I’ve always had a fascination with goaltenders.
From Gilles Gilbert to Mike Liut, from Pete Peeters to Andy Moog and Felix Potvin…I’ve always had an obsession with those masked men between the pipes.
But when it comes to goalies, there’s one NHL player I’ve always identified with and followed much closer than my hockey idols growing up, mainly because we’re the same age, and he established himself as an elite young NHL goalie at the same time I was graduating from college and entering the active duty military in a career that is finally winding down after nearly 22 years.
That personal journey is one I can sketch in milestones associated with one of the NHL’s true greats at any position, and why the event taking place in Newark at the Prudential Center no doubt has real meaning for so many people who watched him establish a two decade-long record of excellence playing what is arguably the most difficult and stressful position of any in team sports.
Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will bestow the high honor of retiring Martin Brodeur’s No. 30, the latest step in a journey that will soon take the 43-year-old into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
His career numbers are astounding in a career spent mostly in the Garden State except for a brief stopover in St. Louis, where he was unable to recapture his former glory, but was not quite ready to call it quits.
691 career regular season wins in 22 years (21 of them as a Devil), the most in NHL history.
125 career regular season shutouts, ditto.
28,508 career saves, double ditto.
24 career playoff shutouts, ditto times three.
When I was a kid growing up, I read more than one hockey scribe say that Terry Sawchuk’s career 103 regular season shutouts would likely never be broken. Brodeur crushed that record, though in fairness- when those articles were written, we were in the middle of the fire wagon hockey era of the late 1970s-early 1990s.
There are a lot of things that a player needs to win three Stanley Cup championships (and five SCF appearances) and pile up the kind of eye-popping stats Brodeur did- athletic ability is atop the list, and in his case, it didn’t hurt that he played for one of the most stable, successful NHL franchises as a young player and well past his prime playing years.
But I think what allowed Brodeur to play so well for so long had to do with his mental toughness and ability to deal with the stresses and sheer ups and downs that every NHL goaltender must deal with at some point in their careers, with an even keel that would make most Zen masters turn green (and red) with envy.
Covering the New Jersey Devils for the New York Hockey Journal in the 2010-11 season was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed me to be around the team more than just an occasional away game for the first time in my hockey writing career, and allowed me to get to know Brodeur and several of his Devils teammates. On the other- the Devils struggled mightily that season, beginning the year in the basement, then dismissing first-year bench boss and Devils folk hero John MacLean before bringing back icon Jacques Lemaire and making a second half run for the postseason that ultimately fell short. It wasn’t all that jovial a room during that season, especially through the first part of January, but being around Brodeur and the veterans gave me an inside glimpse of why the Devils had such a sustained run of excellence the way they did.
Even in the depths of New Jersey’s position at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings at one point, when little was going right for them, especially for Brodeur, the goaltender set the tone by refusing to let the stress and pressure get to him. It wasn’t like he adopted an Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?!” attitude, but at the same time- he talked about the importance of the team sticking together when there were a lot of competing factors to drive them apart. “We got into this (nosedive) together,” he told me after one practice in December. “We got to get out of it together or it won’t happen for us at all.”
Fast forward to mid-March and the Devils were knocking on the door of the playoffs. They ultimately would not get in, but the next year they made one final glorious run to the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final series before bowing out to the Los Angeles Kings in that franchise’s first of two championships in 2012 and 2014. When I asked Brodeur about the turnaround and how much better the team had played since they were cellar dwellers just a few months before, he first gave credit to Lemaire for pushing the right buttons, but then reminded me that the team was making it work together. “You have to row the boat in the same direction if you want to win in the NHL,” he said. “We’re rowing together, and that’s a big thing.”
He delivered both quotes with the exact same, relaxed temperament in two completely different situations. To me, that underscored Brodeur’s otherworldly ability to block out external pressures and distractions and focus on the task at hand. Many goalies talk about the importance of doing it, but few can pull it off the way he could.
So, as they raise his No. 30 to the rafters, I consider myself fortunate to have seen him from start to finish and towards the end, having the chance to watch him work firsthand.
It’s easy to say his records will never be broken, and who knows- perhaps somewhere out there is a kid lugging his equipment bag and pads into a rink somewhere who is focused on the goal of doing just that. Records were made to be broken, after all.
In Brodeur’s case, his legacy will stand the eternal test of time as one of the NHL’s best and brightest.