Canada’s St. Louis, fueled by snub, eyes Sochi

Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara tries to tie up Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis during an NHL hockey game in Boston, April 25, 2013.

The NHL’s reigning scoring champ is wearing pink shorts, box-fresh, low-cut burgundy Pumas, and is dominating the most gorgeous woman in the whole brewery at ping-pong.

The hour is late, the bar is open, the official table-tennis tournament is an afterthought, and yet here is Martin St. Louis defeating a beautiful blonde with a slicing backhand. Granted there is a cup of Steam Whistle draught in play on the table and St. Louis isn’t smashing handcuffers down the middle, but he’s not giving away any points to his opponent either. His warm smiles frequently, but only temporarily, interrupt a default look of concentration.

Hot off his second Art Ross Trophy and first in nine seasons — becoming both the oldest (37 at season’s end) and shortest (5’8”, exaggerates the roster page) scoring-race winner in NHL history — the Tampa Bay Lightning star is attending Toronto’s Smashfest, Dominic Moore’s charity ping-pong challenge, in late July. And he’s here to win.

“He’s a competitive guy,” Moore, a former teammate of St. Louis’, told Sportsnet before the tourney began. “He doesn’t like to lose at pretty much anything.”

Which is why the Laval, Que., native was so fueled by a national snub four-and-a-half years ago and is determined to make up for it.

St. Louis made Team Canada’s 2010 Olympic team – you know, the one that won gold and united a nation of friends and strangers in fives high – but only as a reserve player. He never stepped foot on that loonie-freezing ice in Vancouver, a decision that “definitely” frustrated the veteran.

Imagine. You have a Stanley Cup ring, five All-Star Games, a league MVP award, and an NHL scoring crown on your resume. You’re coming off three consecutive 80-point seasons, and your international record is remarkable: 32 points in 30 games, not a single penalty minute. You were an integral part of Canada’s 2004 World Cup victory, you represented your country in Turin 2006 and seem like a shoe-in to make the national team again, especially considering that the Olympic game favours skill and speed – touchstones of your game. But the best you get is understudy status to the likes of Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau.

“It was tough. It was one of those disappointments,” St. Louis says, “you feed off it and get better. Keep pushing.”

Push he has. Since the golden snub, St. Louis has won three Lady Byng awards as the league’s most gentlemanly player, has been named to the league second-team all-star squad thrice, and with 60 points in 48 games, beat out teammate Steven Stamkos (15 years his junior) to capture the 2012-13 Art Ross. And yet St. Louis was not nominated as a finalist for the 2013 Hart Trophy.

Sochi represents for St. Louis a chance to wash away Canada’s quarterfinal elimination in Italy, a dream eight years deferred.

“The whole Olympic experience. Being there in the dressing room, looking at who I was next to was incredible. Joe Sakic, (Scott) Niedermayer, Rob Blake – all those guys. It was amazing,” St. Louis says of ’06. A father of three with “young babies at the time,” St. Louis says he didn’t make it out to any other Olympic events in Turin; if it wasn’t game time, it was family time.

It’s hard to imagine Hockey Canada’s executive director, Steve Yzerman, whose day job is GMing the Lightning, not picking St. Louis as one of Canada’s 14 forward for Sochi.

“You can debate whether you want the young legs or whether you want the veteran experience,” Yzerman said last month. “There is great value in having that veteran leadership… (but) we’ve got to make room for some of these young players coming in.”

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Let the youngsters fight over 13 spots. The determined St. Louis deserves to be part of that room one last time. Even though, at 38 years old, St. Louis has more mileage on him than the eldest Canadian player — Martin Brodeur, then 37 — did in Vancouver. The oldest forward on that 2010 squad? Jarome Iginla, age 32. (Iginla wasn’t invited to Canada’s orientation camp this time around.)

“Obviously you want to get off to a good start (to the season). You want to make their decisions hard. They’re going to be tough decisions because there are a lot of good players. You got to give yourself the best chance to be on that team,” St. Louis explains. “I’d like to say I read the game well and use my speed, so (the big ice) will help me.”

What should also help St. Louis is his position. A true right wing, St. Louis stands out in a Canadian forward crop overflowing with centremen. How do you look at Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Eric Staal, John Tavares and Claude Giroux and leave one of them off the roster based solely on the fact they play the middle?

“We’ve had success with it in the past of moving centres to the wing if necessary, and the reality is we’ll be forced in that situation to move a couple centremen to the wing just because we’re very deep down the middle,” Yzerman said.

But St. Louis’ familiarity with the right side should be looked at as an asset and should not be undervalued. Same with his leadership.

Interestingly, Yzerman will be forced to make another big decision this fall when it comes to St. Louis and Stamkos, another 2010 Team Canada forward reserve.

Since long-serving Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier was bought out and snatched up by the Philadelphia Flyers, a compelling debate surrounds the ‘C’ in Tampa: Does it go to the 23-year-old Stamkos, undoubtedly the franchise’s face of the future, a 60-goal scorer and a charity-involved, media-trained superstar? Or does the ‘C’ get stitched on the sweater of the victory-driven St. Louis, forever the associate captain under Lecavalier and the club’s veteran example for professionalism and perseverance?

“I’m sure it’ll get addressed at some point. I think collectively we’ll need to step it up,” St. Louis says of a high-scoring Lightning club that has failed to qualify for the playoffs in four of the past five seasons.

“But do you want the captaincy?” a reporter asks him.

“I’m sure I’m going to have some conversation with Steve,” St. Louis replies. “I’m not too worried about it, though. Whoever gets it deserves it.”

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