Martin St. Louis was cut at 12U. He was cut at 14U, too. He was not drafted by an NHL team.
He did eventually carve out a 16-year Hall of Fame NHL career, tallying more than 1,000 points, capturing three Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading point-getter, one Hart Trophy as the league MVP, and one Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
Martin St. Louis is one of the greatest – and perhaps underappreciated – underdog stories in pro sports history. As a youth hockey player in Canada, he was cut from top teams multiple times, in large part because of his small stature.
“I was always a good player, but I wasn’t the best. I was definitely small,” said St. Louis, who even in the NHL was listed at 5-foot-8. “As a first-year peewee, I got cut. There were other first-year players that got cut. My size was probably part of it. I played BB instead of AA. I kept getting better and got stronger. First year bantam, I didn’t play AA either. I Played BB.
“But around 15 or 16, I started proving to people that I could play with the physicality that the sport demanded, even if I was small.”
He would excel in the college ranks at the University of Vermont, but still had to battle just to get a look from an NHL team. As an undrafted free agent, the Ottawa Senators released him from a tryout. Next, the Calgary Flames exposed him to the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft. Yet, this past summer, he was selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Along the way, St Louis, now living in Connecticut, learned countless lessons that he’s now passing on as a coach for three different youth hockey teams – one each for sons Ryan, Lucas and Mason. Martin St. Louis shared some of those lessons with USA Hockey.
Confidence through perseverance
When he looks back on his youth hockey experience, St. Louis sees how the deck was stacked against him. He played against Alexandre Daigle all throughout youth hockey.
“He goes to Ottawa as the No. 1 overall pick (in 1993), and I’m a freshman in college and not drafted,” said St. Louis, who grew up just outside Montreal. “Was Alex better than me? Yeah, but not to the point of him being first overall and me not being drafted at all.”
But sometimes confidence built slowly over time is more valuable than being a can’t-miss prospect from the start.
“Youth hockey was a great experience. I had some setbacks that made me push a little harder,” St. Louis added. “Being cut makes you want things a little more. I was still having a lot of fun, and I really dominated the BB level and confidence-wise it was a big deal.”
For many players, missing the cut for one team is a blessing in disguise. They may find themselves playing more prominent roles, gaining confidence and developing leadership skills.
St. Louis, 43, can now pass along those lessons to the squads he helps coach. Ryan, his oldest son, is playing on a 16U split-season team and Martin is an assistant for that team. He’s also the head coach for Lucas’ 14U team and an assistant for Mason’s 10U team.
“Obviously, I think with my resume I get some credibility, but does that mean I know everything about development? No,” St. Louis said. “But I educated myself and ask questions when I’m not sure how to handle a certain situation and get kids to maximize and evolve as players. I try to have the kids think the game instead of just playing. That’s how you evolve.”
He’s a big believer in communicating with players and making sure they aren’t just following orders, but are learning the game and developing every day, not just focusing on scores, stats and standings.
“For me as a player, I liked my coach to tell me why we did things a certain way. Once he convinced me, I was all-in,” St Louis said. “You should be asking questions as a kid. I enjoy that.
“If you’re only outcome-driven, you’re going to lose sight of what really matters.”
Growing into the game
St. Louis says he enjoys his coaching roles, and tries to keep things in perspective for everyone.
“(Parents) spend money, and they want feedback. I have no problem giving feedback, as long as they’re ready to hear the truth,” St. Louis said. “Parents probably think their kids are a little better than they are. For me, it’s trying to communicate the things that have to improve to keep evolving as a player.”
And that’s where his personal experience can really pay off. While some of the biggest and fastest youth players he grew up with leveled off eventually, he kept working and ascending – eventually to the highest of heights.
Very few players actually make it, he cautions, so just try and enjoy the ride.
“At a young age like 10U and 12U, the best players are usually the fastest, strongest and biggest. That doesn’t mean that what works now will work in two or three years,” St. Louis said. “If you don’t focus on [long-term development], they end up wired a certain way and when everyone catches up speed-wise and they never had to solve problems of moving the puck, it does them a disservice to just focus on scoring goals. You’re not really developing him or her for what’s next.
“It’s not about who is the best 10U or 12U, it’s about getting better.”