The queue started at Claiborne, snaked past Polo and deked toward the Est�e Lauder counter before swinging wide to pass fine jewelry. The four-day-long "take an extra 25% off already reduced price" sale was on at Dillard's in Tampa, and while you couldn't dismiss the allure of the discounted merchandise, the 500 people lined up in the store on this Friday night were there to see Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis (mar-TAN san lou-EE). Dillard's had set up a table in the men's department—although it should have been the boys' department if you agree with the gibes directed at St. Louis on the ice—for the player's monthly half-hour radio show and autograph session. Among the fans waiting cheerfully for his arrival was Bianca DiPronio, a junior at Tampa Catholic High. Why? Like, hel-lo. "The guy's adorable," says Bianca. "He's so short you can always find him on the ice right away. He's such a good player, and so cute."
The 28-year-old St. Louis may be only 5'7�", but he's living large. He was the NHL's second-leading scorer through Sunday with 75 points, and he had at least one point in 21 of his last 22 games. If someone other than a goalie can win the Hart Trophy (for league MVP) in this nadir of the Dead Puck Era, St. Louis is the front-runner. And given his 31 goals and his +27 rating, St. Louis might also win the Art Ross Trophy (for most points), the Maurice Richard (most goals) and the Selke (top defensive forward).
St. Louis is having a supersized season, but then he always dreamed big. When he was five years old, living in a suburb of Montreal, his grandmother asked him if he wanted to be a St. Louis Blue someday. Young Martin replied no, he would rather play for the hometown Canadiens because his future wife wouldn't be happy if he played for a bad team. At week's end the Lightning was a lock to win its second straight Southeast Division tide and was in position to finish with the best record in the NHL.
"Very few shifts go by without something happening when he's out there," says Scotty Bowman, the retired Detroit Red Wings coach who lives in nearby Sarasota and has seen St. Louis a dozen times this season. "His long suit is his passion. Small players have to have some special attribute that makes them stand out. He's got great acceleration and hockey sense."
Compared with the average NHL player, who is 6'1", and even with his wife, who is 5'9", St. Louis is indisputably small. But if you were measuring, say, leg girth, he absolutely rules. He has typically thick hockey player's thighs, but his calves are massive as well. "His body," says Tampa Bay left wing Fredrik Modin, "is a cube." A Rubik's cube, given most defensemen's inability to solve St. Louis. Other players routinely subject him to taunts of "Midget!" and "Stand up!" and occasionally something marginally clever, such as the following gibe from the Atlanta Thrashers' bench during a 4-2 Lightning win on Feb. 25: "You're early. The circus isn't coming to town till next week."
"That's a reference to last year, when I walked on my hands [in an ABC interview]" says St. Louis, who was a gymnast as a boy.
"It could also have been because there are midgets in the circus," says his wife, Heather, ever helpful.
Martin and Heather have followed two guidelines since they began dating in 1996, before their senior year at the University of Vermont: no flats for her, no doubts for him. Even after he went undrafted in 1997 (despite being a three-time Hobey Baker Award finalist) and even after he was mostly unproductive in parts of two seasons with Calgary (1998-99 and 1999-2000), he was sure he could make a difference in the NHL. He had only four goals in 69 games with the Flames partly because he was relegated to a third-line checking role. In hindsight, St. Louis says, the experience was positive because it schooled him in defensive responsibilities of which he had been only casually aware. Calgary exposed him in the 2000 expansion and waiver drafts, and then, after no one claimed him, the Flames bought out his contract. St. Louis received a handful of free-agent offers and chose Tampa Bay because he thought he had the best chance of playing a major role there. Not that the Lightning made a big investment in him. His base salaries the first two years in Tampa were $250,000 and $290,000, respectively.
With his darting style and keen sense for the puck, St. Louis soon became the league's best bargain. After a stint on the fourth line and then a right leg fracture that sidelined him for 26 games during his breakout season of 2001-02, he turned into a solid if not spectacular scorer. After he scored 33 goals and played in the All-Star game last season, St. Louis lost any vague pinch-me-I'm-in-the-NHL feeling forever. He was a difference maker in the playoffs, scoring five goals in the four first-round victories over the Capitals, including three game-winning goals.
The 2003 playoffs were a professional growth spurt. Another occurred Dec. 10, during a team meeting in Ottawa, when Lightning coach John Tortorella called on his best players to do more. That afternoon St. Louis, who was in a slump and irked about his ice time, demanded that Tortorella give him time on the first power-play unit and on offensive-zone face-offs late in periods. The coach responded by playing St. Louis almost 21 minutes the next night. A week later St. Louis emerged from the slump in which he had scored only two goals in 19 games. He had played at least 20 minutes in 27 of the last 39 games through Sunday, and since Dec. 18 he has 54 points, 11 more than any other NHL player during that period. That sustained excellence prompted the Dillard's crowd to endure the banality of a sports-talk radio program to get his autograph.