Back in the summer of 2000, I was just completing my first year as an assistant men’s soccer coach at the University of Vermont. Between sessions of summer camp, I often ducked out of the heat by having lunch in the cool confines of UVM’s famed Gutterson Field House, watching some of the planet’s best ice hockey players playing summer pickup games. Olympians and NHL champions such as John LeClair, Aaron Miller, Tim Thomas, and Patrick Sharp honed their skills in these games, and I had quite the front row seat.
Yet in the summer of 2000, there was a player who not only caught my attention for what he did on the ice, but what he did off it.
He was not an NHL star. In fact, at the age of 25, he had just been released by the Calgary Flames. All the experts had deemed him not worthy, after trying for years to change his game to a more “NHL style” game. He was an undersized forward without a team, and it looked to everyone that his hockey career might be over.
Everyone, that is, except to the person who mattered most: HIM!
He had not given up hope. In fact, when everyone told him it was time to find another career, he doubled down and worked even harder. I quickly learned that this guy was different; he was no common man.
His name was Martin St. Louis.
In June 2015, shortly after his 40th birthday, St. Louis retired after a sterling 16 year NHL career in which he won a Stanley Cup, the Hart trophy as NHL Most Valuable Player, three Lady Bing Trophies for Sportsmanship, two NHL scoring titles (the second at age 37!), and an Olympic Gold Medal for Canada. In 16 NHL seasons he played over 1100 games, 3 Stanley Cup finals, 2 Olympics, 6 NHL all-star games, and scored 1033 points. He is one of the greatest underdog success stories in NHL history.
But when I think of Martin St. Louis, what comes to mind are not all the accolades and awards he has collected over the years. I think of the summer of 2000, when he was out of the NHL, and seemingly out of options. Even though he was a three time Hobey Baker finalist for NCAA player of the year, St. Louis went undrafted out of college. Even though he kept scoring in minor hockey and the IHL, no one saw him as a future NHL player. That summer every single team in the NHL passed over him, even though he was an unrestricted free agent. The experts thought it was time to hang up the skates.
Then, in August, the Tampa Bay Lightning took a chance on him, and he was not going to be denied.
That summer, and for the next three years I worked at UVM, I had the honor of spending some time with Marty. I arrived at the weight room many mornings only to find the music blaring and Marty on his second hour of a work out. He’d then play the morning pickup game, grab a bite to eat, and many afternoons he would stop by and join our staff for a pickup soccer game, or a second workout. Boy did he compete.
No one worked harder running stairs, or lifting, or playing 3v3 soccer. I’d see him working out and just stop and marvel at a guy who was not going to be denied his dream. I’d watch current college athletes stroll into the weight room an hour after Marty arrived, go through the motions, and then leave an hour before he did. All I could think was “are these guys watching this guy? Where else do they have to be?”
As a 26 year old coach who had recently stopped playing professional soccer and gone into coaching full time, all I could think to myself was “I have never seen any athlete, in any sport, work harder than this guy.” And I know I was not alone in this sentiment.
“He was just all heart,” said Perry Ganchar, St. Louis’ first coach in pro hockey with the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League in 1997. “He just wanted it so bad. He just tried to soak everything up, trying to learn and get better. He was always tagging along with the older players, asking them for tips… he was so humble and respectful of those around him. He had a great attitude that the older guys appreciated.”
That last line is the part of St. Louis that the stats don’t tell you about. He was one of the most quality people I have ever met. He was humble, he was respectful, he was focused, and he was such an incredible person to spend time with. I have met quite a few professional athletes in my life whose egos made them not very pleasant to be around to say the least, but not St. Louis. If there was anything about him that exceeded his talent on the ice, it was his quality as a human being.
When St. Louis became a star in the NHL, he didn’t change who he was. He worked harder, and remained a humble student of the game. In a telling gesture, after winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, St. Louis chose to spend his day with the cup back in Burlington, Vermont, with his former college coach Mike Gilligan, and amongst those who first believed in him as a hockey player. He never forgot where he came from, or lost sight of what it took to get there. “He was a great role model for everyone in the locker room,” said former Tampa Bay teammate Brad Richards. “You saw how much he wanted it and how hard he worked to get it.”
“You heard all the stories about how great he was and how hard he worked, but to actually physically see it as an 18-year-old kid, that really opened my eyes of how hard you have to work and how dedicated you have to be to be an elite player in the league,” said Steven Stamkos, the Lightning’s current captain. “It just blew my mind. It was easy for me to follow in his footsteps. And he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. He really taught me what it was to be a pro.”
I have not crossed paths with Martin St. Louis since I left Vermont in the summer of 2003, but year after year I have followed his career as he became one of the world’s top hockey players. It is unlikely he remembers me, but I certainly remember him. I write this today because oftentimes we see professional sports stars and think to ourselves “look how lucky they were to be born with all that talent.”
Martin St. Louis was not lucky to be born with talent. St. Louis earned everything he ever got. He believed in himself when no one else did. Day after day he worked himself to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, when no one else was watching or holding him accountable.
Every single day, for decades, he had the same opportunities we all do to take it a bit easy, to cut a corner or two, but he never did. He just went back to the grind, and asked for nothing but the opportunity to prove himself.
In a world of larger than life superstars in every sport, our kids need role models like Martin St. Louis. We need more underdogs. We need to tell his story, and show our athletes that things worth achieving don’t come easy, nor should they.
We need athletes who want to work hard, instead of entitled prima donnas (and their parents) who expect life to be handed them on a silver platter. We don’t need more ESPN highlight reels of overpaid egomaniacs; we need role models like St. Louis who show us that perseverance, grit and optimism will take you where you want to go, if just given the time.
We also need more coaches to learn his story, so they can be patient, and spend time with the little guy with the big heart, who might be a late developer, who might be talent that whispers instead of talent that shouts out loud.
Thank you Martin St. Louis, not only for all the goals and great moments, but for demonstrating excellence to this young coach at a time in my life when I really needed it. Thank you for being the gold standard of effort and focus that I hold every athlete I coach up to. Thanks for teaching me these 5 valuable life lessons that I live by every day, and I have tried to convey to my players and my own kids:
- When things go against you, just work harder than everyone else
- When things go for you, never stop working harder than everyone else
- When no one believes in you, believe in yourself
- No matter how good you are on the field, be a better human being off the field
- True talent comes in all shapes and sizes, so be patient, keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready to let it shine
Two weeks ago while watching a pro soccer game, my 8 year-old son asked me “Dad, what does it mean to be a professional?” I had just seen that Martin St. Louis had retired, and had read article after article as the tributes came rolling in. I knew I had my answer for my son.
“TJ,” I said, “I’ll tell you what a professional is. I want to tell you about the greatest professional I ever met. And if you work as hard as he did, and believe in yourself no matter what people say, you will be successful at whatever you do. That is what a professional is. Tonight I want to tell you about a true professional named Martin St. Louis.”
Thanks for the memories Marty, and for giving us all something to aspire to.