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How a 5’8″ Undrafted Winger Defied the Odds to Become an NHL Legend

“I felt like my days were numbered in the NHL.”

Martin St. Louis has one of the best underdog stories in NHL history
Credit-AP/Joker Mag

“To face as much (adversity) and end up going to the Hall of Fame…I don’t think you’ll see that again.”

They say that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.

While Martin St. Louis was far from a goon or enforcer in the hockey world, he certainly had to fight his way through the ranks to become one of the best players to lace up a pair of skates.

In an industry where towering figures and oversized personalities dominate the spotlight and headlines, an individual from Laval, Quebec, standing just 5 feet and 8 inches tall defied conventional wisdom.

Through sheer determination, belief in himself, and an elite skillset St. Louis became the definition of an underdog turned champion.

Born on June 18th, 1975, Martin St. Louis did what many Canadians do as a youngster – he joined a hockey team.

Add into that the pond hockey games and skating at a rink that was just two hundred yards from his house, St. Louis was able to channel his imagination of playing with or against his hockey heroes Mats Naslund, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux virtually any time he wanted.

It wasn’t uncommon for Martin’s father, Normand, to arrive home at 7 am after working two jobs to see his son waiting with his skates already on, begging to go to the outdoor rink. 

Regardless of the frigid temperatures, Martin was there waiting, “Please, Dad! Please, Dad!”

Although St. Louis struggled during his bantam year of rep hockey – the first season where body checking is legal – he fought to stand out among the big boys with his skill and burning desire.

This undrafted winger who was "too small" to play in the NHL became a Hockey Hall of Famer.

At the age of 18, St. Louis suited up for coach Mike Gilligan as a member of the University of Vermont Catamounts.

While he garnered interest from nearly 30 NCAA Division I programs, he decided to attend Vermont because it was just a 2.5-hour drive for his parents to come to watch him play.

Not long after he’d gotten cut from two rep teams as a kid, St. Louis became a star attraction for the Catamounts, skating alongside future Tampa Bay teammate Eric Perrin. 

“He made that place (Gutterson Fieldhouse) electric,” Gilligan said.

“When he touched the puck, everybody would get out of their seat. I haven’t heard noise like that since.”

All-Rookie Team, First Team All-Star, All-American, NCAA scoring leader, NCAA Frozen Four, Hobey Baker Award finalist.

Considering all of the highlights on St. Louis’ resume, one would have no problem believing that an NHL team would at least give him a look after his final year of college.

That was not the case. Every team passed on Martin St. Louis in both the 1996 and ’97 NHL Draft.

Undeterred, St. Louis headed to the International Hockey League to play for the Cleveland Lumberjacks where he recorded 50 points in 56 games.

Considering that a number of former NHL players were on his team, St. Louis was not wrong in thinking, “If those guys were NHL players, I’m pretty sure I can play at that level.”

A day after participating in the IHL All-Star Game, the Calgary Flames offered St. Louis a shot at playing in the big league.

Clearly, there was a difference in the speed, knowledge, skill, and talent between the IHL and the NHL as St. Louis quickly noticed.

He struggled to repeat the success he had in university and the minor leagues.

“I don’t think I was ready mentally,” St. Louis said.

“I was putting the NHL on such a pedestal. I was up and down and was so nervous when I got to play in the NHL.”

After two relatively unproductive seasons in Calgary, St. Louis found himself unprotected for the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft.

Given a second chance to make an impression with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it took a while for him to find his way.

Playing a bottom-six role, the right winger recorded just six points in his first 20 games.  He was a healthy scratch in a number of games.

“I felt like my days were numbered in the NHL,” he said.

“I thought, ‘If I can’t play for Tampa Bay, I was done.’ So I’m like, ‘You have to go down swinging.’”

Knowing that the clock was ticking, St. Louis started playing looser, more carefree, and slightly more selfish – looking to get his, rather than playing it safe.

With a more aggressive mindset, he went from a player known for just dumping the puck in to holding onto it more and looking to create something offensively.

He began to blossom into the player that he and then Lightning GM Rick Dudley believed he could be.

“We knew he had something special. But nobody knew at that point he would develop into an NHL All-Star and a Stanley Cup champion.”

Martin St. Louis quote: I felt like my days were numbered in the NHL. I thought, ‘If I can’t play for Tampa Bay, I was done.’ So I’m like, ‘You have to go down swinging.’

During St. Louis’ thirteen seasons in Tampa Bay, he collected a Stanley Cup title (the first of the Lightning’s three championships), six All-Star Game appearances, three Lady Byng awards, two Art Ross trophies, and a Hart Memorial trophy.

While the individual honors were nice, it was the Stanley Cup that meant the most. 

“Winning the Cup made it all worthwhile. It was the ultimate validation, not just for me, but for everyone who believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself.”

Although his trophy cabinet was full of awards, St. Louis’ impact on the sport meant more than just a gold-plated piece of hardware or plaque.

He became an inspiration for players of all ages who are told that they are “too small”, “too slow”, “not strong enough” or ultimately “not good enough”. 

It wasn’t just on the NHL level that St. Louis was overlooked.

After being selected to play for Team Canada in the 2006 Olympics, the crafty right winger was regulated to reserve status for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and then found himself on the 2014 gold medal-winning roster only after Steven Stamkos was sidelined with an injury. 

A year before St. Louis hung up his skates, another undersized winger made his way into the Calgary Flames locker room. Nicknamed “Johnny Hockey”, Johnny Gaudreau noted that St. Louis’ journey had inspired him.

“He’s a prime example that size doesn’t matter. If you have the heart and the work ethic, you can achieve anything.”

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Written By

Life-long sports fan and avid basketball junkie in every sense of the word. The same passion I have for the Lakers translates to my extreme dislike for the Duke Blue Devils. As much as I cheer for the favorite and the dynasty, I appreciate and applaud the underdog and the grind whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional, both on and off the field.

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