The queue started at Claiborne, snaked past Polo and deked toward
the Estee Lauder counter before swinging wide to pass fine
jewelry. The four-day-long "take an extra 25% off already reduced
price" sale was on at Dillard's in Tampa, and while you couldn't
dismiss the allure of the discounted merchandise, the 500 people
lined up in the store on this Friday night were there to see
Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis (mar-TAN san lou-EE).
Dillard's had set up a table in the men's department--although it
should have been the boys' department if you agree with the gibes
directed at St. Louis on the ice--for the player's monthly
half-hour radio show and autograph session. Among the fans
waiting cheerfully for his arrival was Bianca DiPronio, a junior
at Tampa Catholic High. Why? Like, hel-lo. "The guy's adorable,"
says Bianca. "He's so short you can always find him on the ice
right away. He's such a good player, and so cute."
The 28-year-old St. Louis may be only 5'7 1/2", but he's living
large. He was the NHL's second-leading scorer through Sunday with
75 points, and he had at least one point in 21 of his last 22
games. If someone other than a goalie can win the Hart Trophy
(for league MVP) in this nadir of the Dead Puck Era, St. Louis is
the front-runner. And given his 31 goals and his +27 rating, St.
Louis might also win the Art Ross Trophy (for most points), the
Maurice Richard (most goals) and the Selke (top defensive
St. Louis is having a supersized season, but then he always
dreamed big. When he was five years old, living in a suburb of
Montreal, his grandmother asked him if he wanted to be a St.
Louis Blue someday. Young Martin replied no, he would rather play
for the hometown Canadiens because his future wife wouldn't be
happy if he played for a bad team. At week's end the Lightning
was a lock to win its second straight Southeast Division title
and was in position to finish with the best record in the NHL.
"Very few shifts go by without something happening when he's out
there," says Scotty Bowman, the retired Detroit Red Wings coach
who lives in nearby Sarasota and has seen St. Louis a dozen times
this season. "His long suit is his passion. Small players have to
have some special attribute that makes them stand out. He's got
great acceleration and hockey sense."
Compared with the average NHL player, who is 6'1", and even with
his wife, who is 5'9", St. Louis is indisputably small. But if
you were measuring, say, leg girth, he absolutely rules. He has
typically thick hockey player's thighs, but his calves are
massive as well. "His body," says Tampa Bay left wing Fredrik
Modin, "is a cube." A Rubik's cube, given most defensemen's
inability to solve St. Louis. Other players routinely subject him
to taunts of "Midget!" and "Stand up!" and occasionally something
marginally clever, such as the following gibe from the Atlanta
Thrashers' bench during a 4-2 Lightning win on Feb. 25: "You're
early. The circus isn't coming to town till next week."
"That's a reference to last year, when I walked on my hands [in
an ABC interview]," says St. Louis, who was a gymnast as a boy.
"It could also have been because there are midgets in the
circus," says his wife, Heather, ever helpful.
Martin and Heather have followed two guidelines since they began
dating in 1996, before their senior year at the University of
Vermont: no flats for her, no doubts for him. Even after he went
undrafted in 1997 (despite being a three-time Hobey Baker Award
finalist) and even after he was mostly unproductive in parts of
two seasons with Calgary (1998-99 and 1999-2000), he was sure he
could make a difference in the NHL. He had only four goals in 69
games with the Flames partly because he was relegated to a
third-line checking role. In hindsight, St. Louis says, the
experience was positive because it schooled him in defensive
responsibilities of which he had been only casually aware.
Calgary exposed him in the 2000 expansion and waiver drafts, and
then, after no one claimed him, the Flames bought out his
contract. St. Louis received a handful of free-agent offers and
chose Tampa Bay because he thought he had the best chance of
playing a major role there. Not that the Lightning made a big
investment in him. His base salaries the first two years in Tampa
were $250,000 and $290,000, respectively.
With his darting style and keen sense for the puck, St. Louis
soon became the league's best bargain. After a stint on the
fourth line and then a right leg fracture that sidelined him for
26 games during his breakout season of 2001-02, he turned into a
solid if not spectacular scorer. After he scored 33 goals and
played in the All-Star game last season, St. Louis lost any vague
pinch-me-I'm-in-the-NHL feeling forever. He was a difference
maker in the playoffs, scoring five goals in the four first-round
victories over the Capitals, including three game-winning goals.
The 2003 playoffs were a professional growth spurt. Another
occurred Dec. 10, during a team meeting in Ottawa, when Lightning
coach John Tortorella called on his best players to do more. That
afternoon St. Louis, who was in a slump and irked about his ice
time, demanded that Tortorella give him time on the first
power-play unit and on offensive-zone face-offs late in periods.
The coach responded by playing St. Louis almost 21 minutes the
next night. A week later St. Louis emerged from the slump in
which he had scored only two goals in 19 games. He had played at
least 20 minutes in 27 of the last 39 games through Sunday, and
since Dec. 18 he has 54 points, 11 more than any other NHL player
during that period. That sustained excellence prompted the
Dillard's crowd to endure the banality of a sports-talk radio
program to get his autograph.
One caller to the show identified himself as a guy who used to
deliver pizzas to St. Louis's house. Now he delivered a bouquet.
He has a buddy in the FBI, the caller told St. Louis, and "if you
don't win the MVP, he should start an investigation."
"Thanks," St. Louis replied. "And thanks for the pizzas."
COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/BBS PLAYING BIG St. Louis is often taunted by opponents about hisheight, but he may end up attracting the most MVP votes.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT AUDETTE/WIREIMAGE.COM GOAL-ORIENTED With increased ice time St. Louis broke out of anearly slump and bolted into the league scoring race.