How come Martin Brodeur is still so good?
Posted by Dean Holden at March 4th, 2013
by Charles McGrath, 21 February 2013
The best hockey player in the New York area right now is also one of the greatest hockey players ever, and he’s a Methuselah, a 40-year-old in a sport where pro careers typically last five or six years. Martin Brodeur, now in his 20th season with the New Jersey Devils, has played so well for so long that even hockey people have tended to take him a little for granted. He’s hardly an unknown, but he would be more fussed over and wondered at if he didn’t play in Newark and if his position were not the lowly, unglamorous one of goalie.
“Playing goal is not fun,” Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, wrote in a memoir. “It is a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative, requiring little physical movement, giving little physical pleasure in return.” While his teammates zip around, the goalie lumbers, weighed down by his cumbrous equipment, and he spends the whole game by himself, down at one end of the rink, within easy earshot of heckling fans, in front of a red light that flashes on whenever he fails and lets a goal slip by. He has flurries of activity, but a lot of the time he just watches and worries. There’s very little he can do to win a game, and mostly he hopes only not to lose it.
In hockey mythology, it’s an article of faith that all goalies are a little flaky. You have to be a bit nuts, the theory goes, to want to play the position in the first place — to stand in front of the net while people sling hard rubber discs at you at more than 100 miles an hour — and only certain personality types can withstand the strain. The annals of the game are full of memorable head cases. Glenn Hall, a goalie during the ’50s and ’60s for the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, used to throw up before every game. Gary Smith, a goalie from the same era, insisted on removing all his gear and taking a shower between periods.
The loopiest goalie of all was Gilles Gratton, who bounced around in the minors in the ’70s before ending his career with the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers. Gratton liked to skate in the nude sometimes, wearing just his goalie mask, and refused to play if the stars did not line up properly. He believed that in a previous life he was an executioner who stoned people to death, and that he was fated to become a goalie — someone on the receiving end of a stoning, so to speak — as punishment.
Brodeur, who has been the Devils’ starting goalie since 1993, the backbone of the team’s three successful Stanley Cup campaigns, is the exception to this tradition of brooding and eccentricity. He’s probably the most well adjusted, happiest-seeming person I have ever met, so normal that it’s a little eerie. Jokey and gregarious, he doesn’t even mind talking to the media, though like a lot of hockey players he speaks to the press in breathless run-on sentences, like someone dashing across thin ice, fearful that if he stops, he’ll fall through.
Chico Resch, the former Devils goalie who is now a broadcaster for the team, cautioned me last summer about taking Brodeur at face value. “There’s more to Marty than meets the eye,” he said — meaning his competitiveness, I think. And Brodeur admitted that he’s not always as unruffled as he seems. “You come in from a bad period and start breaking the sticks — I’m not going to say it never happened,” he told me, smiling. “I know there is a lot of pressure on a goalie, a lot of responsibilities, but if you add on to yourself more than you need to, it makes it harder to deal with the adversity.” Hockey people say that Brodeur’s particular strength is his ability to bounce back from a bad goal or a bad game and not let it gnaw at him. Hockey was locked out for the first half of this season, and during the Devils’ truncated training camp last month, you could see that he hates to be scored on even in practice, rapping his stick or ducking his head in disgust after letting one in. But the cloud passes in an instant, and then he’s bouncing on his skates and looking for more pucks to swat away. Lou Lamoriello, the Devils’ general manager, says, “Marty’s mental toughness, his ability to overcome a bad game, is just phenomenal.”
A word Brodeur uses a lot is “comfortable.” He likes to be comfortable with his teammates, with the front office, with his financial arrangements, with the amount of ice time he gets. He likes to be comfortable in his own skin, and for the most part he has succeeded to a degree that sometimes seems almost Stepfordian. The only messy chapter in Brodeur’s life is his 2003 split from his first wife, Melanie Dubois. Angered that he had been having an affair with her half-brother’s wife (Geneviève Nault, to whom Brodeur is now married), she served him with divorce papers right in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Quebec tabloids did not neglect the story, and Brodeur came in for a predictable amount of taunting, though probably not as much as if he played in Canada. (One handwritten sign held up at the rink said: “Tickets to a Stanley Cup playoff game: $95. Alimony demanded from your wife: $9 million. Sex with your sister-in-law: Priceless.”) Brodeur later called himself a “model idiot” and has told friends that this period in his life was one he botched, and yet at the time he was undistractable. The Devils won the cup that year.
