Spirit of St. Louis

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 3:43 PM ET


 TAMPA -- Martin St. Louis still remembers the phone call that changed his life.

 After two months of pounding the pavement as part of the Save Our Flames Campaign in the summer of 2000, his cellphone rang while he sat in an NHLPA meeting.

 It was his agent informing him the team with which he had just proudly re-signed was buying him out.

 Disappointed the diminutive winger wasn't claimed in the expansion draft, incoming GM Craig Button cut St. Louis loose.

 Suddenly, it was St. Louis' career that needed saving.

 "I asked myself if I'd ever play in the NHL again," admitted the soft-spoken Laval, Que., product, who was soon signed by the last-place Tampa Bay Frightening.

 "It lasted even after a month I was here -- I was scratched four or five times in the first 25 games. I wondered, 'If I can't play for the Lightning, where am I going to play?' That's when I went to talk to the coach."

 Despite scoring just four goals in 69 NHL games, the 5-ft. 9-in., 185-lb. winger marched into coach Steve Ludzik's office and told him flat out he could be more than a fourth-line checker in the NHL.

 "I told him I could play on any of his top three lines," he said, without much of an argument.

 Ludzik gave him that chance and the result was a steady progression to the point the three-time Hobey Baker finalist is now as dominating offensively as he was in college.

 "There are plenty of things in life that seem like a big deal but, as time goes by, you realize it's a little dent in your life," said St. Louis, 28, who leads all playoff scorers with 18 points.

 "Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to me."

 Hard to argue, given the fact his first NHL scoring title makes him a Hart Trophy shoo-in and his Lightning will face off against his former club for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final tonight.

 "I know people are making a big deal because I played in Calgary and this and that but before anybody asks me, there are no hard feelings," smiled St. Louis, who could easily have passed as Dave Andreychuk's son as the duo sat at the podium yesterday.

 "(Calgary) is a good team and I am happy for some of the players who are still there when I was there but I am not mad. I don't feel I have to put it in their face. The people who were there when I was there are gone. I am treating this series the same way I would if it were against San Jose or whatnot."

 A perfect fit for a John Tortorella outfit that has based everything around the speed and skill of players like him, St. Louis is grateful for his two years spent between Saint John, N.B., and Calgary where then-coach Brian Sutter taught him the importance of defence and playing away from the puck.

 "In the NHL, if you don't score 30 goals, you better be able to do something. So looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to me," said the U of Vermont star, who had a stellar 58 goals and

 56 assists in 114 AHL games.

 Recalled Flames captain Jarome Iginla: "He was a guy, when he came up to Calgary, you could see in practice he was obviously a great skater and had great puck-handling skills.

 "He competed hard for us. I don't know if you knew he was going to go on and win a scoring title but you could see he was going to be a good player. He's a nice guy, so it's good to see him do so well -- but hopefully not in this series."

 While Tortorella admitted yesterday he had "never heard of" St. Louis when he was released by Calgary, the coach treasures the tiny package he's helped develop into one of the league's best.

 "I truly think it worked out for me in Calgary, to be honest," said St. Louis, who was offered his first pro contract in 1998 by then-Flames GM Al Coates.

 "I wasn't drafted. I had nothing. Here's a team that gave me an opportunity to reach my dream and I relished that. I loved it. When people get fired (Sutter and Coates), sometimes people come in and go in different directions. Hey, things happen for a reason. I don't take anything for granted because those days are still fresh in my mind."

 So is the phone call.


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