TAMPA — There was a time Marty St. Louis no longer wanted to wear his No. 26 Tampa Bay Lightning sweater. That was heartbreaking.
Now, no one in Lightning history will ever wear No. 26 again.
And this time, it's simply wonderful.
Bravo, Lightning. You did the right thing.
The Lightning announced Thursday that for the first time in franchise history, it will retire a number. There was only one logical choice.
Marty St. Louis.
The Lightning will retire his number Jan. 13 when it takes on Columbus and coach John Tortorella, who coached St. Louis when Our Little Engine Who Could led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Yes, the ending of the St. Louis-Tampa Bay story was awkward and messy. The 2014 divorce left bitter feelings, mostly felt by fans who believed St. Louis abandoned them and their team in the heat of a playoff drive.
But that was a yesterday that should be forever forgotten. Instead, we should remember him for what he was:
The best player in Lightning history.
"I wish that can be behind us,'' St. Louis, 41, said Thursday of his departure from Tampa Bay. "In life, you make decisions. Sometimes you make hard ones. I hope they remember me for what I brought to the team. I feel like I left that team in way better shape than when I came.''
There is no doubt about that.
St. Louis arrived in 2000, a virtual unknown free agent who was never drafted. He stood a mere 5 feet 7, yet possessed the heart of a giant and the relentlessness of a bulldog.
Just four years later, he led the league in scoring and was named the NHL's most valuable player. He drove the Lightning to the Stanley Cup and provided arguably the greatest moment in team history when his double-overtime goal in Game 6 of the Cup final beat Calgary and forced Game 7.
He became captain. He eventually became the franchise's all-time leading scorer. He moved up to second in Lightning history in games and goals. He won another scoring title at age 37 during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
St. Louis should have skated off into the sunset with a Lightning bolt on his chest.
Then it all fell apart.
Full and exact details of his 2014 trade request to the Rangers remain murky. St. Louis expressed a desire to be closer to where his family made its permanent residence, in Connecticut near New York City. In addition, St. Louis had raw feelings after initially being left off the 2014 Canadian Olympic team by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who was Team Canada's executive director.
"It would have been a better story if I finished my career (with the Lightning),'' St. Louis admitted.
He didn't. Fans turned against him. Some still haven't forgotten.
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"I hope they can forgive me, I guess,'' St. Louis said. "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, and I hope they can remember that, not just the decision that I made that hurt their feelings.
"But I respect the fans, and I understand their pain. I was hurting, too. They didn't deserve that.''
In the past couple of years, the frosty relationship between Lightning fans and St. Louis has started to warm. He received a nice reception when his Rangers returned to Tampa Bay in November 2014. Last spring he returned to Amalie Arena as an ambassador for college hockey's Frozen Four and again was greeted warmly.
You have no idea how much this honor and acceptance from the fans mean to St. Louis. He is a deeply proud man who played most of his career with a chip on his shoulder. He still believes he did what was best for him and his family. But he isn't blind to Lightning fans feeling betrayed. He desperately wants to come back to Tampa Bay and celebrate with the fans all that was accomplished during his career.
So, Tampa Bay, it's your turn. You need to completely open your arms when St. Louis' number is retired. It's time. It's what is right. Someday teammates Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards will join him in the rafters and Lightning lore.
But it starts with Marty. It all started with Marty. Do the right thing. After all, he is yours. He is your team's greatest player ever.
"I have no doubt Marty is going to be warmly embraced by all of our fans,'' Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik said. "I think when we look at Marty St. Louis' career, what he did for the Tampa Bay Lightning, what he did for this community … this is one of the best athletes in the history of Tampa Bay sports. He deserves to be honored with his number retired, and I have no doubt our fans will step up and give him the love that he deserves.''
Amen. And how wonderful.