The other eerie thing about Brodeur is his Bart Simpson-ish youthfulness. He will turn 41 in May, which makes him the third-oldest player in hockey right now. (Teemu Selanne, the great Finnish winger for the Anaheim Ducks, is 42, and Jaromir Jagr, now back in the N.H.L. after three seasons with the Kontinental League in Russia, just turned 41.) But Brodeur’s hair is still blond, his face still unlined, his legs still rubbery and elastic. He looks 10 years younger than he is. He used to be a workhorse, starting more than 70 games in a regulation 82-game season, and lately it’s been closer to 60. His numbers — his save percentage and his goals-against average — have declined, but not much, especially if you consider that the Devils defensive corps is not what it once was. He is still one of the premier goalies in hockey, and during the Stanley Cup playoffs last year he was superb and a big reason the Devils got to the finals. Watching him flop around making a save by kicking his leg up in the air like a scorpion’s tail, you thought: No way a 40-year-old can be that flexible.
Last summer Brodeur told me that it was the team’s success that prompted him to keep playing after what was a rough patch. In 2010, he was benched by the Canadian Olympic team after playing a terrible game against the United States. (I spotted a him a couple of nights afterward on a street in Vancouver, and he seemed lonely and forlorn.) That same year, for the second time in a row, the Devils failed to get through the first round of the playoffs, and the following season they failed to make them altogether. Brodeur, who for the first time ever posted a losing record, thought about quitting. “If I ever had another season like that. . . .” he said, shaking his head. “When you have fun and you win, you don’t realize how hard it is and how old you are,” he added. “You just want to play. I felt really comfortable out there last season. I enjoyed being with everyone.”
Brodeur, the youngest of five children, probably gets his personality from his parents, his father especially. Denis Brodeur is a charmer and a storyteller. Short and roly-poly, he doesn’t look at all like his son, who is 6-foot-2 and has a torso shaped like an upside-down coat hanger. But Denis was a good-enough goalie to play for the 1956 Canadian Olympic team, and knocked around the American Midwest as a minor-league baseball player before concluding that he was unlikely to succeed as a professional athlete. (The oldest Brodeur child, Claude, was a pitcher in the Montreal Expos system before blowing out his shoulder.) Denis then reinvented himself as a photographer, and his athletic history and easygoing manner enabled him to become the official team photographer for both the Expos and the Canadiens. He and his wife, Mireille, still live in the house Marty was born in, a split level with a big bay window, in the St.-Léonard neighborhood of Montreal. (Roberto Luongo, the goalie for the Vancouver Canucks, grew up just a few blocks away.) The place is now a virtual archive, and Marty’s old room is a minishrine to his accomplishments, with lots of Stanley Cup photos and pictures of Marty at the Olympics. But there are fewer trophies from his teenage years than you might find in any suburban hockey player’s bedroom these days. Brodeur was good back then, but not a prodigy. “To tell the truth, I was not sure he would make it,” his father told me.
To a certain extent, Brodeur and all the French Canadian goalies of his generation labored in the shadow of Patrick Roy, the Canadiens’ goalie in the ’80s and ’90s, who was probably the most brilliant practitioner of the goaltending style known as the butterfly, in which the goaltender, often wearing extra-large pads and chest protector, drops to his knees and fans out his legs, blocking the lower part of the net while fending off higher shots with his arms and upper body. When Brodeur was a teenager at goalie camp, Francois Allaire, an influential coach, tried to convert him to this technique, but Brodeur resisted. He found an ally in Vladislav Tretiak, the great Soviet goaltender, who was teaching at another camp, and later in Jacques Caron, then the goalie coach for the Devils, who frowns on the butterfly. “Those guys, they just throw themselves where they think the puck is going to be,” he told me. “Marty knows where it’s going to be.”
