It was May 5, and the morning after the Los Angeles Kings had won a key playoff game against the St. Louis Blues, Alec Martinez took the ice in a sombrero to go along with a white sock, a red sock and a green jersey to commemorate the Mexican flag.
“Cinco de Mayo,” Darryl Sutter said at the time. “Gotta honor him.”
Martinez, who in good nature played along with the mildly insensitive gag, is not Mexican. He has Spanish roots and traces his genealogy back to some of the earliest North American colonists.
“I don’t know how many greats – but my great, great, great, whatever grandfather founded the town of Dedham, Massachusetts. There is actually a statue of him, Samuel Morse,” Martinez said. “Dean [Lombardi] didn’t believe me, because he is a big history buff, but I broke it all down on ancestry.com and he used some lawyerly lingo to argue against it.”
A descendent of a man who survived a gunshot wound while fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War, Martinez was born on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’m pretty much more American than anyone else here,” he says.
He’s also been nearly as productive as anyone else that he shares a dressing room with.
By setting career highs with nine goals and 17 points, Martinez has produced a standout season on the Kings’ back end and has solidified his role as a defenseman willing to shoot the puck and capable of advancing it up the ice. It was a role he had previously established en route to winning a Stanley Cup with Los Angeles as Matt Greene’s defensive partner in the spring of 2012. But the opportunities weren’t always there as the 26-year-old worked hard on his game to establish his confidence and his consistency despite watching more than a few games over the last two seasons from the press-box.
With five goals, 10 points and a plus-four rating through 12 March games, he’s not only earned a regular spot in the lineup, he’s in the midst of the most productive stretch of his career.
“I think you’re looking at a kid that’s confident right now,” Assistant Coach John Stevens said.
“I just think when you’re not playing sometimes that it’s a chicken and egg thing. You want to play more to be more confident and confidence comes with playing more. But in his case, I think it’s a good example for everyone when you’re not playing. Really have a good attitude, don’t be happy about not playing, but make sure you’re going out and putting in the work to be more ready to play. I think Marty has done that. He worked hard when he wasn’t playing. I think he became a better player even though he wasn’t playing, and now he has taken advantage of an opportunity to get in and play.”
It’s somewhat similar to the opportunity he took advantage of as a student-athlete at Miami University.
A promising defenseman who won a USHL Championship with Alex Stalock, Justin Abdelkader and Teddy Purcell with the 2004-05 Cedar Rapids Roughriders, Martinez took flight during his junior season with the 2007-08 RedHawks. Inheriting heavy minutes and a much broader opportunity following Andy Greene’s graduation from Miami, Martinez thrived in a more advanced role en route to being named a Second-Team All-American and the CCHA’s Best Defensive Defenseman while leading all CCHA defensemen in goals and points.
It was a season that represented a significant step forward after the Kings had drafted him in the fourth round the summer prior as a soon-to-be 20 year old.
Tony Gasparini, Los Angeles’ Amateur Scout – United States, had Martinez on his draft list after his freshman year, though the Michigander ultimately went undrafted. Cedar Rapids head coach Mark Carlson was a close friend of Gasparini’s who had spoken enthusiastically about the top-four defenseman on his championship team, and by the time of the 2007 NHL Draft, the Kings were looking to add to their crop of defensemen in the system. Because of Martinez’s advanced age, he became the right fit as a slot pick when the 95th pick rolled around.
“Boy, he looks good out there right now,” said Gasparini, who has kept close tabs on the team’s recent stretch.
“His game hasn’t changed a whole lot with the exception of he was probably a little more active offensively by means of jumping into the rush and activating from the offensive blue line. But his game hasn’t changed a great deal, other than he has probably calmed down a little bit and he has learned to play away from the puck a little bit better and pick and choose his spots from when he was in college.”
It’s a one-game sample size, though his six blocked shots in the win at Philadelphia on Monday indicate that he’s capable of providing quality minutes on the defensive side of the puck despite lacking the broad frame and stature possessed by Robyn Regehr, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene.
“I think a lot of teams have started to take focus on blocked shots in the league the last five years or so,” Martinez said. “I think just blocking shots and having a physical presence is more of a team identity that we all kind of have to fall in to.”
The defensive improvements may accentuate the opportunity he’s earned, though it’s his ability to get pucks through that has played a key dividend during Los Angeles’ March surge.
“They’re just going in for whatever reason,” he said. “A lot of my offensive production is going to come from the blue line, and that means getting shots through and shots to the net. I think that’s kind of a focus we’ve taken on as an entire D-corps, and since I got back in here that’s been kind of my focus, too.”
It’s an opportunity that has been fueled by poise and assurance, as Stevens noted.
“If you look at Marty’s evolution as a player, he’s been in pressure situations before where he’s played in the Stanley Cup playoffs and played well for us. He’s shown an ability to play left and right side, which is a real luxury for us. But I think you’re looking at a kid that’s confident right now, not just in his offensive productiveness that’s going on right now, but he is confident, which he has to be. I think with Marty and with Muzzin a lot of the guys we talk about, we want them to be really good defenders, good puck movers, and then use their skill set to help create some offense, and Marty has clearly done that. I think you’re seeing a kid that’s pretty confident right now, and he’s really committed. He blocks shots like he did [Monday] night, there is a commitment and sacrifice necessary to do that, and I think that is certainly present in his game.”
Not present in his game, or his genealogy? Ties to the country of Mexico.
“I guess a lot of fans really get excited about it, and then I tell them the truth about my background and it’s really not that exciting, the fact that I’m actually Spanish, barely that,” he said. “I just have the last name.”
It’s a name that has been announced by in-arena public address announcers with an added frequency.
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