The ending may have been uncomfortable, but the legacy is undeniable. Martin St. Louis was the best player in the Tampa Bay Lightning's history. It's not up for debate. He just is and now, as the Lightning announced Thursday morning, he will be the first player in franchise history to have his number retired.
St. Louis' No. 26 will go to the rafters in Amalie Arena on Jan. 13, 2017.
The Lighting have had many extremely talented players come through. None made as big an impact as the undersized forward with blazing speed and an insatiable desire to be among the greats.
St. Louis' path to stardom was not easy. The hurdles he had to overcome just to get to the NHL in the first place were numerous. But he left the game as a Stanley Cup champion, a Hart Trophy winner and a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner. He also won the Ted Lindsay Award once and the Lady Byng Trophy three times. On top of that, St. Louis was named a league All-Star five times and made six all-star game appearances.
That's a pretty darn good trophy case for a guy that was too small to be drafted. Listed at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds by the end of his career, St. Louis was passed over in multiple drafts. He went on to the University of Vermont, where he lit up the NCAA ranks and still couldn't find NHL work. A stint in the old International Hockey League led to a contract offer from the Calgary Flames.
After only 69 games over two seasons with Calgary, they let him walk. He signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2000. Within four years, he was a league MVP, scoring champion and in 2004, he helped lead the Lightning to the franchise's only Stanley Cup.
Remarkably durable throughout his career, St. Louis appeared in 972 regular-season games with the Bolts. He put up 953 points over that span, including 365 goals. He surpassed 70 points in eight seasons, while winning the Art Ross in 2004 with 94 points and again at age 37 in 2013 when he had 60 points in the 48-game lockout-shortened season.
St. Louis is the Lightning's all-time leader in assists (588), points (953), shorthanded goals (28), game-winning goals (64) and a number of other categories. He is also second in games played (972) and goals (365).
Things unraveled between St. Louis and the Lightning when GM Steve Yzerman didn't pick his NHL captain for the Canadian Olympic team he was building. When Steven Stamkos went down with injury, St. Louis was added as an alternate, but the damage was already done.
St. Louis requested a trade and it was granted. Yzerman sent St. Louis to the New York Rangers, getting Ryan Callahan, a first-round draft pick and a conditional pick that turned into a first-rounder after the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final that year.
This event suggests that the hatchet has been buried between St. Louis and the Lightning. His departure was definitely a tough one for fans who viewed St. Louis as the face of the franchise. It was clearly tough on St. Louis, too, as he did little to hide his displeasure with the way things were handled with the Olympics.
That trade was the end of an era, but it also helped the Lightning continue on the path that has seen them go on deep runs in consecutive postseasons.
St. Louis retired after one more season with the Rangers, during which he put up 52 points in 74 games. His final game was played in the Eastern Conference Final as the Rangers were eliminated by the Lightning, of all teams. Before what would have been his age 40 season, St. Louis hung up the skates. Just over a year later, his number will head to the rafters for the franchise that he helped take to new heights.
The Lightning are continually playing to sellout crowds and have one of the most exciting teams in the NHL. St. Louis was a big part of laying the foundation for this to happen. He, along with Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle and a host of others, set the standard and the modern-day Lightning appear dangerously close to raising another Stanley Cup.
Perhaps one day Steven Stamkos will formally surpass St. Louis as the franchise's all-time great. He's certainly on his way to doing so, but there's something special about the way St. Louis built his career.
There was no obstacle too big, no challenge too great and no accomplishment unachievable for Martin St. Louis. That will be his legacy and exactly what people should think of when they see No. 26 hanging in Tampa's rafters.