Marty St. Louis retired yesterday. It ends not with a bang, but with a whimper, to use a cliche. Everyone knew it was coming. He’d become something of a liability on the ice recently and no offers appeared to materialize on July 1. So the next day, he retired.
When I first heard the news, I simply stopped. I didn’t know what to think or what I really felt. Sadness? Nostalgia? A little bit of schadenfreude–some “serves you right!” ? How about regret?
If I’m not sure how to feel about things right now, I do know how this inevitable day would have played out if Marty was still Marty. I’d have been bawling, for one. The fan tributes would have been pouring in. Marty St. Louis, had he retired a Bolt, would have been treated as a saint in Tampa, a demigod. Revered.
There would be questions about whether the Lightning could survive without him, whether he was so much the source of their drive and their identity that without him, they’d fall apart.
There would be calls to retire number 26 immediately. There would have been regrets that the Lightning hadn’t been able to win him a Cup to retire on.
He would have been enshrined as the man we all believed him to be, untouchable, untarnishable. Uncomplicated.
That isn’t the way it is anymore. Now, Marty’s just a man. Human, fallible, and too old. He has, in a way he never would have if he’d stayed, grown small before our eyes. We can see now that he has finally aged. Our Iron Man is no longer quite able to keep up. The guy who drove the Lightning through sheer force of will seems to have burned through some of that fire.
We remember the glory days, but we can’t forget the way it ended. I still believe that Marty’s place in our hearts was never really understood by outsiders. He wasn’t simply a great player or a leader or a representative of the franchise’s values. He was the Lightning. He didn’t embody the team in any metaphorical sense. He was the avatar, the franchise made human. He was myth made real. More than a man, far more than just an asset.
I realize now that such myth making is bound by its very nature to fail, but at the time, I never even entertained the thought that it might end, that Marty might reject it. Which is what he did, of course. He preferred a different myth, one both bigger and smaller. He wanted universal respect, not local adulation, and when he didn’t get it, he wanted out.
I tend to think that the real world was less kind to Marty than he perhaps expected. He got a measure of respect but no one spoke his name in hushed and reverent tones out there. There was far more room in New York to criticize Martin St. Louis than there had been in Tampa. But perhaps there was more room to breathe, too, more room for Marty to be human. Only Marty St. Louis can say if the change was good for him.
It was good for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Losing Marty made the team grow up and learn to stand without him. The Lightning are unquestionably a better team not carrying his contract, though it’s never just about the contract. It’s not inconceivable that with Martin St. Louis, the Lightning would not have made it as far as they did this past season. That would have been blasphemy a year and a half ago. It would have been incredibly hard for Jon Cooper to sit Marty, regardless of his production.
But really, at this moment, that’s beside the point. Marty left and now Marty’s retiring and I’m left wishing that I could celebrate his career without ambiguity. I feel mostly sad for him, because he had so much love and respect in Tampa and he walked away from it. He tarnished his reputation and his legacy and he’ll retire as just another player who couldn’t cut it anymore rather than as a hero.
I know that over time, things will change yet again. There will come a time, perhaps not that far in the future, when Marty will get a welcome and a thank you from the Tampa Bay Lightning. There may come a time when his jersey is retired, who can say? He did so much for this team and for hockey in Florida. And, frankly, without Marty St. Louis, there would be no Tyler Johnson and as a sport we’re far better off that there are Tyler Johnsons out there.
For now, though, this story ends with a sigh of regret, even after the celebration is done. What a day this could have been.