By Tris Wykes
The Virginian Pilot
NORFOLK, Va. – Norfolk Admirals center Martin St. Pierre is accustomed to receiving limited respect, even from his own teammates.
While beginning an interview in a Scope hallway recently, St. Pierre paused when veteran Shawn Thornton stopped to ask what was going on. Told that an account of St. Pierre’s recent hockey history was in the works, Thornton guffawed.
“It’s going to be a short story, eh?’’ he said, pun intended.
St. Pierre, all 5 feet, 8¼ inches and 185 pounds of him, takes such kidding in stride. The AHL rookie leads Norfolk with 11 goals and 30 points, and has come up big for a team that long has struggled to produce offense.
On Thursday, St. Pierre became the only Admiral chosen for the AHL All-Star Classic when he was named to the Canadian team for the Feb. 1 game in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
St. Pierre was a point-scoring machine in Canadian major junior hockey, but his height deterred NHL clubs from drafting him. At first he couldn’t even land a free-agent deal in the minors.
“If I’d been 6 feet when I came out, I would have had good offers,’’ said St. Pierre, who had 110 points in 68 regular-season games and was the Ontario Hockey League’s 2004 playoff MVP his final junior season with Guelph. “But at my size, no one’s going to hand it to you like that. You have to work twice as hard.’’
St. Pierre has done just that the last 18 months.
He enrolled at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when no pro offers appeared. But a week later, the AHL’s Edmonton Road Runners offered him a training-camp slot. With the NHL dormant because of the lockout, AHL rosters were overflowing with proven talent last season, and St. Pierre was sent down to the ECHL’s Greenville Grrrowl, where he was outstanding.
Greenville also accepts players from the Admirals and their parent club, the Chicago Blackhawks, so Norfolk general manager Al MacIsaac quickly became aware of St. Pierre.
“He was dominant, but saying it would transfer to the AHL was a bit of a guessing game,’’ MacIsaac said.
Edmonton recalled St. Pierre for 18 games last season, beginning a crazy stretch for the Embrun, Ontario, native. He rejoined the Grrrowl just in time to help it upset top-seeded Pensacola in the playoffs before being eliminated in the next round.
St. Pierre’s mother, Lise, an Air Canada boarding agent, then drove to South Carolina to retrieve her son’s possessions and bring them home, 15 miles outside of Ottawa. Meanwhile, Martin flew back to Edmonton, where he’d bought a truck, and drove 40 hours over three days to get home.
In June, the Road Runners told St. Pierre they were picking up their option on him for the 2005-06 season. But in July, the team folded and negotiations between its parent club, the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, and the Blackhawks resulted in St. Pierre going to Chicago’s training camp.
However, he mistakenly arrived with only a 10-day visa, meaning he had to leave the United States just as the Blackhawks began playing exhibition games. Luckily, St. Pierre’s paperwork was cleared in time for him to join the Admirals in late September, and he’s been atop their scoring charts ever since.
“It’s been a real roller-coaster ride,’’ St. Pierre said. “But the bumps in the road make me that much more aggressive.’’
Indeed, while Admirals fans enjoy the center’s playmaking and scoring skills, they might cheer even louder when he upends larger opponents, which he tries to do at least once a game.
“He’s built like a little torpedo and he has a lot of spunk,’’ MacIsaac said. “But at the end of the day, he’s expected to lead our team offensively and run the power play.’’
St. Pierre has tried to work as hard on defense, an admitted deficiency. Earlier this season, Admirals coach Mike Haviland benched him for the third period of a tie game against league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton because the center missed an assignment in his own end and handed the Penguins a goal.
“He’s got things to work on to be a complete player, but he’s made huge improvements defensively and I’m extremely happy with him,’’ Haviland said.
“I sometimes forget he’s a first-year AHL guy because we count on him and want more from him. Sometimes we have to step back and realize he’s still learning.’’
St. Pierre, the son of a retired Ottawa cop, immediately endeared himself to Admirals players and staff by maintaining a low, respectful profile while doing everything he could to improve.
“He asks a lot of questions, watches a lot of film and accepts and wants structure,’’ Haviland said. “I don’t think a lot of people have ever held him accountable in all three zones.’’
St. Pierre made his NHL debut with Chicago earlier this season, during a lopsided loss in Dallas. Asked recently if he expects to return to the big leagues full time, he paused.
“Given how things have gone in the past, I never expect things from my performance,’’ he said. “It’s my dream to have an NHL career. I can’t say I can see it happening but I hope it does.’’