They were playing ball hockey on a fibreglass floor Monday morning, the 45 candidates for the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team, running through head coach Mike Babcock’s system, wearing shorts and T-shirts, with hockey sticks in hand.
If you didn’t look too closely at $1.5-billion worth of hockey-playing talent, you’d think you were watching a bunch of kids playing a pick-up game – and they were kids mostly. This is a transitional year for the Olympic program, with youth oozing from the pores of the club.
Jarome Iginla, 36, a three-time Olympian, didn’t get an invitation to the camp. Neither did Martin Brodeur, 41, a four-time Olympian.
But Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis is here. Never drafted, and always considered too small – at 5 foot 8, 176 pounds – to play in the NHL, St. Louis is like the Energizer Bunny in the TV commercials, someone who just keeps going and going and going.
At 38, greying, but not slowing, St. Louis is the reigning NHL scoring champion, the oldest player in history to accomplish that feat. Technically, St. Louis may not be a kid anymore, but he went to Florida and found the fountain of youth.
There’s a huge youth movement in the NHL and, obviously, internationally as well,” St. Louis said Monday, “but I think being around these guys keeps you young for sure.”
On a team loaded down the middle, St. Louis is one of the few natural wingers that will likely crack the lineup for the team at the Sochi Winter Olympics. The Canadian coaching staff is stressing the need for speed and for hockey sense on the 2014 edition of the team, two qualities St. Louis possesses in abundance.
“He’s always been a serious player and I’ve always liked that about him,” said Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, an assistant on the Olympic team. “When you look at a team like ours and it comes time to pick, it’s nice to have skill, it’s nice to have speed and those sorts of things, but you also want to put some experience in there. That veteran leadership can’t be underestimated. That’s why you’ve got guys like him and Danny Boyle here.
“But we’re not doing anybody any favours. If they’re here, it’s because they deserve to be here.”
Because of advances in training, conditioning and nutrition, there are players who can play in the NHL at a comparatively advanced age. But it is one thing to simply play in the league as an older player and another to make a difference as an older player.
St. Louis proved last year that he can still make a difference, passing Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby for the scoring title in the final week, after Crosby was injured.
“Obviously, Sidney goes down and it’s like, ‘Wow, there’s an opportunity here,’” St. Louis said. “And being healthy is part of the process. It’s hard to win the scoring title. I’ve had better years and didn’t win it. It’s not so much what you do. It’s what’s going on around you as well. I was really proud of that. These kinds of things, they help your confidence as you get older. They rejuvenate you. They quiet the criticism – and it keeps you hungry.”
Much water has passed under the bridge since St. Louis began his professional career with the Calgary Flames in 1998, where he was the answer to a trivia question: Who was the last NHL player actually paid in Canadian dollars?
Calgary ultimately let him go, buying out his contract ahead of the 2000 expansion draft and Tampa eventually signed him for $250,000 (U.S.). The rest is history.
“This is where it all started,” St. Louis said of Calgary. “This is where I achieved my dream. I couldn’t believe I was in the NHL. I was next to Theo Fleury. It took me a couple of years to find my way in this league. I wasn’t supposed to be here, I was a fan still. Once I settled down, stopped selling myself short, that’s when I took a step in my career.”
No one has witnessed the marvel of St. Louis better than Steven Stamkos, his Tampa teammate, who considers him a mentor and a shining example of what the ethic of hard work can produce.
“Just watch the guy play,” Stamkos said. “Everyone talks about his age, and how he’s going to slow down. Well, he’s been one of the best players in the league for the past five years, and he’s only getting better. … If Marty plays the way I know he can play, he should be on this team come Olympics time.”
St. Louis played for Canada in the 2006 Olympics, but did not crack the lineup for 2010, something he characterized as “really disappointing.
“But they won the gold and I moved on. It was, ‘Okay, I’m going to focus on the next one.’ It was a motivator. I wanted to make it hard on them to keep me off the next one. Life is full of disappointment. It’s what you do and how you respond.”
As for the notion St. Louis is an underdog to make this team because of his age, he isn’t buying it.
“These are opinions,” he said. “You can’t let that affect you. You have to go out and play. For me, that’s what I’m doing. I know what I can bring. I have a lot of confidence in myself.”