PITTSBURGH -- The New York Rangers may not win this series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it won’t be for a lack of heart. At no other point in the season was the team’s loyalty, commitment and compassion on better display than Friday’s emotional 5-1 win in which they rallied behind teammate Martin St. Louis, who played Game 5 only one day after the death of his mother.
After the team charter landed in Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon, the 38-year-old veteran found out his mother, France St. Louis, had unexpectedly died at 63 of a heart attack. The Rangers provided St. Louis with the team plane to fetch his family in New York, then procured a private plane to take them all to Montreal, where he joined his father and was able to see his mother one last time before she was taken away. He was told by the team to put family first, take whatever time he needed. But when he spoke with his father Friday morning, the decision was clear.
“I know, deep down, my mother would -- my mom would want me to play this game. She’d be proud of me coming here and help as much as I can. And the boys have been so supportive, the support I got from the New York Rangers, my teammates, and my friends and family, friends around the league, old friends, has been unbelievable,” said St. Louis in a touching, heartfelt postgame interview after the Rangers avoided elimination.
“She was a great lady, the best human being I’ve ever known in my life. I owed it to her to do it.”
Most of St. Louis’ teammates were unaware of his intentions on game day. Words started to spread at the pregame meal at the team hotel. Some were in utter disbelief that he was coming back. Some, especially those who have known St. Louis for some time, were not surprised at all. But all of his teammates recognized the sacrifice he was making. Here was a teammate in excruciating emotional pain, and he was putting that on hold to play a hockey game because it mattered.
"I think it shows how much he cares about the guys in this room," said defenseman Marc Staal. "He didn’t want to leave us when we needed him most. Shows a lot about a guy. I don’t know if I could do it."
Hockey has always been a sanctuary for St. Louis and it was again Friday night, when the team put forth an inspired, purposeful performance that kept their season afloat. Derick Brassard scored two goals, as did the maligned power play, and the Rangers forced a Game 6 at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s always been like that for me. Once you get on the ice, I’m not going to say I forgot my whole situation -- she was with me the whole way -- but this is probably the most comfortable place that you can be as a hockey player,” St. Louis said.
Those around him did their best to keep his spirits high. There was a brief talk, in which he was thanked for his return, before team meetings just hours before puck drop. During the third period, Brassard gave him a jubilant hug on the bench, tussling his helmet in appreciation. Even Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby made a special stop near the Rangers’ dressing room to pay his condolences to the well-respected veteran before the game began.
After the game, alternate captain Richards talked about the “culture” of hockey players, saying he wasn’t surprised St. Louis played. No one on the team could have grasped the depth of St. Louis’ loss better than Richards, either. The longtime friends, who played together in Tampa, have known each other for years. Their families have grown close. Just 10 days earlier, Richards said, St. Louis’ mom was patting his fiancee’s belly, overjoyed for the impending arrival of his first child.
"It puts a lot of things in perspective about the other night’s hockey game," Richards said.
According to Brassard, the tragedy hit home for pretty much everyone, seeing their teammate go through such a shock.
“If we could’ve all gone to support him, we would have done it,” Brassard told ESPNNewYork.com.
He thought of his own mother, and how despondent he would have been to receive such news.
“When things like that happen, it makes you realize,” Brassard began, getting emotional. “I wanted to call my mom and tell her I love her.”
The Rangers did the best they could, for St. Louis and for one another. They were able to harness that emotion and channel it. That sort of raw energy allowed them to power past the Pens, a totally different look from the team that was on the ice in Games 3 and 4 looking both ragged and defeated.
Now they will have another chance to prolong their season on Sunday. Fittingly, Game 6 falls on Mother’s Day.
“We get another chance to continue, on Mother’s Day,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “It will be real special for our group.”