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Why Marty St. Louis hasn't attended an NHL game in years

PEMBROKE PINES — It's not yet 8 o'clock on a Thursday morning and it's already an unseasonably warm 81 degrees in the parking lot of the Pines Ice Arena near Fort Lauderdale. But inside, coats and gloves are in fashion as a couple dozen bleary-eyed moms and dads get a warm up sipping from Styrofoam cups of coffee brewed at the concession stand.

A few steps away, one of the best youth hockey teams in the world is crammed into a corner dressing room with nothing more than a few benches and hooks on a wall.

The Mid Fairfield Junior Rangers of Connecticut, made up of 18 players born in 2003, have traveled 1,300 miles and are moments from facing off against a group of very big kids from the Czech Republic.

The Junior Rangers coach straddles equipment bags, rolls of tape and hockey sticks to give what he calls "an age-appropriate" pep talk.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis watches his team on the ice from the bench.

For two minutes, he reminds them of where to be on defense, to block shots, to get the puck deep in the offensive zone. Then comes the "pep" part.

"All of that means nothing, if we don't go out and work," the coach says. "You can have the best plan in the world, more skill, at the end of the day, if you don't want it more than the guy across from you, it doesn't matter. These guys are here to play hockey. They're not here on a field trip. They flew across the Atlantic. They're here to play hockey. Let's make sure we're playing hockey."

Outside the locker room door, the buzzer sounds.

"Let's go, boys!"

And with that, the Junior Rangers, led by coach Marty St. Louis, burst through the door, ready to take on the world.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Ryan St. Louis, left, who wears the same number (26) as his father, is pictured with his team between periods.

For 13 seasons, St. Louis dazzled fans all over the planet. From undrafted free agent to NHL most valuable player, St. Louis performed on some of hockey's biggest stages — the Stanley Cup final, the Olympics, All-Star Games. Friday night, another sold-out crowd at Tampa's Amalie Arena will watch the greatest player in franchise history have his No. 26 Lightning jersey retired and hung from the rafters.

On this morning, however, a chilly, tiny rink across the street from a 7-11, a Chevron station and the Raging Wool Yarn Shop is the center of St. Louis' universe.

This is the Second Act of Marty St. Louis.

Dad. Husband. Youth hockey coach.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis watches his team from the bench.

• • •

St. Louis' hockey career is well-documented. Picked up off the scrap heap by the Lightning in 2000. By 2013, he had won an MVP, two scoring titles and scored the biggest goal in franchise history. His Game 6 double-overtime tally against the Flames sparked Tampa Bay to its only Stanley Cup.

Then came the controversial 2014 trade to the Rangers, a result of a dispute with Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman over being left off the Canadian Olympic team, as well as his desire to be closer to his wife, Heather, and their three growing boys — Ryan, Lucas and Mason — at the family's home in Connecticut.

It's those three boys — now ages 13, 11 and 8 — that have St. Louis giving pep talks first thing in the morning.

"People ask me if I miss hockey," St. Louis, 41, said. "I'm around it now more than I was before."

DIRK SHADD | Times

Ryan St. Louis, right, celebrates a goal.

St. Louis is at the rink five nights a week. He coaches Ryan and Lucas' teams, and helps out at Mason's practices. His absolute favorite thing in the world is when all three boys have practice on the same night, then pile their gear in the car, arguing about who gets to be in charge of the radio on the drive home.

"I don't miss playing at all," St. Louis said. "I was done. Mentally, I was done. I was missing so much of the good stuff. I was done. Mentally, I just felt terrible not being there for them."

Playing professional hockey means missing birthdays and Halloween and spring breaks. Vacations are cut short or skipped altogether. No time for Disney when there are weights to lift.

"As athletes … everything is about us," St. Louis said. "Everything revolves around me. And it got to a point, especially as my kids were getting older, I felt so selfish. But I had to stay in that frame to able to perform or be that guy."

When he was with his family, he felt guilty for not training. When he was training, he felt guilty for not being with this family.

"The minute I retired, the stress level went down," St. Louis said. "I was such a consumed professional that my family, in a way, came second. Not in a way in the necessities that they needed. They were well taken care of in what they needed. But every decision revolved around making sure I was getting my workouts in, getting rest. … I was doing it for them, but they don't understand that when they're 7, 8, 9, 10 years old."

Now he can do all the things he couldn't do before. Ski trips, which a hockey player's contract would never allow. School functions. Having dinner as a family.

And hockey games. Lots and lots of hockey games.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis addresses his team in the locker room.

• • •

It's the first period and Mid Fairfield has all it can handle from the Czech Knights. But the Rangers get a power play and take a 1-0 lead with an assist from a swift-skating forward wearing No. 26. It's Marty's son, Ryan. The Czechs continue to dominate, but the veteran of 1,134 regular-season NHL games yells encouragement from the bench.

"He's Coach St. Louis to them,'' said Marty Davey, whose son Paul plays on the team. "At first they were in a little bit of awe, but he has been with them a couple of years and they're more comfortable around him. He has made them more comfortable."

St. Louis looks like every other youth hockey-league coach. Sweatshirt. Jeans. Sneakers. He catches himself saying things that his coaches — even the hard-charging John Tortorella — used to say.

