TAMPA — When Marty St. Louis requested a trade last spring, Lightning founder Phil Esposito was one of many who tried to talk him out of it.
St. Louis, 39, was the captain, having spent the past 13 years becoming one of the more beloved players in Tampa Bay history. Now, he wanted to go.
"I told him, 'If you stay, you can write your own ticket with this organization after you're done,' " Esposito said. " 'How many years you got (left) Marty? A couple?' He said, 'Well, I'm not sure, but everybody in my family wants to go.' I said, 'Okay.' …
"But as it turns out, it was a hell of a deal (for the Lightning)."
Instead of writing his own ticket in Tampa, St. Louis ticked off many fans, and will likely receive boos tonight when he makes his much-anticipated return to Amalie Arena with the Rangers.
St. Louis circled this date once the NHL schedule came out this summer, and believes it'll be a special and emotional night. But he knows, and understands, if fans don't give him a hero's welcome.
"I'm expecting the worst," St. Louis says, "And hoping for the best."
St. Louis hopes fans remember him for the 13 "great" years he spent with the Lightning. He felt like he grew up here as a professional, signing as a free agent in 2000 as a 5-foot-8 undrafted wing hoping to prove he could play in the league. St. Louis ended up becoming one of the game's top players, winning the Hart Trophy and bringing the Stanley Cup to Tampa in 2004.
"I know sometimes people are not happy with some of the decisions you make, and I get it," St. Louis said. "But I can honestly look at myself in the mirror and know I gave my heart and soul for this franchise for 14 years, and it was just time to move on."
St. Louis didn't want to revisit the topic of originally getting left off of Team Canada, which was run by Lightning general manger Steve Yzerman. St. Louis acknowledged that was part of the reason he wanted out, but not the whole reason. His family had a lot to do with it. St. Louis said this felt like his first road trip of the season, getting to spend more time at home and watching his three sons play hockey.
Though St. Louis lost his mother, France, in May, he helped lead the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final.
"It made everything right," St. Louis said.
The Lightning may end up better off due to the trade, receiving veteran wing Ryan Callahan along with two first-round picks despite Yzerman only having the Rangers to negotiate with. Callahan, 29, signed a six-year-deal in June and is on the team's top line as Tampa Bay (14-6-2) is off to a hot start.
"How Stevie pulled this off was beyond me," Esposito said.
Steven Stamkos, who replaced St. Louis as captain the day he was traded (March 5), is grateful for how St. Louis impacted his career as a mentor and long-time linemate. Stamkos said St. Louis taught him how to be a pro and the two remain close friends. They had dinner Monday night in Tampa.
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"We obviously wanted him to stay and we told him that," Stamkos said. "It was a tough situation, but once you make up your mind on a decision like that, it's not like it happens overnight.
"We're doing pretty good here, we've moved on and he's moved on. Ultimately the fans, after (tonight) will probably move on and forget about that and focus on the team we have here right now."
Stamkos, along with former Lightning stars Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards, say they hope fans applaud St. Louis for what he did for the Lightning, and the city.
"If there's one player who put their heart and soul into everything, it's him," said Richards, now with the Blackhawks. "And I hope they respect that. If people do have hard feelings, it's the great thing about what we created down there in Tampa. Fans care. When I got there, fans wouldn't have cared if somebody left."
The fact St. Louis' return comes on Nov. 26 — same as his jersey number — he labeled fate. So is the coincidence that he enters just two points shy of 1,000 for his career.
"It's funny how things line up sometimes," St. Louis said. "I know I'm going to get it. Would it be great to get it here? Absolutely. We'll go play, let the cards fall where they may."
The Lightning is expected to do a video tribute for St. Louis early in tonight's game. Stamkos knows there probably will be some cheers, and boos, saying some fans have been able to move on and others might "take it to their grave."
St. Louis said he hasn't had any fans give him grief in person or through the mail — "not yet." But when St. Louis was asked what he would like to say to parents of the many children who wore No. 26 Lightning jerseys, he took a long pause.
"That's a tough question," he said. "I really appreciate their support. We had some high moments together, we had some low moments together. But I think we were together for 14 years. And that's what I would tell them: remember the great 14 years. And I understand the disappointment maybe they feel. But for me, it's more like I get their pain. But I just want them to respect my decision. I think I've earned that."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
Lightning vs. Rangers
When/where: 7:30, Amalie Arena
TV/radio: Sun Sports, 970-AM
Key stats: The Rangers (9-7-2) have won two straight — shutting out the Flyers and Canadiens — since losing 5-1 to the Lightning on Nov. 17. G Henrik Lundqvist has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of his past 11 appearances against Tampa Bay. … G Ben Bishop is 6-0 with a 0.93 goals-against average in six games vs. the Rangers. … Rick Nash has a point in 15 of 20 games this season. … The Lightning is 8-2-1 at home. … Alex Killorn is on a career-best goal scoring streak of four games.