a little bit more out of him, and he needed more out of me."

The talk of winning the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer and the Hart, and perhaps the Lester B. Pearson Award as the top player as voted on by the players, has grown a bit tiresome for St. Louis. There are so many other issues at hand -- playoff positioning, the playoffs themselves.

"As a player, you really want to focus, not talk about the trophies you might win," he said. "But I guess it comes with the territory."

Still, St. Louis said he's allowed himself some time for reflection, to enjoy the success.

"I've told myself that whatever happens, it's been a great year," he said.

Look back again at that list of Hart Trophy winners. Among them some of the greatest talents in the game. Among them, some of the biggest egos, too.

Modin laughs at the notion of St. Louis the "star."

"You can pretty much say whatever to him and he's laughing," Modin said. "That's another part of him that's impressed us, how he handles himself, especially now with all the success he's had and all the attention he's getting."

When St. Louis signed his first big contract with Tampa, a two-year deal with a base of $2.5 million, he immediately called Dudley even though he was no longer with the organization.

Nothing is taken for granted, said Feaster.

"I guarantee you when he goes in the dressing room he's looking at the (lineup) board to see if he's in," said Feaster. "He's never gotten to the point where he's relaxed and said 'I've made it'."

When the ballots showed up in the Tampa Bay dressing room this week for the Lester B. Pearson Award, often regarded as the single most important individual award because it's voted on by the players, the normally happy-go-lucky St. Louis was unusually quiet.

"He was a little shy when the ballots came out," Modin said. "He didn't say a lot. I think everybody knows who we want to win it."

Did anyone ask St. Louis who he voted for?

"I'm sure he voted for someone else," Modin said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.