Commentary

St. Louis' courage inspires Rangers

Mother's recent death has galvanized team during Stanley Cup journey

Updated: May 19, 2014, 4:35 PM ET
By Katie Strang | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- It was a somber scene within the tight confines of the Bell Centre's visitors dressing room Sunday afternoon, certainly not a tableau one would expect for a team that had pulled out a commanding 7-2 road win less than 24 hours prior.

The New York Rangers did not practice following their Game 1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. Instead, they used their off day to travel as a team -- the owner, the players, the coach and all the staffers -- the short distance to Laval, Quebec, to attend the funeral for teammate Martin St. Louis' mother, France, who passed away last week with a heart attack.

Veterans Brad Richards, Marc Staal, Dominic Moore and Dan Girardi gathered back at the arena later that afternoon, addressing the media following a painful, yet necessary day in what has been a difficult week and a half.

For a team that has weathered the type of emotional whiplash that comes from experiencing both tragedy in triumph in stark contrast, they were both measured and respectful in discussing what had transpired. They didn't provide specifics of the private service, but they offered a glimpse into how St. Louis -- the person, not the player -- dealt with such a profound loss. They voiced their support for both him and his family during such a trying time.

"What I can say is that the New York Rangers family has been touched by a little Quebec family in a deep, profound way," said coach Alain Vigneault, whose voice seemed on the verge of breaking. "Today was a very emotional, very moving time for our team to have the opportunity to be there and share that with Marty and his family."

Vigneault has talked often about what the situation has done to galvanize the team, how this has brought the club closer and inspired the players to play with renewed passion and purpose. But there is also an earnest concern to ensure St. Louis' personal tragedy is not hijacked as a useful narrative to win hockey games, so when the family thanked the Rangers at one point during the dual-language French/ English service, Vigneault was heartened.

The St. Louis family has clung to the Rangers' postseason hopes as a needed distraction while dealing with the grieving process, Vigneault said. And the Rangers want to provide that comfort.

"I think what they're doing is they're moving on through the team," Vigneault said. "The fact that we're still playing is enabling them to cope and handle the challenging situation."

[+] EnlargeMartin St. Louis, Carl Hagelin
Scott Levy/NHLI/Getty ImagesHockey has become an escape for Martin St. Louis, left, since losing his mother.
Ten days ago, it would've been hard for anyone to predict that the Rangers would still be playing. After Game 4 of the their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team appeared cooked -- out of gas, demoralized and defeated by the 3-1 series lead the Pens had built. Ultimately, the turning point of their postseason did not come after a dazzling goal, a thunderous check or a singularly spectacular individual performance. It came following St. Louis' gut-wrenching tragedy.

The veteran forward was probably doing the same thing as all of his teammates, stewing over a frustrating Game 4 defeat and pondering the daunting task of a two-game series hole, when the team charter landed in Pittsburgh on May 8. Then he got the news that his beloved mother, France St. Louis, had died of a heart attack at age 63.

What unfolded from there was a string of events no one could have foreseen or predicted, much less the impact it would have in propelling the Rangers toward their second appearance in the Eastern Conference finals in three seasons. A devastated St. Louis immediately flew back to New York, taking the team charter to fetch his wife and kids, after which he flew via private plane to be in Montreal with his grieving family.

St. Louis made the difficult choice to return to Pittsburgh and rejoin the Rangers for Game 5, to the shock and amazement of many of his teammates. What resulted was an emotional, inspirational win in St. Louis' honor, a victory that subsequently staved off elimination and gave the Rangers the fervent belief the series was not over.

St. Louis then brought his father, Normand, and sister, Isabelle, to New York for Game 6 at Madison Square Garden -- a game that fell on Mother's Day. In what unraveled like a storybook ending, St. Louis scored the game's first goal and sent the crowd into hysterics. They chanted his name over and over and lauded his inspired, fiery play. It was a scene that left the Rangers utterly in awe.

By Game 7, the Rangers were a changed team. Inspired by St. Louis' heroics and brought closer by the type of pain and passion that defined a tumultuous few days, the Rangers carried over the type of purpose into Game 7 that had to be terrifying for the Penguins to see. The Rangers silenced the home crowd in Pittsburgh with a 2-1 victory, marking the first time in franchise history the team had come back from a 3-1 series deficit.

"For some reason, that helped us, I don't -- the word 'help' isn't the right word," said Richards, who is good friends with St. Louis dating back to their Stanley Cup days with the Lightning. "It's tough to describe, when that happens, how down you are. It's something that ... we looked at as how fortunate we were to be able to play a game and be in the playoffs and how [there] are other things going on in the world. Hockey's just secondary.

