Former Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis will be the first player in franchise history to have his number retired, the team announced on Thursday.
St. Louis' number 26 will be raised to the rafters at Amalie Arena during a ceremony before a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets — a team coached by former Lightning bench boss John Tortorella — on Jan. 13, 2017.
As Lightning owner Jeff Vinik made the announcement over a conference call with the six-time All-Star, fan reaction began to pour out across the internet and social media. While many fans were excited to see the two-time Art Ross Trophy winner receive the honor, others were still upset with St. Louis for how his career with the Lightning came to an abrupt close when he was traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan on Mar. 5, 2014.
The circumstances surrounding the St. Louis trade, at least from some Lightning fans' points of view, was largely selfish. After being passed over by Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff for the 2014 Winter Olympics, St. Louis was vocal about what he viewed as a snub from the roster and demanded a trade. The demand came as the Lightning were battling through the extended absence of an injured Steven Stamkos and fighting for a playoff berth.
When St. Louis was moved at the trade deadline, St. Louis' nearly 13-year career in Tampa Bay ended far differently than anyone could have imagined. In the blink of an eye, the team's captain, 2004 Hart Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion was gone. Just a few months shy of his 39th birthday, St. Louis was headed to Manhattan, and for many Lightning fans, they too felt snubbed.
The Lightning's decision to retire St. Louis’ number nearly three years after the trade is an opportunity to honor one of the franchise's most important players. It also gives fans the chance to look back on his brilliant career with the Lightning and put the tail end of his time in Tampa behind them. Simply put — the time is right.
St. Louis arrived in Tampa Bay in 2000 as a 25-year-old unrestricted free agent with just 69 games of NHL experience with the Calgary Flames. He came to the Lightning looking for a chance to play in the NHL and the team's lack of success at that time created the perfect opportunity for the undrafted player. St. Louis grew up as an NHL player with the Lightning, as did teammates like Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and many others. The forward who was once viewed as too small to play in the NHL, showed the league it was wrong, registering 70 points in 82 games in his third season with the team. He quickly became a fan favorite in the process.
It was St. Louis' fourth season with the Lightning that cemented his legacy in Tampa.
St. Louis and the Lightning were the NHL's biggest surprise during the 2003-04 season — one in which he led the league in scoring with 94 points and the Lightning made an improbable run to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final against the Flames. After splitting the first four games of the series, the Lightning dropped an important Game 5 at home in Tampa before making the long trip back to Calgary in an elimination game. The defining moment of St. Louis' career and arguably the most important goal in Lightning history would come off the stick of St. Louis, just 33 seconds into double overtime of Game 6. It's the sort of goal that fans will always remember in the sort of situation that makes a player an icon for their respective franchise. The Lightning returned home and won Game 7, 2-1, giving the Lightning its first and only Stanley Cup. The image of St. Louis hoisting the Cup over his head as blood dripped from a cut on his nose was emblazoned in the memory of lightning fans forever.
It was the sort of moment that made St. Louis' decision to leave that much harder for the fan base.
While Vincent Lecavalier will undoubtedly be the next player that has his number retired by the franchise, the decision to make St. Louis the first player to receive the honor is a fitting way to remember one of the organization's most important players. For the Lightning, a franchise that has taken an increasing interest in remembering the team's alumni and history under Vinik's ownership, it needs to happen.
In St. Louis' 972 game Lightning career, he registered 365 goals and 588 assists and he shares or holds six offensive franchise records. Just as importantly to Vinik and the Lightning is the fact that St. Louis also had an outstanding reputation in the community. For the Lightning, he is the sort of person who is deserving of having his number retired, despite how his time in Tampa ended as a player.
When Vinik made the announcement on Thursday, he said now was the right time to honor St. Louis.
"Everyone in the organization is excited to celebrate and thank Marty for his immense long-term contributions to the Lightning's past successes and the Tampa Bay community," said Vinik, according to the team's press release. "As Marty enters his second year in retirement from the game, we believe this season is the time to hang his number from the rafters at AMALIE Arena.
"Marty had a terrific career in Tampa Bay, making six All-Star appearances while setting numerous team records, all highlighted of course by the Stanley Cup win in 2004. We look forward to a wonderful retirement ceremony, recognizing him for all that he accomplished as a member of the Lightning."
St. Louis knows things didn't end on the best terms in Tampa, but he's hopeful fans will forgive him for it.
“I wish that can be behind us,’’ St. Louis said during a teleconference on Thursday, according to Yahoo Sports' Greg Wyshynski. “In life you make decisions and sometimes you make hard ones. For me, I hope they remember me for what I brought to the team. I came in 2000 to a last place team and I feel that I left that team in way better shape than when I came.
“It would probably have been a better story if I had finished my career there but there are a lot of variables that come along the way as you get older, after you have kids, and I don’t want to go back into it but things happen sometimes and you have to make tough decisions. And I respect the fans opinion. They are entitled to it, and that’s just the way it went. I finished my career somewhere else. But it wasn’t just a me decision. My kids, a better transition for them and their hockey (was part of it) as well. I hope they can forgive me in that sense.
“But I understand their pain, it wasn’t easy for me to do that either. I love Tampa. I loved playing there. I loved everything about it. It was just time to move on for bigger reasons than just me. I gave everything I had to the Lightning for many years. I hope they can remember that and not just the decision that I made that hurt their feelings. I respect the fans and I understand their pain, I was hurting then, too. They didn’t deserve that, but it was just a decision that I had to make at that time.’’
The team's decision to honor St. Louis sends a clear message to its fan base about how the franchise views St. Louis' importance to its history. It shows that they will not let the final days of St. Louis' time in Tampa define a 13-year career where he grew alongside what was once a struggling organization when he arrived. If Lightning fans give his career in Tampa on and off the ice an honest look, they too will find it hard to disagree.