So that his mother, France, could keep an eye on him, Martin St. Louis would skate on an outdoor rink 200 yards from his family's home in Laval, Que., wearing an oversized ski hat with a jiggling pom-pom on top--the only part of him France could see over the boards from her kitchen window. Despite being only 5' 7½" and 180 pounds now, St. Louis no longer has a low profile. With 10 goals and 22 points at week's end (second in the league in both categories) the Tampa Bay Lightning's dynamic right wing has punched holes in the NHL theory that size matters. "He has been told throughout his career that because of his size he can't advance," says coach John Tortorella. "That gets him pissed off. That's a constant motivation."
St. Louis's size was the biggest obstacle to his breaking into the league. During his four years at the University of Vermont, St. Louis set school records for assists and points and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist three times, but he went undrafted. He finally got a chance in the NHL when a Calgary Flames scout saw him play in the IHL and persuaded the Flames to sign him as a free agent in February 1998. Restricted to checking-line and penalty-killing duty with Calgary, St. Louis had just four goals in 69 games over two seasons, and the Flames bought out his contract in the summer of 2000. "I was fired," he admits. A few weeks later he was signed to a bargain-basement deal (two years, $550,000) by the Lightning. St. Louis asked for and was given increased offensive opportunity, and responded with 18 goals and 22 assists in '00--01.
Last season, St. Louis was humming on a scoring line with center Brad Richards but suffered a spiral fracture of the right fibula on Jan. 23. The injury not only interrupted St. Louis's most prolific season--at the time he had 16 goals and 33 points in 48 games, and he played in only five more games the rest of year--but also sapped the lower-leg strength and balance responsible for his quick first strides.
To repair the bone, surgeons inserted a titanium plate with six screws; to repair the muscle loss, St. Louis embarked on the hardest off-season workout regimen of his life, weightlifting and riding a stationary bike on the Vermont campus, near his summer home in South Burlington. To rebuild his calves, St. Louis hopped up the roughly 25 rows of bleachers in the student section at the Catamounts' home rink. St. Louis started skating in June, a month earlier than he usually does to prepare for a season.
Although St. Louis logs heavy minutes on the top power-play and penalty-killing units and is a shorthanded threat because of his breakaway speed, he has scored a league-high 17 of his 22 points at even strength. His biggest assets are his initial jump, his knack for changing directions quickly and his stick control, all of which give him the ability to force turnovers, then convert them into odd-man rushes. "His first three or four strides are explosive," says Richards. "From a standstill, he's one of the fastest players in the league."
Despite his recent success and his new two-year, $2.5 million contract, the 27-year-old St. Louis retains his humility. When he rose to second among the league's scoring leaders, behind Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux, who was a dominant junior in Laval when St. Louis was growing up, St. Louis told Richards that the rankings didn't seem right. "During the warmups the first time I saw him play in the NHL, in Montreal, my wife and I were crying," says Martin's father, Normand, a postman in Laval. "I was always a Canadiens fan, and I never thought my son would play there."
St. Louis is less sensitive about his height these days, but he's tired of its being the first thing people mention about his game. When asked last week if he wished he were four inches taller, St. Louis snapped, "Why would I want that? I'm 5'7 1/2". That's not short, for a normal person."
COLOR PHOTO: B. WINKLER/BBS LIGHTNING FAST A stunningly quick first step has allowed St. Louis to force turnovers and ignite odd-man rushes.
Martin St. Louis, who at week's end was second to the Penguins' Mario Lemieux in total points, led the NHL in scoring at even-strength. Here were the top five point-getters in that category.
PLAYER, TEAM EVEN-STRENGTH POINTS
Martin St. Louis, Lightning 17
Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning 14
Joe Sakic, Avalanche 13
Mario Lemieux, Penguins 13
Eric Boguniecki, Blues 12