Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis first became involved in hockey in the United States when he arrived at the University of Vermont to begin a four-year career.
St. Louis has remained involved in the game, coaching on the youth level where he likes to emphasize puck possession and how it applies to a player’s long-term development.
During his NHL career than spanned almost two decades, St. Louis spent 14 seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning between two seasons with the Calgary Flames and two with the New York Rangers. He holds multiple Lightning team records including career points with 953. Overall, he compiled 391 goals and 642 assists for 1,033 points in 1,134 career games.
An undrafted, 5-foot-8 forward, St. Louis played in 499 consecutive games at one point in his career.
St. Louis gave his thoughts on the modern game of hockey in a recent interview.
Q: In what ways are you staying active in hockey these days?
A: I have three boys. My oldest is gone to be at [USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program]. My two youngest, one is bantam major and one is pee wee minor, are playing out of a Connecticut organization, Mid-Fairfield. I pretty much run the ‘05, bantam major, and I’m an assistant with the ‘08s, the pee wee minor. I’m on the ice every night with practices and I travel on weekends. I travel mostly with ‘05s, but some of the ’05 off weekends, I’m usually on the bench with the ‘08s.
Q: When coaching youth hockey, how much do you emphasize puck possession? How does this set up athletes for success and further growth when they get to higher levels?
A: We really focus on puck possession, especially at a young age, to try to wire them in a way that they have to figure out how to solve their problems.
They have to try to go tape-to-tape instead of just throwing it off the glass and out of the zone. For our Ds, we like, ‘If you don’t see anything, bring it back, hit your partner, try to possess.’ It’s a little rugby-like. Go as far as you can on one side, then when you can’t, change the point of attack and go the other way. We try to create a decision-making technique; a process where they’re not just thinking, ‘Get rid of it.’
As they get older, they get better with decision-making and we try to focus on how to process it. ‘Where’s your first look? Why is that your first look? What’s Option A? What’s Option B?’ It has to be a process that way. Option A may not necessarily be open, but it has to be your first look.
We like to process the game from the middle out or across from the strong side where you can try to find the speed. Speed is rarely going to be on the same side as you’re on. It’s going to be in the middle or across the ice. And, sometimes you’ve got to hit the guy close, board-side, and let him find the speed.
I don’t want kids to feel like they just need to dump pucks in, just so the puck can be 200 feet from our net and that might help us win more games. We’ve about developing the guys and developing their brain at a young age.
Q: Your son Ryan is currently in his first season at the NTDP. What do you think are some of the things that helped get him to that level? And, what have you noticed about the development culture at the NTDP?
A: What helped him get to that level I think is his desire to keep improving as a player. It’s very competitive to be in that group of 20-some players. It’s a very tough task. His commitment to improving, not just falling on the things you work on, you’ve got to work to keep evolving as a player and try to do the things that translate to what works next, not just what works now.
In terms of the culture that he’s in, I don’t think there’s a better place for the Monday through Thursday or Friday, the practices, the culture he’s in, the off-ice, the on-ice. I think it’s a home run that he gets to experience that. It’s up to them at that point about how they’re going to use the resources they have there. He’s surrounded by some of the best players his age.
Q: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in American hockey since you first played on American ice at Vermont?
A: First and foremost, there are way more American hockey players. The pool of players is much deeper and, with that, there are just a lot more good players from this country. It’s no surprise that you’re seeing a lot more American players in the NHL. With the American Development Model put in place, 10-12 years back, you can see what it has done to the whole picture of development in the U.S. Kids are coming out so skilled and the college hockey is better and better. There’s just more hockey everywhere. Because of this, you can see it translate at the NHL level.
Q: Speaking of Vermont, I know you and Roger Grillo, now an American Development Model regional manager, have remained close. What can you say about the work that Roger and the other ADM managers are doing at the grassroots level to help set up all players to reach their athletic potential?
A: Like I said, it starts at a young age to wire the kids the right way. I think the environment they have put in with the small-area games and the cross-ice stuff, the strongest kid cannot bully himself around the ice and skate away from trouble. They realize they can do themselves a favor by staying in an environment where they can solve problems rather than just skate away from it. And, the weaker player stays more interested because he is around the puck more and gets to work on his skills as well and gets to compete a bit more. As they get older and play on the full ice, they have checked the box on some of the skill acquisition they need to have.
They’ve done a tremendous job. Roger has poured his heart and soul into that program. Because of guys like that, it develops a ton of kids to become great hockey players.
Q: What suggestions do you have when youth coaches and players are watching an NHL game today? What things should they be looking for from a player development aspect?
A: I’d focus on the guys without the puck. A lot of young kids start playing when they have the puck on their stick. If you play the game long enough, you realize the game is really played without the puck. I’d watch the guys without it and how they get open. I call it playing on and off the puck. Working hard when you don’t have the puck and supporting it in the right away, putting yourself in position to get the puck back.
Also, at the pro level, they move the puck not because they have nothing else. They move the puck because it’s the play. They get open to get it back. On the youth level, I found even some of the best players will move the puck just because they have nothing else and then say, ‘Here, you try it.’
There’s just not enough purpose in their thinking and eventually they get stuck. There’s so much purpose on the pro level in how they play, with and without the puck.
Q: You were on the Columbus Blue Jackets staff for a period of time last year. What did you notice or take away from that experience when it comes to how the game is being played today?
A: The game always speeds up, it seems, every three or four years. I got to be on the ice a little bit last year at practices. Just, the practices were so fast.
For me, it was a chance to get inside the rope. I had been away for five years. It was a good experience working with John Tortorella and his staff. I learned a lot through the short experience, especially going through a couple rounds of playoffs.
The problem-solving with the coaches; John would find an edge to try to put his team in position to be successful without really telling them what to do. They need ideas and concepts, but, at the end of the day, they go out and play. For me to be able to relate with some of the players with my own experience and help them reach my goals.
Q: When you look at the number of NHL Draft picks coming from Florida and the continued increase in participation in youth hockey there, was there ever a time when you thought you’d see the success we’re seeing today?
A: I’m not surprised. Being in Tampa for 14 years, my kids learned to play hockey down there. There’s a lot of hockey. A lot of kids at a certain age move out of there, but they still learn to play there. They have the programs. It’s a great spot for the kids to learn to play and when they get to a certain age, some move on to teams outside of the state of Florida just because of the travel needed to play youth hockey within the state. The concept they have with the ADM, you can do that anywhere.
Q: What do you believe is next for hockey in America? What do you hope to pass off to your kids and their generation as the game keeps evolving?
A: I don’t know. I think they have nice momentum right now. I think what’s next is the continuity of what they’ve built. I’m curious to see what happens in the next 10 years because now you’ll have 20 years in the development model. What’s next, I think, is more Americans, more really dominant American players, in the NHL.
I try to pass on to my kids a love for the game and, number two, a little bit of knowledge. Working hard won’t be enough. You have to be smart. You have to be efficient. You have to play with a purpose.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Header image from Getty Images.