Bolts’ St. Louis not likely to let Team Canada snub hinder his play

Martin St. Louis leads the Lightning in points (41), assists (22) and goals (19) but he was left off of Team Canada.

TAMPA, Fla. –€ Marty St. Louis walked from the home dressing room, fist-bumping his teammates with each step along the way, this introduction steady and familiar. He was second on the ice Thursday evening behind goalie Anders Lindback, the lights at Tampa Bay Times Forum dimmed, the first notes of Phil Collins’ ”In the Air Tonight” playing over the loudspeakers as another night for the captain began.

This is St. Louis: A leader, a proven veteran, a man at the forefront of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s surprise rise toward the top of the Eastern Conference without Steven Stamkos since mid-November.

This is also St. Louis: A survivor, a proven commodity of his own making, a man who overcame so much — being undrafted, his size concerns — to carve out a 15-year NHL career and become a rock of the Bolts’ history.

That’s why it’s imperative for St. Louis to put this in the past as soon as possible. His absence from Canada’s 25-man roster — a team put together by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman — cuts to the core of what St. Louis is about — a fighter, someone who has proven critics wrong time and time again.

While St. Louis wasn’t the only star passed over by Yzerman — Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux and San Jose’s Joe Thornton also notably did not garner an invite — it stood out because it hit close to home.

”Mentally, he’s such a strong guy,” said Bolts defenseman Keith Aulie, a native of Rouleau, Saskatchewan. ”With his humble upbringings, with the way he made it to the NHL being undersized his whole life, he has just had that never-quit attitude. That’s going to keep him going here as well.”

Lightning midseason report

The Lightning hope that’s the case, because their playoff visions, which look more real by the week, depend on St. Louis remaining steady. The defending Art Ross Trophy winner, to little surprise, has stayed mostly quiet on the subject since Team Canada’s selections were announced Tuesday in Toronto.

Thursday was more of the same, with the team announcing during morning skate that St. Louis would not take questions about the Olympics. (St. Louis was never seen near his stall.) It’s no stretch to say this is a landmark moment in the Bolts’ season, just as consequential as Stamkos’ injury on Nov. 11 in Boston, and the outcome will help define Tampa Bay’s first full season under Cooper.

St. Louis wanted this to be his year. His brief words on the topic — ”You guys can imagine how I feel, obviously, I’m extremely disappointed, and I’ll just leave it at that,” he told reporters Tuesday in Winnipeg — are only slight insight into how jarring this situation must be for him. There is little favoritism in professional sports, a realm that includes politics and personal agendas, and sometimes, those elements transfer to events like Olympic selections as well. Everything is business.

Does St. Louis have what it takes to turn this into a positive outcome, to make this his motivation for the season’s second half? That’s his task. That’s how he’ll be judged.

”You just look at some people, and some people just have that X-factor,” said Bolts defenseman Mark Barberio, a native of Montreal. ”You see them, and they have the fire in the eyes … Some people just have it. You can tell Marty has that.”

Others around him know what they have in St. Louis. On Thursday, he received the largest roar and a standing ovation in pregame introductions, further proof that he’s Tampa Bay’s clear star without Stamkos.

Olympic-bound

He leads the Lightning in points (41), assists (22) and goals (19). At a time when he had to do so for the Bolts to survive, St. Louis elevated his game on and off the ice, proving that his selection as the franchise’s ninth captain was wise and deserved.

Despite St. Louis’ gains, this Olympics predicament only adds to what is sure to be a dramatic second half for his team. Stamkos, named to Team Canada, will likely return soon to provide an offensive boost. A postseason berth should be a goal, now with Tampa Bay standing third in the Eastern Conference with 56 points, only behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (65) and Boston Bruins (58).

”As disappointed as you are for Marty and Victor (Hedman) and Bish and those guys — at the opposite end, you’re really happy for Stammer and Fil and Gudas and all the guys who made it,” Cooper said.

The Bolts will still have St. Louis. He’s too proven to let this snub cut him forever. He’s too proud to let any distraction, even one this large, change the player he has become.

There are hurt feelings. There is damage control to be done. But St. Louis, a constant for so long, won’t be lost.

”Obviously, he was really, really close to making the team,” Bolts center Valtteri Filppula said. ”I think he should have. But at the same time, he wants to do well every game. He wants to help this team win. I think that says a lot about him.”

There is a lot more to be told, of course. Rare is the moment when St. Louis places individual attention above group gains, but this scenario is different. He’s 38 years old, and the Sochi Games were likely one of his last chances, if not the final one, to represent his homeland.

St. Louis’ window is closing, and the opportunity is only so large to begin. He was part of Team Canada in 2006. He was left off the 2010 squad. Now, the sting has returned.

Back for Olympics?

Still, this is an opportunity for him to show he’s larger than the pain, the hurt, the potential long-term damage a snub like this can cause. This is an opportunity to become better once more, to turn a deep blow to morale to a lesson in recovery.

”He’s such a competitor, you can tell that it obviously took a toll on him,” Aulie said. ”It’s a huge thing. He would have been working for that for four years… I’m sure he’s pretty bummed out, but when he comes to the rink, he doesn’t show it.”

That’s all he can do. Go to the rink. Go to work. Go prove he’s above the doubts, like he has throughout his career.

Few survival stories are told without fresh obstacles, after previous tests have been cleared. St. Louis faces yet another.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.