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Hard work was the hallmark of the NHL career of Frank St Marseille
2021-06-25
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When Frank St Marseille attended a tryout with the Chatham Maroons in the fall of 1962, largely thanks to the help of soon-to-be teammate and fellow Sudburian George Usitalo, the 23 year-old did so thanks to a leave of absence granted from his full-time employer, Inco Limited.

Perhaps it was the constant grounding of that alternative career option that always allowed St Marseille to maintain a wonderful perspective, enjoying ten seasons of NHL hockey split between the St Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings.

The seasons were not always perfect, the situations not always ideal, but the fourth eldest in a family of ten never lost sight of the alternatives.

“There were lots of highlights,” St Marseille recently suggested, nearing almost four decades of living in the Ottawa region, having left Sudbury in 1985. “Just playing in the NHL - goodness, how lucky could I be? It’s pretty special. I’m a kid from Blezard Valley who skated on the creeks.”

Though born in Levack (the family moved when he was one or two), St Marseille’s earliest memories of legitimate hockey dreams would come at least ten years later. “It really began when we started playing in a sort of inter-town league with Blezard Valley, Hanmer, Val Caron, Capreol and Garson.”

“That was a competitive league that started when we were 12 or 13 years old. We were on outdoor rinks, except in Capreol and Garson where the companies built the rinks. My skating wasn’t the best, but I had an ability to handle the puck.”

In the era of the Original Six, NHL careers were at a premium.

As a junior, St Marseille turned down an option to play for St Michael’s College after attending a tryout with Copper Cliff native Jim Pappin. The net result of signing a card and becoming property of the team and its affiliates appealed little to the local man who finished with 140 goals and more than 400 points in the big leagues.

Starting work at Inco in the smelter but eventually moved to Levack, St Marseille garnered some notoriety as a star forward with the town senior team, paving the way to his tryout in Chatham. The Maroons were coached by Gus Mortson, a tough as nails former NHLer who consistently exceeded the 100 minute penalty plateau as a member of either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Chicago Blackhawks.

St Marseille, for his part, had to find his niche.

“I wasn’t really a tough guy,” suggested the 81 year-old gentleman. “I wasn’t afraid of going in the corners, but to drop the gloves and want to fight with everybody really wasn’t my style. I had a few fights, but for me, it wasn’t the way to play hockey.”

And play hockey he could.

In four seasons in the IHL, St Marseille registered a whopping 369 points over the course of 280 games. Yet even as expansion welcomed six new franchises into the NHL, doubling the potential slots for talented young players, the local who is the grandfather of Mississauga Steelheads' goaltender Joe Ranger still would start the season in Kansas City (CPHL).

Thankfully, a man who had something of an eye for talent was also on the scene.

“I was playing in Kansas City and at the time, Scotty (Bowman) was a scout, so he used to come to our games, all the time,” recalled St Marseille. “St Louis started off very poorly, so Scotty got Gary (Sabourin) and I called up - and the team started to click.”

When inaugural coach Lynn Patrick resigned in late November, Bowman got the call behind the bench. On November 26th (1967), the Blues record sat at 4-13-2. In early May (1968), Bowman and company were swept in four straight games in the Stanley Cup final by the Montreal Canadiens, but not before ousting both the Philadelphia Flyers and Minnesota North Stars in seven game series.

“The first year that we made the playoffs and went to the Stanley Cup finals was one of the most memorable times of my life,” said St Marseille.

“Scotty was the best at knowing how to use his players. He knew how to play good defensive hockey, but he also knew how to play good offensive hockey. And the one thing that Scotty rewarded was hard work. He could forgive some of your mistakes, but if you didn’t work hard, you wouldn’t play.”

St Marseille would thrive under Bowman, finishing second in team scoring in 1970-1971, often working on a line with Sabourin and Red Berenson. But as Bowman departed early that same year and Al Arbour made the move from player to coach, the man who shares the team record for most hat tricks in the playoffs (with two) was gradually seeing his ice time diminished.

Asking for a trade, St Marseille was dealt in January of 1973 to the Kings, certainly not the worst of destinations. “What was really nice about LA was that my older brother lived there,” he said. Frederic Stephane St Marseille performed all over the world as an accomplished opera singer.

Still one to strum a guitar and belt out tunes ranging from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Neil Diamond and Alan Jackson, the hockey pro of the family acknowledged that music has long been at the very roots of the gatherings of the St Marseille clan.

Yet when his playing days came to an end after the 1977-1978 campaign, it was coaching and not crooning that first captivated him as the next step in his career. In two seasons behind the bench of the Nova Scotia Voyageurs (AHL), St Marseille’s teams compiled a record of 76-65-20 - yet still he was fired.

“I was hoping that coaching would work out, but I don’t think that I was tough enough as a coach,” he said. “That was one of the things that did me in when I was with Montreal (Voyageurs were the AHL affiliate of the Canadiens).”

Returning home to Sudbury and area, St Marseille enjoyed some success coaching Rayside-Balfour teams in both the midget and junior ranks. For a man who was all about fairness, who felt strongly that all players deserved to contribute, competitive minor hockey and beyond would prove a source of frustration.

“I had made up my mind that every kid that made the team was going to play,” he recalled. “How discouraging is it for a kid to make a team and then sit on the bench? It would be equal time, except for the power play and penalty kill.”

Unwilling to deal with parents whose mindset differed greatly from his own, St Marseille would never return to coaching, despite being approached repeatedly in Ottawa. Having picked up tennis and golf, he had enough to keep him busy.

“When I was in LA, I took up tennis and became a pretty good player, competed at a pretty high level in Ottawa,” said the man who captured the over 35 championship in the nation’s capital - at the age of 46. “There were players that I beat that were better than me - but they didn’t have the tenacity I had.”

“I would dig up every shot that I could.”

And there were perhaps better hockey players, in Sudbury, over the years, than Frank St Marseille, who did not play his first NHL game until the age of 27. But few could match the intangibles that left the member of both the Sudbury and Valley East Sports Halls of Fame as yet another one of a string of highly successful NHLers the region can boast.

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