He was always one of the smallest players on the ice.
How then can the departure of Marty St. Louis leave such a large hole?
The Lightning not only traded away the best player in its history Wednesday, it also traded away a good chunk of its heart and a pound of its soul.
It traded away Marty Time, those precious moments when the game was ticking away and St. Louis would sweep in from the far reaches of the ice to save the day. It traded away grit and passion and fire. It traded away the best part of its history, and the closest link the team and the fans have ever had.
Most of all, it traded away much of its own identity.
And you wonder: Will the fans ever forgive St. Louis for forcing such a day?
Marty is a Ranger. This feels wrong. This feels awful. This feels like a betrayal by the player you trusted the most.
You can debate whether to blame St. Louis for asking for this trade or general manager Steve Yzerman for accommodating him. You can think the return is a little light for the time being or that the Lightning did the best it could with tied hands. At this point, it only matters that, from now on, St. Louis is going to be skating in another team's colors. It is an image that is going to be difficult for a lot of people to absorb.
Did it really have to come to this? Sure, St. Louis was ticked when he didn't make the original list of players on the Canadian hockey team. But he did make it, and his gold medal was just as shiny as anybody's. If you are miffed that you weren't invited to a party, are you still miffed when your invitation comes later?
Here's something, though. Yzerman said Wednesday that St. Louis and he had talked about a trade even before the Olympics came along. Yes, the omission had something to do with it, but it doesn't sound like it had everything to do with it. St. Louis had toyed with the idea of relocating north before.
Still, if the Olympic slight had something to do with hurrying St. Louis' decision along, it will be hard for many to understand. As fans, we are all used to seeing sloppy endings in sports — Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards — because of money, or because of age, or because of injury. But it is seldom because a team's captain decides, in the middle of a playoff run, he would rather play somewhere else.
In the end, we may never fully know why that team seemed more appealing to St. Louis than this one. If it was the Olympic slight, did that matter more than the role St. Louis had as captain of this team? Did it matter more than the bond he had built with all of those fans whose children wore his jersey?
Remember, this was not a Lightning problem. Those checks always cashed just fine. This was not a fan problem. They always cheered his name.
At any point, St. Louis could have stopped all of this. He had a no-move clause in his contract, after all. He could have been angry at Yzerman every day for the rest of his life — he wouldn't be the first player who didn't like his general manger — and still, he could have been here for his teammates and his fans.
But, evidently, he could not bear to play here any longer. What a shame for him. What a shame for you. What a shame for the Lightning. No matter what else you think of St. Louis, part of his legacy will be that he was Captain Opt-Out, the guy who skated away.
It's a shame. For a very long time, we thought of St. Louis as ours, you know. True, St. Louis started his career in Calgary, but the Flames had no idea what they had in him. He grew up here. He became a star here. He won a Cup here.
To many, St. Louis was the face of the Lightning, more than Lecavalier, more than Richards, more even than Steven Stamkos, whose legacy will eventually overtake St. Louis. It was more than his 1,041 games, and more than his 369 goals, and more than all of his awards.
With St. Louis, it was his style, his speed, his relentlessness, his competitiveness that struck a chord with the fans of Tampa Bay. It was his attitude that was never going to slow down and never going to back away.
He was our Derek Jeter, you know. He was our Emmitt Smith. He was our John Stockton. For the Lightning, he was equal parts Brooks and Ronde Barber and James Shields. He was an elegant, dignified performer who never left Tampa Bay fans asking for more.
When you think of all of that, you wonder: Did the Lightning get enough for him?
Yzerman got about as much return for St. Louis as possible. If you buy the premise that keeping an unhappy player catches up to a team, what choice did he have?
Don't get me wrong. There is a reason that Ryan Callahan was the captain of the Rangers. He's a good player, even if he turns out only to be a rental. But he isn't St. Louis, and he isn't capable of the same impact for the Lightning down the stretch. (If he was, the Rangers wouldn't have thrown in extra draft picks to get St. Louis.) And there is still a possibility that Callahan will leave for free agency after the season.
As for the draft picks? Well, fans love draft picks, because they hint of a brighter tomorrow. And yes, the second-round draft pick next summer (which could grow to a first-rounder), and the first-rounder in 2015 might bring a nice return. Someday.
On the other hand, the Lightning has all of 20 games to go in this playoff run. Don't you think Marty might have affected, say, four of them? Six? Certainly, it could be a significant enough number to affect the seeding of the Lightning as the team goes forward.
The Lightning is a different team today. It has a different feel. And the players in the room have a view of an empty locker.
Yeah. That was where Marty dressed, back when he used to play here.
What a shame it was that it had to end.