SOCHI -- Martin St. Louis definitely was headed towards winter, but the Lightning captain assumed it would be to the Green Mountains of Vermont and not to the Black Sea coast that gazes up in admiration at the imperious Caucasus that dominate the landscape around Sochi.
St. Louis and his wife, Heather, had booked one of those ski-in-ski-out hotels at Sugarbush for themselves and their three boys during the NHL’s Olympic break. This would have been grand, but the vacation was only possible because Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman, whose day job is running the show in Tampa Bay, had left St. Louis off the original Canadian roster. Instead of feeling like a treat, the holiday felt sort of like winning a tin medal.
St. Louis, who ultimately made the team last week when he was named as an injury replacement for his friend and Lightning teammate, Steven Stamkos, was among the last players to leave the ice after Canada’s practice on Wednesday. This is hockey’s tell, the unspoken message that he, along with Matt Duchene, another straggler, are slotted as Canada’s fifth-line forwards. Only one will dress for the opener on Thursday against Norway.
This is the current reality: While Sochi is a long way to come to watch a game in civvies, it -- like old age -- beats the alternative.
“Sometimes things happen in life that make you push harder,” St. Louis said. “If everything had been easy, I wouldn’t be here, I guess. I had to earn everything I’ve gotten in my career. This is just another one of those. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Maybe St. Louis was left off the team originally because of his skating, which is good but not Mach 3, and because of his size, although it is not like he will be barred from the rides at Busch Gardens when he is back in Tampa.
Maybe his stature is small -- St. Louis is listed as 5-foot-8 -- but the rest is gloriously out-sized: his tree-trunk thighs; his lower legs that are more full-grown heifers than calves; his competitive fire; his moods. He might be excited to be in Sochi, but the ups-and-downs of the process are etched on his face.
“My relationship with Steve [Yzerman] … he’s given me an opportunity right now, and I’m going to make the best of it,” St. Louis said. “What’s between me and Steve is between me and Steve. Nobody needs to know about that.”
The word “snub” is tossed around lightly and unfairly in Sochi, as if every player excluded from his Olympic team has been haughtily spurned. In a five-pound-bag world and with only 14 roster spots for forwards, not everyone fits.
But given the intersection of circumstances -- St. Louis’ superb body of work under Yzerman’s nose for almost four years, and his particularly inspired play after Stamkos broke his tibia in November -- well … a snub might not have been implied by Yzerman, but it was inferred by St. Louis.
As Heather said by telephone from Florida, “Anybody who knows my husband knows that he’s an emotional player. He’s incredibly intense. Some of the qualities that make him successful are the same qualities that made being left off the team originally incredibly difficult for him.”
The current selection system for Olympic rosters is imperfect, fraught with perils for both players and those who judge them. Unlike World Cup soccer, for example, where countries hire national team coaches separate from their domestic leagues, Canada and the United States rely on NHL GMs and coaches to make the tough calls. This is an invitation for conflicts of interests and bad feelings.
The flaws were evident from the first tournament in the Olympic's NHL era, when Team Canada GM Bob Clarke, of the Flyers, designated Philadelphia's Eric Lindros as captain on the 1998 Nagano team that also included Wayne Gretzky, Raymond Bourque and Yzerman.
Four years later, with the Maple Leafs’ Pat Quinn behind the Team Canada bench in Salt Lake City, Toronto's Curtis Joseph lost the net after an opening game defeat; the relationship between Quinn and Joseph was sorely impacted.
When I asked the rehabbing Stamkos last month if he thought a general manager not directly aligned with an NHL team should be heading the selection process -- Gretzky, who was Canada's GM in 2002, is an example -- the Lightning forward paused for an instant and said, “Yes, I do.”
St. Louis considered the belated invitation from Yzerman before accepting. “I just wanted to make sure I was 100 percent; I wanted to be in right frame of mind,” St. Louis says. When he left for Sochi, though, the 38-year-old checked his ego curbside, making the experience just a pebble in the shoe of his 15-year career -- a career in which he has become used to shoving aside boulders.
St. Louis was undrafted out of Vermont even though he was a three-time finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the top NCAA men’s hockey player.
He finally made the NHL as a 23-year-old with the Flames, plugging bottom-six roles for 69 games over two seasons. He signed in Tampa Bay, insinuated himself into the lineup and finally emerging as a star, winning the Hart Trophy in the Lightning’s 2003-04 Stanley Cup season.
St. Louis represented Canada in the World Cup that autumn and again at Turin 2006, when Canada was closer to replicating the sinking of the Lusitania than its Salt Lake City triumph. St. Louis had two goals and an assist for a team that would have had trouble locating the net with a map, a compass and a two-day head start from Milan.
“I know I was a late bloomer,” St. Louis said. “I was almost in awe of what was going on, and I think it didn’t help me play the best that I could [in Turin]. I was still in awe. Now I’m a much older guy. I’m not in awe anymore.”
At Canada’s practice, St. Louis, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, rotated in at left wing, as did Duchene. St. Louis also got some work on the second power play unit, but you dare read only so much into line combinations and units. In the Olympic kaleidoscope, the world spins quickly.
In Vancouver 2010, Patrice Bergeron lasted a single period as Sidney Crosby’s right wing in the opener. At the orientation camp the summer before those games, the role of Crosby's right wing had actually seemed to suit St. Louis during the intrasquad scrimmage. He did not make the team, but ultimately the team did not miss him. Crosby scored the golden goal, and it’s not like they hand out platinum medals or anything.
In Tampa Bay's 15 games after the original Olympic announcement on Jan. 7, St. Louis had eight goals and 10 assists, not easy to do when you are carrying both the weight of a team and a giant chip on your shoulder. St. Louis is not a Stamkos-like sniper, but he accelerates on the ice and competes in every zone and generally complements other forwards.
“He was sad for Steven [Stamkos],” Lewis Gross, St. Louis’ agent, wrote in an email, “but realized once again it was a chance to make believers out of those who always seem to question him.”
When Team Canada arrived Monday, coach Mike Babcock said that St. Louis was “one of 14,” another forward who was going to have to grab a brass Olympic ring and not let go.
Belatedly, maybe St. Louis will have the opportunity. No guarantees. This is the chance you take when you trade the appeal of the Green Mountains for the lure of a gold medal.