(St.) Louis, Louis

Forgive me fellow Islanders fans, for I may have not been rooting too hard for our helpless team in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Forgive me fellow Faithful, for my loyalties this year may not be lying with Joe Nieuwendyk and Pat Quinn’s band of goons.

This year, I’m a Tampa Bay Lightning fan — one of the biggest. It’s all because of two guys whose college hockey careers started the same year as my professional college hockey broadcasting career. Two guys who drove me crazy, but who I came to be enthralled with — it’s because of Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin.

People will often ask me, who is the best college hockey player I ever saw. I do not hesitate to say Martin St. Louis. Granted, my first-hand experience goes back only to 1988, but that includes quite a few great players. And when I say St. Louis, the response I get is often, “Really?” After all, there are players like Chris Drury, Brendan Morrison, Tony Amonte, and so on. And they’re all great players. And we haven’t even mentioned Paul Kariya, who was quite sick to watch, of course, but played just over a season.

But I always told people — when we’re speaking purely of “College Hockey Player,” Martin St. Louis was the best. He is, to me, the embodiment of a pure college hockey player, a subtle but important distinction.

Thing is, I don’t have to qualify it anymore. I don’t have to apologize for my selection anymore. Because Martin St. Louis is now one of the best players in the National Hockey League, and could soon be named its MVP. And his team is on the verge of the Eastern Conference finals.

And for those of us who watched him play and believed in him all along, it’s a great feeling. I told you so.

I tend to naturally root for the little guys, not specifically because they are small, but because I tend to root for any player, or anybody, that I believe is unfairly dismissed for whatever reason. And in hockey, that tends to be the little guys, especially those that played college hockey.

And as St. Louis languished in the minor leagues, looking for someone to give him a chance, he just tore it up and burned for the NHL. And then he got to the NHL but wasn’t given the ice time, was stuck on the fourth line. That was until a famous meeting with Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella, challenging his boss to give him more ice time and vowing that if he did so, St. Louis would show everyone what he was made of.

And he was true to his word, and then some.

We’ve come a long way in hockey. Teams are so desperate for talent they aren’t as quick to dismiss players for stereotypical reasons. But it still amazes me how small players have to fight to earn respect, especially ones so eminently gifted as Martin St. Louis.

But more than all that, St. Louis and Perrin were such a pure treat to watch, and to watch them (St. Louis in particular, of course) to do it on the highest level, serves to validate what we always knew, and allow us to enjoy it all over again.

Perrin’s story is even more convoluted than St. Louis’. It was recounted brilliantly today in an article in the St. Petersburg Times, so I don’t need to repeat it here.

But it’s quite heartwarming to see St. Louis-Perrin together again. Two names so inextricably linked in college hockey history, that you can’t hardly get one name off the tongue without it flowing seamlessly into the other. As St. Louis rose to NHL prominence, something didn’t seem right to those who knew them when. Imagine how they felt, having known each other since well before most of us.

They are not linemates, but they are teammates, and if you close your eyes for just a second, you can allow yourself to be transported back to the magic they made at Gutterson Fieldhouse. They were creating lightning long before they were Lightning, with their stickhandling, eyes-behind-their-head passwork, St. Louis’ rocket shot, Perrin’s finishing skills, and, yes, grit.

I remember their last game like it was yesterday. It came in Worcester, a defeat in the NCAA first round to Denver. It was a disappointing season which had Vermont ranked No. 1 early on, coming off a Frozen Four appearance a year earlier. Things never meshed the same way that senior season. But when the game was over, they faced the music in the post-game press conference, as classy as ever.

I went up to St. Louis — he knew me somewhat tangentially from my reporting work and broadcasting for Princeton. I stepped out of my objective reporter’s role for just a minute. “I just want to say thank you for giving me the most pleasure I’ve ever had watching anyone play hockey, and good luck.” And he said thank you. And that was all.

The next year, I was in Iowa and St. Louis-Perrin were in Cleveland, and I watched their games on the dish. Two years later, I was in the AHL in Philadelphia, and St. Louis was in Saint John, and I saw him again, playing against our team, playing in the All-Star Game, still wondering why he wasn’t in the NHL — my colleagues having to insufferably listen to me go on and on about this guy.

Now he’s a star and everyone knows it. He’s not mine anymore. There’s nothing to shout about anymore.

Instead, I just sit back and watch the magic, and root for the Lightning. It’s on to other causes — like how about getting Eric Perrin his first NHL goal? Who knows where that will lead.