LOS ANGELES — The first step on a 1,000-game journey through the NHL for Tampa Bay Lightning captain Marty St. Louis started more than 5,000 miles away from where he took the ice for his milestone moment Tuesday night.
As an undrafted, undersized rookie with the Calgary Flames, St. Louis began his career at Yoyogi Arena in Tokyo on Oct. 9, 1998. As he sat inside the locker room Tuesday morning at Staples Center, getting set to face the Los Angeles Kings in his 1,000th career game, St. Louis reflected on his NHL start more than 15 years ago.
“It was a small venue. It was really weird playing hockey in Tokyo,’’ St. Louis said before the Lightning’s 5-2 loss to the Kings. “I couldn’t settle down, it was too surreal. I wasn’t supposed to be there so it took me a while to get over that mentally. I think I had the ability to be there, I just wasn’t ready. I was too in awe of the league. I feel that I was just still a fan. I was too impressed by the players that I was playing with and against.
“For me it was an exciting moment but I remember walking away after my first game thinking I could’ve done more.’’
Now, 999 career games later, not much has changed as he became only the 16th undrafted player in league history to appear in at least 1,000 games and the 286th overall.
At the age of 38, with two scoring titles to his resume, an MVP award, a Stanley Cup title and now wearing the captain’s “C” on his jersey, St. Louis’ desire to do more for his team night in and night out remains unwavered.
It’s that determination and desire to want to be better that have fueled a career that could eventually land him in some hallowed circles.
“That kid wants to win at everything he does, whether it’s being in line first at the team meal — that’s what he does, he wants to be first,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
“In drills he wants to be the first guy to put the puck in the net and that’s a desire. He’s got that fire burning in him as strong today as it did 1,000 games ago and it’s pretty impressive.’’
St. Louis spent parts of two seasons with Calgary, appearing in 69 games from 1998-2000. But after his option was picked up by the club following the 1999-2000, he was left unprotected in the expansion draft and, after he was not selected, the contract was promptly bought out by new Flames general manager Craig Button, a move that proved to be the launching point for his potential Hall of Fame career.
“Of course, I’m still battling the size problem,’’ St. Louis told the Calgary Sun at the time of his buyout. “Maybe it will be good for me looking at a new organization. ... But what can I do? I’m used to dealing with it. I’m not going to pout — I’m going to go out and get a contract and hopefully prove to them they made a mistake.’’
A call from then Lightning general manager Rick Dudley led to a two-year contract for the league-minimum salary. But there were no guarantees of playing time. As usual, he had to earn it.
After being a healthy scratch four times in the first 16 games that season, and with only two assists to his credit, he began to wonder.
“I was very thankful for that opportunity, but even when I got here it wasn’t like a guarantee to be on the team,’’ St. Louis said Tuesday. “I had to fight and I was scratched the first year, in and out of the lineup for a team that was so not in the playoff picture. At that point you’re like, ‘If I can’t play for this team, where can I play?’ But things turned for the better for me and I haven’t looked back.’’
Two games after getting back into the lineup that season, on Oct. 22 at home against Atlanta, St. Louis scored his first goal in a Lightning uniform — it came short-handed in an 8-2 romp — and has been a mainstay ever since.
His desire and durability have been a trademark of his success, rarely missing time due to injury — a broken leg in 2002, a fractured finger that kept him out two games in 2005 and an eye injury sustained during a morning skate in 2012 in what was to be his 500th consecutive game played — are the only ailments to keep him off the ice during his time with Tampa Bay.
“It’s a remarkable accomplishment,’’ Cooper said. “For him, at the level he’s continued to play, 1,000 games is crazy. But it just goes to show what hard work, desire, work ethic and a want to be the best (can do). That’s what happens when you prepare like that every single day. You can play 1,000 games and beyond.’’
It’s an accomplishment that someday St. Louis will hold in high esteem.
“I feel that I’ve accomplished a lot more than I could ever imagine,’’ he said. “In terms of playing 1,000 games, that thought never even crossed my mind. Do I feel I have more to give? I think I do but I think the 1,000-game mark, with all the things I have done in this league, I think it’s one of those that I’m going to hold up there.’’