Caron is a protégé of Eddie Shore, the fabled Boston Bruins defenseman of the ’30s who went on to become an eccentric and tyrannical owner of the Springfield Indians in the A.H.L. He so hated goalies who dropped to the ice that in practice he made them wear a rope around their necks that would strangle them if they tried to drop; other times he’d tie their legs together. But Shore, a great skater himself, also emphasized mobility in his goalies, and Caron said this was what he tried to teach Brodeur — to keep his balance and skate, not slide, across the crease. “To follow the play, you have to have mobility and get yourself in the right angle and stay square to the puck at all times,” he explained. “This way Marty can be more patient, and he can control the rebounds. He cuts down a lot of extra shots by controlling the puck and not just letting it bounce off him.”
Despite people like Caron, the butterfly is now nearly orthodox among young goalies. Resch compares the old, stand-up style to playing tennis with a wooden racket. Last season Brodeur finally switched to larger leg pads and has adopted some of the newer technique, so he is now a sort of hybrid. He sometimes goes to his knees but more often comes out of the net and challenges the shooter. He makes some of his best saves on his side, diving across the goal mouth and stacking his pads one on top of the other. Shooters say he’s hard to score on because they’re never sure what he’s going to do. There aren’t many such goalies left in the N.H.L. anymore. One is Tim Thomas, the Bruins’ goalie when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and another is Brodeur’s backup on the Devils, Johan Hedberg, who the team’s detractors like to point out is only a year younger than Brodeur. “We’re dinosaurs,” he said after practice recently.
Resch and Caron are convinced that Brodeur’s way of playing puts much less wear and tear on a goaltender and is why he has been able to play for so long. “Quick can’t play like that in 20 years,” Caron said, referring to Jonathan Quick, the aptly named Los Angeles Kings goalie, who won the Stanley Cup M.V.P. last year after his team defeated the Devils in six games. “In 20 years their backs will go, their knees will go. I think Marty is smart enough to readjust his play according to what he can’t do. Your reflexes go a little bit, but by being in the right position and in the flow of the game, it compensates for a lot of that.”
Brodeur has won the Vezina Trophy, presented annually to the league’s best goaltender, four times and has been named to 10 All-Star teams. He holds so many career goaltending records that that may be a record itself: most wins, most shutouts, most overtime wins, most games and most total minutes played. His critics like to argue that many of his records are for longevity, as if surviving in the league all that time were not an accomplishment in itself, and point out, not entirely without justification, that he has not been a great playoff goalie — unlike Roy, for example, who holds the record for playoff wins and once notched 10 consecutive overtime victories.
In 2003, the last time the Devils won the Stanley Cup, the M.V.P. award, in what seemed a pointed slight, went not to Brodeur but to the opposing goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and in 2010 and 2011, easy goals surrendered by Brodeur hastened the Devils’ early exit from the postseason. But if Brodeur sometimes lets in a softy, he is not streaky like Ilya Bryzgalov, for example, the mercurial Philadelphia Flyers goalie (who is also the flakiest of current net minders). His teammates past and present all talk about Brodeur’s steadiness and reliability. “He’s one of the reasons, if not the biggest reason, the team has been in the playoffs consistently for two decades,” Ken Daneyko, the longtime Devils defenseman, now a broadcaster, says, and he adds that, unlike a lot of goalies, Brodeur takes a leadership role. “The joke is that they’re quirky,” he says, “but Marty is a guy who speaks in the locker room. If something needs to be said, he’ll stand up and say it.”
What no one disputes is that Brodeur, who as a boy used to model himself after the Flyers’ Ron Hextall (who shares with Brodeur the record for most goals scored by a goalie), is probably the greatest puck-handling goaltender ever. He is so adept at clearing the puck or passing it up to a forward breaking out of the zone that he becomes, in effect, a third defenseman. In 2005 the league had to institute a rule, clearly meant for Brodeur more than anyone else, that limits a goalie’s room to roam outside the net.