"Yeah," St. Louis says sheepishly. "I might have said once, 'You think you're tired? You're not!"

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis speaks with his team on the bench.

St. Louis said he coaches like he parents.

"Do I want to be your friend?'' St. Louis said. "Yes, but not at the cost of you always being happy with me. Same as a parent. We'll be friends later. I need to parent now."

When it comes to youth sports, however, it's not usually the kids who have the problems. It's parents.

"Be ready to hear the truth,'' St. Louis said. "We all think our kids are a bit better than they really are, me included. It's normal. It's your kid. So be ready to hear the truth. It's like going to a parent-teacher conference. If a teacher is not honest with you, he's doing you a disservice."

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis watches his team from the bench.

But, so far, so good. St. Louis gets along with everyone, including his son.

"Same as any other coach," Ryan said with a shrug. "He's more business at the rink. More fun at home."

The team is really good, ranked in the top 10 in the country, right alongside teams from Detroit, Boston and Los Angeles. They play in a weekend league in Boston then travel to five or six tournaments across North America. All tolled, they'll play 55 to 60 games in a season.

It's good competition. They're allowed to check now. The kids don't just follow the puck around in slow packs. They make plays. It's fast and physical. The goalies are quick. The passes are crisp. The shots are hard.

It's real hockey.

The second period ends and even though the Czechs have dominated play, the Junior Rangers lead 2-1. Coach St. Louis will have to dial up one more good pep talk.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Ryan St. Louis, right, skates on the ice.

• • •

Marty doesn't mind talking about his final days in Tampa and what led to the trade many fans still haven't forgiven. He understands their anger and hopes time has healed those wounds.

"The best thing happened for everybody," St. Louis said.

And the fans' anger?

"It hurt me," he said. "But I understood. Because I'm so not the guy they think I am. The reason why they fell in love me is the same reason I made that decision."

DIRK SHADD | Times

Ryan St. Louis, standing, watches the action from the bench.

Not long after he left the Lightning, his world collapsed in the middle of the 2014 playoffs when his mother died of a heart attack at the age of 63.

"Nothing matters when that happens,'' St. Louis said. "Your problems are not problems, you know?"

It was a difficult spring.

Now his lasting memory of Tampa Bay won't be of the trade out of Tampa Bay. It will be when his jersey is lifted to the rafters.

"Who would have thought that when (former Lightning general managers) Rick Dudley and Jay Feaster brought me in?'' St. Louis said. "I was trying to get a game. I was trying to get the next game. Slowly, I caught on and the snowball got bigger and bigger and bigger. At one point, it was so big, that snowball, that nothing was stopping it. It's a proud moment, no doubt."

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis prepares to address his team in the locker room.

St. Louis is quick to say he never did it alone. He mentions Tortorella and coach Jon Cooper. He talks about former teammates such as Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards and Steven Stamkos. He talks about the trainers who kept him healthy enough to play through injuries that would sideline most players.

"There are so many people who have a hand in that jersey going up," St. Louis said.

He talks about the people of Tampa, the fans.

"We loved it in Tampa," St. Louis said. "Tampa will always be special."

Until Thursday's Lightning-Sabres game, he had not attended an NHL game since he retired. Not because he didn't want to, but because he's too busy with this kids, too busy coaching, too busy being dad.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis talks with his team on the bench during a timeout during the 2016 Miami Beach invitational at the Pines Ice Arena in Pembroke Pines on Dec. 8.

• • •

The Mid Fairfield Rangers lead 2-1 on a goal with 19 seconds left in the second period, but the Czechs are a dangerous bunch with one period left.

In the locker room, St. Louis pumps out bursts of rapid-fire instructions.

"Stay out of the box," he says. "That's the only way they can get back into this game. Defend with your legs. Don't hook. Defend with your legs. Structure. Good changes. They're going to come. They're probably getting yelled out right now. They're going to come. No. 99? Play him tight. You put yourself in a great spot. Now let's finish the job."

The Rangers take a 3-1 lead less than five minutes into the third, but then the period hits trouble. The Czechs score. 3-2. Less than two minutes later, they score again. Tie game.

St. Louis calls a timeout.

He doesn't yell. He doesn't panic. He reminds them how good they are.

His words are magic.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis prepares to address his team in the locker room.

Just 32 seconds after the Czechs had tied it, the Rangers score to take a 4-3 lead.

The goal scored by, of course, Ryan St. Louis.

It turns out to be the winning goal. Ryan, with his goal and assist, is named the game's most valuable player.

"Great job," Coach St. Louis says in the boisterous locker room after the game. "You stayed with it. Sealed the deal. Proud of you guys."

With that, the kids take off their gear, laughing and joking, talking about where to eat.

Marty St. Louis pushes open the locker room door and walks outside.

Smiling.

St. Louis ceremony

Follow our live coverage of Friday night's Marty St. Louis jersey retirement ceremony at tbtim.es/marty26. We'll have tweets, photos, stories and more starting at 6:30 p.m.

Why Marty St. Louis hasn't attended an NHL game in years 01/12/17 [Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2017 10:31pm]
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