Few players have had more Stanley Cup near-misses than Sharks veteran Paul Martin

ByEmily Kaplan ESPN logo
Thursday, April 26, 2018

It was humbling to hear -- and, frankly,Paul Martin didn't want to listen.

The San Jose Sharks defenseman had undergone surgery over the summer to repair ligaments in his ankle. Three games into the season, he aggravated the injury and was sidelined for two months. He injured his back at the gym, setting him back even further. Finally, on Dec. 7, he returned to the Sharks' lineup against the Carolina Hurricanes. After the game, his coaches delivered some tough love: He still wasn't ready for prime time.

"I played one game, and the coaches didn't like it," Martin says now. "I'm a little more old-school: my play won't be perfect the first game or two back, but I'll work through it, get back into shape, and the ankle will start to feel better and instinct will take over. The coaches recommended I go down [to the AHL] if I wanted to play. It was tough to swallow at first. As an athlete, we're often selfish and stubborn and we don't see the big picture. I'm perfectly fine, I thought. Then it started to seep into my head, OK, maybe I'm not."

Martin reported to the Sharks' AHL affiliate, the Barracuda. At age 36, the 13-year NHL veteran was making his minor league debut. He was at least a decade older than all but two of his AHL teammates. (The average age of the defensive group was 22.14.) He took a bus trip for the first time since ... well, he can't quite remember. Martin also flew economy. On his first trip, he got an A boarding group in Southwest; after that he wasn't so lucky.

Martin, who had signed a four-year, $19.4 million contract with San Jose in 2015, coached himself into some own tough love: he was determined to make the most of his situation. On the first road trip to Tucson, he treated the team to a steak dinner. He made it a point to get to know his teammates and share tips he had learned, and took 22-year-old Mike Brodzinski, a fellow University of Minnesota product, under his wing. The team wholeheartedly embraced its new big brother.

"Of course I was wondering, 'Am I being put out on the pasture? Am I going to get another shot?'" Martin says. "Even when I did come back, I didn't know if I would have the chance to play again in the NHL."

He returned to the Sharks after Christmas but didn't crack the lineup again until mid-March. In the meantime, the team explored trade options for Martin. But he kept grinding, in the hopes this wasn't it for him.

Martin was reinserted into the lineup in mid-March alongside his usual defensive partner, Brent Burns. Martin played the final 11 games of the regular season and all four of games during San Jose's first-round sweep of the Anaheim Ducks. "Where I'm at now, you tend to forget about how long the year was, how difficult it was," Martin says.

He enters the Sharks' second-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights, which begins Thursday in Los Vegas at 10 p.m. ET,with a new lease on hockey and his career. After all, he has come too far for it all to end unceremoniously.

Martin has reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of his 14 NHL seasons, which is a remarkable feat. But he is acutely aware that his career has been defined by a series of near-misses.

Martin, who turned 37 in March, won back-to-back NCAA championships with the Gophers in 2002 and 2003. After that, his fate veered wildly. He joined the New Jersey Devils in 2003 just after they won their third Stanley Cup in eight years. He was on the taxi squad for the 2006 U.S. Olympic team that placed eighth in Turin. He was named to the 2010 Olympic team, but broke his forearm early in the season. A doctor initially suggested it could heal on its own. After about eight weeks, Martin saw a specialistin New York.

"It wasn't healing and we needed surgery," Martin says, "He told me, 'If you had come to me right away, I would have given you the option to have surgery and you would have been back in six weeks.' And I probably would have been fine for the Olympics. So we wasted all that time. At that point, I would rather not have heard that." The U.S. men won silver in a thrilling gold-medal game against Canada -- without Martin.

He left New Jersey after the 2009-10 season in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup, but his free-agency options dwindled down to two teams: the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins. He chose the Penguins, who were only a year removed from winning the 2009 Stanley Cup. After five seasons in Pittsburgh -- during which the Kings won a Cup, in 2012, but the Penguins did not -- he signed with the Sharks in 2015. He and San Jose advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, only to be thwarted by ... the Penguins. "We had a great run, and if we lost to any other team, it might have been OK," Martin says. "But the fact that it was Pittsburgh was tough to swallow."

As Martin's career winds down and those chances to finally win a Cup dwindle, he waffles between wondering "what if" and knowing that it won't do him any good. "It's been frustrating to look at that," Martin says. "You're constantly asking yourself, 'Did I make the right choice?' but you know you can't change the past. And you have to remember everything happens for a reason."

At each of his stops, Martin learned something about himself. In New Jersey, for the first 38 games, his defensive partner and road roommate was Scott Stevens, who taught him what it took to be a pro. (Stevens would stop playing mid-season and eventually retire as he dealt with post-concussive symptoms). Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson was Martin's position coach. The blue line also featured Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski.

"If you were a young defenseman in the league, there was nowhere better to learn," Martin said.

In Pittsburgh, Martin learned about overcoming adversity. He signed a hefty five-year, $25 million deal but the first year was a struggle. After the Olympics, Martin's grandfather -- who he was very close to -- passed away. And to start the season, he was still working his way back from the arm injury. "Adjusting to the city of Pittsburgh, the market that's so crazy about hockey and their sports teams, was hard," Martin says. "There were a lot of expectations. It took awhile to get used to it."

Then-Penguins GM Ray Shero sat Martin down several times, and even asked the defenseman if he wanted get a fresh start with a trade. "Ray Shero was really good about it," Martin said. "I said I'd come back, and I refocused. The next two-and-a-half seasons -- one was shortened by lockout -- were some of my better seasons as a player."

In San Jose, Martin learned the value of immersing himself in the community. Fellow Sharks say that Martin is a regular during hospital visits and community events. Martin personally bought four lower-bowl season tickets, and for every Sharks home game he offers the seats to youth, families and nonprofits -- people, Martin says, who wouldn't normally get to see an NHL game. Including the playoffs, it has been a $49,444 commitment from Martin so far; 584 people have benefitted from his gesture. Over the summer, Martin also started his own foundation, Shine A Ligh7, which supports mental health in children, specifically raising awareness about bullying and depression. His first event in Minnesota last summer raised about $100,000.

"As a player, you have to be somewhat selfish in terms of your training and the time and investment in taking care of yourself," Martin says. "A lot of times you think what we do is so much more important than what everyone else does. So it's important to remember that of course it's not."

And through his pit stop in the minor league, Martin learned the importance of friendship. Former NHL teammates Scott Gomez and Jamie Langenbrunner checked in on him multiple times to see how he was doing. Martin also established relationships with players on the Barracuda.

"It's been a tough year, and at my age, a big learning experience," he says. "But you take it all in, you make some new friends, you try to ride it wherever it goes."

With one year remaining on his contract, Martin isn't ready to make declarations just yet. He'd like to play it out -- whether it's in San Jose or elsewhere -- and he's leaving the option open to playing after that. Because if he's learned anything in his career, it's that nothing is a guarantee.