In the time Brodeur has played for the Devils, the Flyers have gone through more than 20 goalies, the New York Islanders even more. If Brodeur finishes his career in New Jersey, as he is almost certain to do, he will be only the second Hall of Fame-level goalie in the modern era to play for just one team. The other is Dryden, who played for only seven full seasons before retiring at 31. Brodeur’s long tenure is largely of his own choosing: he has negotiated almost all his own contracts and has taken less money to remain in the Garden State because he feels secure there, he says, and is subject to less media scrutiny than in Canada or New York. He also trusts Lamoriello, a formal and sometimes forbidding character who in his wardrobe and demeanor seems less a hockey executive than an undertaker. Lamoriello is a famously tough, tight-pursed negotiator who has created for the Devils a strict, defense-based system that prizes the team over the individual and is not reluctant to dump players who don’t accept the team philosophy.
In his office at the Prudential Center, overlooking the practice rink, where some players were working out last summer, Lamoriello reminisced about drafting Brodeur back in 1990, when he was 18. There was a rich crop of goalies that year, including Trevor Kidd and Felix Potvin, both of whom went on to decent if not stellar N.H.L. careers. Brodeur was just one of a number of players the Devils had their eye on, and they traded away their first pick to Calgary, which snatched up Kidd. (Brodeur was the 20th pick that year and the second goalie chosen.) “That’s how smart we were,” Lamoriello said, laughing at himself. “We traded down for Marty. Of course we didn’t know how good he was going to be.” He went on to extol Brodeur’s virtues and added: “I have to be careful with my heart and my head. My heart would give him anything.”
He was recalling Brodeur’s surprising step in June, when he hired an agent to negotiate his new contract, raising the unthinkable possibility that he might leave the Devils. Brodeur was worried about the prospect of a lockout, he explained later, and wanted a two-year deal to protect himself. In the end he got what he wanted — two years for $9 million. Lamoriello told me: “I don’t look at age as a number. I have a couple of 19- and 20-year-olds out there who are going on 25 in terms of maturity, and I have 28- and 29-year-olds who are going on 15. You have to consider the mental and physical condition of an athlete, how he takes care of himself. Look at Jeter or Mariano Rivera. It’s the person associated with the age, not the age itself.”
Normally Brodeur doesn’t get on the ice at all during the summer. When the players were officially locked out in September, he started working out informally at the Devils’ practice rink. He actually skated more than he normally would before a training camp, he said, but the intensity was not the same. He briefly considered playing overseas, as Bryzgalov did, and then decided against it. “I didn’t want to go out there and steal someone’s job,” he said. “And if you go out there and not maybe like it, you come home and screw everything up. Maybe if I was younger.” Instead he stayed home, played golf and grew frustrated and impatient. “A couple of times they got so close,” he said about the negotiations between the league and the players, and shook his head. The only good thing that happened was that he got to spend the Christmas holidays at his house in Florida and scored a hole in one while playing golf with his sons.
Daneyko thinks that being older makes Brodeur play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder — that he wants to prove something — and it seemed that way once the new, compressed season began: 48 games in 99 days, a harrowing ordeal for everyone. After 12 games, with the season already one-quarter done, the Devils were on top of their division, in considerable part thanks to Brodeur. He was outstanding in the team’s opener against the Islanders, even better in the team’s second game, against Philadelphia, in which he notched his 120th shutout. It was almost as if time were standing still for him, even as his playing days were invisibly but inexorably winding down. One more season? Two? Earlier this month, he played his 1,200th game, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, opposing a goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who was 7 when Brodeur’s career began.
Last summer I asked Brodeur if he ever thought about retiring. We were sitting at his golf club in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains, where he has a summer house, and in the warm August sun the idea of a life off-ice seemed pretty enticing.
“That’s something I put a lot of thought into,” he said. “You don’t want to stay too long, but I’m part of an organization I really care about, and I feel I’m able to provide something to the team.” By staying on, he added, he and Hedberg gave the team some extra time to develop some goaltenders for the future. “When it’s over, it’s going to be over,” he went on. “I’ve asked a lot of questions to the guys I’ve played with who are retired, and a lot of them say, ‘Listen, if you still can play — I’m telling you, you’re going to miss it.’ ”