"It was a good way to kind of regroup and think about 'Let's just go out and have fun and bring emotions and have fun and realize how fortunate we are."

Suddenly, hockey became the escape, the sanctuary that St. Louis, and everyone, truly needed. They were able to smile after a big shift, celebrate after a critical goal and rejoice after a series win.

At no other time was the Rangers' dressing room more jubilant than after Game 7.

Winning a hockey game, Richards said, was no longer "this big, daunting task." Richards was frank in assessing the type of effect St. Louis' return had on the team's collective psyche -- "Him showing up and doing that was a real inspiration," he said -- but he also wants to be sensitive in discussing what is still a very painful situation for his close friend. He doesn't want this to be the type of thing that gets sensationalized or exploited, either.

"I hate talking about it because he lost his mom, and we'd rather have her back and not have rallied around that," Richards said last week. "It deserves [being] talked about, but at the same time, we have to respect that it's still a tough time for them and their family."

This is not St. Louis' first brush with adversity, either.

Richards I hate talking about it because he lost his mom, and we'd rather have her back and not have rallied around that. It deserves [being] talked about, but at the same time, we have to respect that it's still a tough time for them and their family.

-- Rangers' Brad Richards
The past week has capped a similarly tumultuous year for the 38-year-old veteran, who asked out of Tampa Bay in advance of the trade deadline after more than 12 seasons with the Lightning. The defending Art Ross champ's relationship with Lightning GM Steve Yzerman seemed to sour earlier this season when St. Louis was left off the Canadian Olympic squad, to whom Yzerman also served as GM. Though St. Louis was later named as an injury replacement to the team that went on to win a gold medal in Sochi, the damage seemed beyond repair.

But when his wish to come to New York was granted -- in part from a desire to be closer to his home in Greenwich, Conn. -- the acclimation was anything but seamless as he went 14 straight games as a Blueshirt before he scored a goal for his new club.

But St. Louis isn't the type of guy to cower in the face of a challenge. After all, the undersized 5-foot-8 forward has built a career on proving people wrong ever since breaking into the league as an undrafted college free agent. After playing for the Calgary Flames for parts of two seasons, St. Louis was cut loose again, after which he signed with the Lightning in 2000, where he would go on to win a Stanley Cup in 2004.

All told, he has amassed 370 goals and 981 points in 1,060 regular season games and has taken home almost all of the important hockey hardware, including the Hart (MVP), Art Ross (regular-season scoring) and Lady Byng (gentlemanly) trophies in his 15-plus seasons.

And in less than three months with the Rangers, he has already made an indelible mark. Not only was he the hero of the team's dramatic about-face in the second round, he lifted the club by scoring the game's first goal in the Rangers' resounding Game 1 victory at Bell Centre in his first trip back to Montreal since he heard the devastating news.

Unlike his last trip, however, he now has his entire Rangers team behind him as they attempt to keep their playoff run afloat in a seven-game series against the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals.

"The guys are behind me and supporting me, and their effort was unbelievable," St. Louis said Saturday night. "We feel really close right now and we're trying to keep feeding off that."

The Rangers relished the opportunity to support St. Louis and reciprocate the loyalty he has shown to the club on Sunday. They weren't the only ones; the service was also attended by some of his former Tampa Bay Lightning teammates, including Steven Stamkos, as well.

"He lives his life with passion and he plays with passion," said Moore. "It was good for us to be able to share this moment as a team."

Whether it brought St. Louis and his family a measure of peace or closure was tough for anyone else to say, but it was an event that was of the utmost importance to every single person in that dressing room. Each Ranger was touched by St. Louis' courageous, heartfelt decision to return to play in Game 5. All they wanted was to band together in support of him and his family this weekend.

Here was a player who came into a foreign locker room, after a stunning swap of team captains on the trade deadline back in March, and didn't have a simple, seamless transition. That acclimation process was, in fact, still taking shape during his first postseason run with the club. But the recent events expedited the process and now his place as a veteran heart-and-soul leader of this team has been sealed. He is a part of the Rangers family now.

"The timing of it probably leads to a great story, and we want it to be a great story. We're not trying to hide that," Richards said. "At the same time, we've played good hockey all year. I think the biggest thing is it made Marty get to know the guys and the group and the organization a lot quicker."

"We felt how passionate he was for the group and the organization, so I think it made us feel closer to him," Richards continued. "He really feels like a Ranger now with what he went through and everybody behind him."

Now comes another tough task: trying to curb the emotional swings that have consumed the team's and reshifting the focus back on hockey. It won't be easy, but the Rangers have no choice.

"That's the only thing we can do," Vigneault said. "Today is a day where we think about Marty and his family and his mother, and tomorrow life goes on and we've got to get ready for another big game."

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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