CALGARY – It has been an uphill climb for Martin St. Louis since the day he stepped off the plane here in Calgary back in 1999.
He was that little guy who couldn’t stick with the Calgary Flames back then. Today, he’s the old guy, hanging around a roster of elite 20-somethings, trying to find a stall in the toughest locker room in Canada.
“Yesterday, I was answering questions about how I was an underdog coming into this camp,” St. Louis laughed. “I said, ‘Thank God I have a lot of confidence.’”
None of it has come for free, this confidence he speaks of. He has earned every morsel, with little help along the way.
The petite playmaker from Laval, Que., arrives here as the reigning scoring champ from the 2012-13 National Hockey League season — a producer extraordinaire, with 407 points in 371 games over the past five seasons. And the first thing he hears about is how he’s a long shot for Sochi.
“It’s kind of how it went for me,” he says of a career that will surpass 1,000 NHL games sometime in November, barring injury. “In the beginning, not being drafted, just fighting through. Keep knocking on the door.
“These kinds of (camps), they help your confidence as you get older, they rejuvenate you. They quiet the criticism… Keeps you hungry.”
This is the story of a too-small, undrafted player who was bought out by Calgary 13 years ago. He has become an elite NHL winger at 5-foot-9, who clawed his way on to Team Canada in 2006.
Then they cut him in 2010.
“It was a motivation, really,” he recalls of that heart breaking moment prior to Vancouver. “(He thought) ‘I’m going to try and make it really hard for them to keep me off the next one.’ But, life is full of disappointments. It’s how you respond how you get back up from them. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s not going to get you anywhere.”
St. Louis arrives in Calgary this time around as the eldest player among 47 invited to this orientation camp. (Claude Giroux stayed home due to an injured hand, and Joe Thornton also stayed home, his baby having fallen ill).
There are so many elite centremen on the Canadian roster that those centres will bleed on to the wings, taking jobs from the likes of St. Louis, a right-winger. Already, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry and Rick Nash are lining up on the right side in ball hockey drills conducted Monday, virtual locks to make the team.
So the jobs are few, and St. Louis is in a battle again. ‘Twas ever thus.
“That’s why there is a big group of (managers) making tough decisions,” St. Louis said. “I know some guys are going to have play different positions, but you do it for the better of the team. For the better of the country.”
If St. Louis is left behind, it won’t be the first time. He’s always on the decline, about to fall back to wherever he came from. Stamkos hears it every year, like clockwork.
“Everyone talks about his age, and how he’s going to slow down,” Stamkos said. “Well, he’s been one of the best players in the league for the past five years, and he’s only getting better.
“When people say that, to me it’s just insulting for Marty. Just watch the guy play,” he continued. “If Marty plays the way I know he can play, he should be on this team come Olympics time.”
There aren’t many mountains left for St. Louis to conquer in this game. He’s won a Stanley Cup, and took home the Art Ross and the Lady Byng at age 37 last season, won a World Cup in 2004, and even though Team Canada bombed he was an Olympian in Turin.
Making this team at this age would be icing on the cake for St. Louis, whose beard is growing in grey now, matching much of his hair.
“It would definitely be something you’d look back on,” he mused. “I’d be really proud to be on that team, and have a chance to win a gold medal. In ‘06 we didn’t do very well, and I was left off in ’10. If I could be on that team, hopefully win a gold medal…”
When you think of where St. Louis came from, in many ways the invite alone is plenty.
“I’m here because I’ve done some good things,” he admits. “To be recognized and have a chance, yeah, it helps. It’s rewarding.”