TAMPA — The once unthinkable became reality on Wednesday — Marty St. Louis has played his last game with the Lightning.
The Tampa Bay captain was traded to the Rangers for New York captain Ryan Callahan, a first-round pick in 2015 and a conditional second-round pick in 2014.
The trade came at St. Louis’ request.
The terms call for the conditional second-round pick to become a first-round pick in the 2014 draft if the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference finals this season.
In addition, if Callahan, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, re-signs with the Lightning, the Rangers will receive Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2015 and Tampa Bay will get New York’s seventh-round selection.
Callahan is in the final year of a deal that pays $4.825 million this season.
Callahan arrived in Tampa late Wednesday and is expected to join the Lightning on the ice ahead of tonight’s game against Buffalo.
St. Louis made his New York debut on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in a 3-2 overtime loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I know this is going to be a challenge for me, but I love challenges and I like to rise to the occasion,” St. Louis said after recording three shots in 20 minutes and 11 seconds of ice time Wednesday night. “This is a chance to play the game in one of the biggest markets, and I know what comes with it.”
The thought of one of the most popular figures in franchise history playing for another team seemed unimaginable. St. Louis’ 14-year run with Tampa Bay included a Stanley Cup championship, two NHL scoring titles, an MVP season and an Olympic gold medal playing for Canada.
But in the end, it was St. Louis who went to Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and requested a trade to the Rangers, who play less than an hour from St. Louis’ summer home in Connecticut.
St. Louis did not speak with local reporters before leaving for New York, but issued a letter to fans and media through the Lightning:
“I know many of you are disappointed with me for my decision to want to leave. I would rather not discuss what brought me to that decision, but in the end this is a decision for my family. I respect the fact that many of you do not agree with my decision and are angry with it. All I really can say is that I am sorry and I am very appreciative of the support you have shown me through the years.”
Reports that St. Louis had asked for a trade surfaced after the 38-year-old returned from Russia, where he helped Canada win a gold medal at the Olympics. After being left off the initial Olympic roster, which was announced on Jan. 7, St. Louis was reportedly upset enough with Yzerman — also executive director of the Canadian Olympic team — that he demanded a trade.
“I have no doubt that the Olympic process was part of it, but I’m not comfortable putting words in Marty’s mouth or speaking on his behalf to have to answer to that,’’ Yzerman said.
“But this is what I know: Marty has a home in Connecticut, he spends his time in the summer up there, he’s expressed an interest into possibly return to the New York area in the past. That’s for him to answer why.’’
With a full no-movement clause for the remainder of his contract — which has one year remaining at $5 million — St. Louis expressed interest in going only to the Rangers, where he is reunited with 2004 Stanley Cup championship linemate Brad Richards.
St. Louis, who led the Lightning with 29 goals and 61 points, leaves behind a legacy in Tampa that saw him rise from an undrafted, unwanted free agent in 2000 to league star. The last link to the team’s 2004 Stanley Cup championship team, he leaves as Tampa Bay’s franchise leader in points (973) and assists (604).
Named the Lightning captain in October, he also leaves a team in the midst of a playoff chase with 20 games remaining.
“He has made his decision, and he is going to live with it and we are going to live with it here, that’s why it’s tough,’’ said center Steven Stamkos, scheduled to return tonight after missing four months with a broken leg.
“Obviously I didn’t want Marty to be traded. I’ve had a lot of discussions with Marty over the past couple of months and, ultimately, he made the decision. And it’s tough, but he’s making it for the best interest of his family and himself. That’s the reality that we are going to have to live with.’’
The team lost seven of the past 10 games spanning the Olympic break. As the trade request became public, Yzerman took “the temperature of the team’’ and realized it was in the best interest to move St. Louis.
“I took everything into account, and ultimately when you have a player who doesn’t want to be there, it’s not a healthy situation for anybody,’’ Yzerman said. “Eventually, it’s a cloud for everybody and it just wears on everyone.’’
While everybody seemed go about their business on the ice — St. Louis scored four goals on the recent four-game road trip — the situation had a noticeable effect on the locker room.
“I’d be lying to say it wasn’t a distraction,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The locker room is a pretty tight-knit group. We have a really good group of players in there. But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that there was, whatever you want to call it, a distraction.’’
Now that the two have parted ways, the Lightning have little time to heal whatever wounds might exist and move forward.
“He was a big part of why our team was successful this year, and I was excited about being back in and getting a chance to play with him and finishing strong down the stretch,’’ Stamkos said. “But it is what it is and we don’t have the time to dwell on it here with 20 games left.’’