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Martin St. Louis inspired smaller Lightning players

Watching St. Louis gave both Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson evidence they could make it.
Former Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis is introduced during his jersey retirement ceremony (No. 26) on Jan. 13, 2017, at Amalie Arena. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Former Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis is introduced during his jersey retirement ceremony (No. 26) on Jan. 13, 2017, at Amalie Arena. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published Nov. 20, 2018

TAMPA — Both Martin St. Louis and Yanni Gourde grew up as small kids playing hockey in Quebec. Both were told they were too small. But Gourde had something St. Louis did not: St. Louis himself.

Long before they were both tied to the Lightning, long before Gourde had a "career" in hockey, St. Louis had an impact.

"(Seeing St. Louis) basically just says it's possible, it's doable," Gourde said. "It gives you maybe the push you need at that time. Everybody is telling you you can't, and then this guy is doing it. He's showing you can do it at an NHL level, and be a top player in the league every year. He gives you courage to keep playing."

The Lightning will honor St. Louis, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 12, tabbing Wednesday night's game against Florida Martin St. Louis Night.

Today's NHL is very different than the one St. Louis entered. What he achieved is all the more impressive when you take into account how different the league was at the time. The rules weren't built for speed and skill. It was pretty much accepted as fact that you had to be big to play.

"Back then, there was just no room for small guys," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "When I came in the league, Marty was the smallest guy. If he was still playing today, he'd be one of my tallest guys."

Technically, St. Louis would still be the smallest on today's Lightning roster, but he'd have company. St. Louis is 5 feet 8, as are Tyler Johnson and Danick Martel; Gourde is 5-9.

Entering Tuesday, four of the NHL's top 10 goal scorers were under 6 feet, including 5-10 Brayden Point and Columbus' Cam Atkinson (5-8).

St. Louis is not the only reason there are so many smaller players in the NHL — rule changes over the years have a lot to do with that — but he certainly showed them there was an opening.

"He was one of the first guys that came into the league when the league was more of an old-school, big, strong kind of league," Johnson said. "For small guys, it was tough to make it. You saw the success he had and it opened doors for guys like myself."

St. Louis had a more direct effect on Johnson as well. In Johnson's rookie year, he played his way up to St. Louis' line, along with fellow rookie Ondrej Palat. St. Louis gave both of them tips and things to work on. He sat them down and told both players to relax, that they had what it takes to make it as long as they did things right.

It's no surprise that St. Louis' eye for talent was on point and both Johnson and Palat are impact players for the Lightning.

With both St. Louis and Johnson, even though Palat is 6-0, that line played small-player hockey.

"Our entire philosophy as a line was to try to do little shares in the middle of the ice and try to keep the puck off the walls as much as possible," Johnson said. "Being a smaller guy, you don't want to get stuck on the wall against someone who is big and strong."

St. Louis could do the opposite, too, as Johnson pointed out. He did go into corners and make plays. By watching St. Louis, Gourde saw he didn't have to play safe hockey just because he was small.

"He was a gritty guy, too," said Gourde, whose sweet spot is right in front of the net. "He's not just standing on the outside where he's not going to get hit."

St. Louis did some of everything, hence his induction into the Hall of Fame, and showed a new generation of under-sized hockey players that whichever style they played, they had a shot at making it.

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