All of us who have played hockey have dreamt of winning the Stanley Cup. It keeps us out on our backyard rinks as darkness approaches and the temperature drops. It gets us out of bed for 5 AM practices, and keeps our legs moving during bag skates. It is the pinnacle of the hockey world, and like many former Saints, Jacques Martin ’75 and Randy Sexton ’82 have etched their names in history, winning back-to-back championships with Pittsburgh Penguins.
Martin has been with the Penguins since 2013 in various roles, while Sexton’s tenure back to 2010. Incidentally, both were brought to the Penguins by another former Saints Ray Shero, who won the Stanley Cup as GM of the Penguins in 2009. After a few years as a strong regular season team that fell short in the playoffs, the Penguins reloaded before the 2015-16 season and preceded to run roughshod over the NHL through the playoffs, defeating the San Jose Sharks in 6 games to capture the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009, and Sexton and Martin joined the ranks of former Skating Saints whose names are immortalized in the silver of the Stanley Cup. The Penguins came back the next year and defeated Nashville in 6 games to repeat as champions.
“The first cup we won was surreal. Other than the birth of our three sons, I’ve never had such a feeling of elation in my life,” Sexton said. “To lift that silver chalice over your head with the group of guys that you’ve gone through so many highs and so many lows with, it’s unbelievable.”
“I really didn’t expect to be in the NHL so soon, I really had a quick rise, but I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great people and have great mentors,” said Martin. This quick ascension made the championships even sweeter for the 30-year veteran.
Sexton and Martin’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championships will be highlights of long and distinguished careers in the NHL, but they both credit their time at St. Lawrence for helping them grow from young hockey players into seasoned executives and coaches with the know-how to assemble a championship roster in back-to-back seasons.
“It goes back to the fact that when you come out of St. Lawrence, you’re very grounded. You understand you have to earn your keep,” said Sexton. “It also has to do with the kind of kid that St. Lawrence recruited. They have character, and worth ethic, and good attitudes, and they work their asses off. Those are really the core values of St. Lawrence: commitment, passion, work ethic and character.”
“I had the pleasure of playing under Bernie McKinnon and made great friendships with my teammates,” said Martin, who played two years for SLU between 1972 and 1974. “My years at SLU helped me to understand the game at higher level, and I also got to work at the hockey school that they ran in the summer time, so getting to work with lots of people who were involved with teaching definitely expanded my knowledge.”
This early induction to coaching that Martin received at the St. Lawrence hockey school would be essential in his decision to pursue coaching after his career in the North Country, and also lead to him to found the Jacques Martin Hockey School. The school which, Martin runs with his daughter each summer, has brought in more than 350 kids in the Ontario region in each of the last two years, with an emphasis on “trying to create a positive environment and create a great experience for kids.
You get to play hockey, but also to understand the benefit of the game,” says Martin, who takes a special interest in goaltenders, as a former goalie himself.
“When I started in the NHL, we didn't have goalie coaches. For a lot of young kids who came to camps back then, that’s the only teaching they got,” said Martin. “I derive tremendous satisfaction from seeing kid come in struggling on Monday and leave on Friday having improved.”
The impact SLU has had on both Martin and Sexton goes beyond their years spent on campus. Each credit a number of St. Lawrence alums they have worked with throughout their time in the NHL, including Shero, a 1985 graduate, Bill Torrey ‘57, the architect of the New York Islanders dynasty in the early 1980’s, Mike Keenan ‘72, the only coach in history to have won a Stanley Cup (1994, New York Rangers) and a Gagarin Cup (Metallurg, 2014), and of course, each other.
These former Saints all have one thing in common: their championships came not as players, but as coaches, scouts, or executives. In fact, most of the former Saints in the NHL aren’t players, but coaches, scouts, and executives. It’s a curious fact, but Sexton thinks it has to do with what you learn at St. Lawrence, on and off the ice, about the game of hockey and about yourself.
“St. Lawrence was an incredible spot, but from a hockey perspective, you had to learn to keep things in perspective. It wasn’t Wisconsin, Minnesota, or BU, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t compete with them. Anything is possible.”
This sense of competitiveness and the understanding that being the best isn’t always as simple as having the best players, but also the right culture, has been important to the success of Sexton, Martin, and all other SLU alums who have made impacts in the NHL.
Now, 20+ years into his career, Sexton understands the value of his experiences, in college and at the professional level, as he enters a new role as Assistant General Manager for the Buffalo Sabres, a job that also includes serving as the general manager of the Rochester Americans, Buffalo’s AHL affiliate.
“When I was younger I may have undervalued experience, but now I understand its value,” Sexton said, before continuing with a laugh. “And maybe that’s because what I have to sell is experience.”
Experience is crucial, whether you are a player, coach, executive, or scout, and the college hockey experience has continued to get stronger since Martin and Sexton donned the Scarlet and Brown. The Penguins roster has been loaded with college hockey players in the past few years, players like Phil Kessel, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bonino, and Bryan Rust, who played integral roles in helping the Penguins accomplish their incredible feat. Both Martin and Sexton spoke at length about the growth of the game at the college level, and how important former NCAA players were to the Penguins, as well as why the game is getting better at the college level.
“The Penguins have benefited from college hockey a great deal in the last two seasons,” said Martin. “When (Pittsburgh head coach) Mike Sullivan (BU ‘90) came up and took over, a lot of young guys who had been in the AHL less than a year and half, guys who played college hockey, came up and were huge, like Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnackl, Rust, and Jake Guentzel, to name a few.”
As Sexton says of those same players: “They tended to be smaller players who needed more time to physically develop, so the extra two or three years of college they got made them ready for the AHL, and then the NHL.”
Much like their various colleges prepared the crop of young talent on the Penguins to step into the NHL and have an impact, St. Lawrence helped Martin and Sexton understand the game of hockey, as coaches and scouts, but also as people. St. Lawrence’s culture, the core values that Sexton referenced, are still helping them, and other Saints across the NHL and other pro leagues, to this day, as another NHL season gets underway, and the chase for a Stanley Cup resumes in earnest.