I have a friend who is a huge Devils fan, at least in theory. She’s been so busy since college (10 years ago), she has no idea who’s on the team anymore, how they’re doing, or anything else.
“Are they in the playoffs this year?” she asks me.
The glaring exception is, of course, Marty Brodeur, who has been a New Jersey Devil since the Big Bang. So, as far as my friend knows, the Devils are still the Devils because Marty’s in the net.
Recently, the almost-40-year-old told media in Toronto that he’s having fun right now. He’s feeling good and is leaning toward sticking around at least another season.
As good as that news will be to my friend, if she ever even hears it, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance about it. Simultaneous, conflicting feelings of, “Uhhh, I dunno about that…” and “Good for you! Play as long as you want!” and “Oh please please please don’t Favre this thing!”
When I first started watching hockey obsessively, learning the game and studying goalies, I watched the Devils quite a bit.
Well, I watched Brodeur. This was before I understood goaltending technique, before I knew what solid, technically sound goaltending looked like, before my eye was trained by the other 99% of pro goalies who play variations on a butterfly style.
And back then, he was a ninja. It looked as though he could play with both eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back. I couldn’t even always figure out what part of his gear or body had stopped a shot, but he almost always got something in front of the puck.
It was like he had Jedi powers: “This isn’t the net you’re looking for…”
Then there was that whole childishness with Sean Avery – the waving hands in in Brodeur’s face during play and then “Handshake Gate” (though that did spawn my favorite Averyism of all time “Fatso there just forgot to shake my hand, I guess”) – all of which seems like a million years ago.
The 2008-09 season cemented his Living Legend status for me. I knew if I ever met him, I would probably cry. Or faint. Or, at the very least, make awkward, inappropriate advances at him.
I remember his 552nd win to break Patrick Roy’s win record so vividly. Say what you want about the Devils and their suffocating defensive style, but you won’t convince me that it’s not incredibly special to be the winningest goalie of all time, and further, to have spent your entire career in the same organization.
For them to want you this long, and for you to want them, is extraordinary. Hell, to have signed a 6 year contract and actually have fulfilled it without either side so much as giving the other stink-eye along the way is mind boggling.
So far, that’s 18 seasons with the same NHL club, and 12 of those he played 70 or more games, most in the 75+ range. Only 6 have been fewer than 70.
And one of those 6 was last season. I watched him occasionally and was shocked by how “over it” he looked. Though really, that’s a completely reasonable state of mind. What’s left to prove? What’s left to accomplish? He just looked tired, and his back-up, Johan Hedberg was outplaying him on a regular basis.
This season, he’s finding more success, resting more, and his GAA and save percentage are identical to Hedberg’s. But I watch him and it saddens me to admit that I don’t enjoy it any more.
I suspect it is me and my expectations of what “great goaltending” looks like that have changed, but I watch him now and it makes me tense and nervous.
It’s a muted version of what I feel watching video of goalies in the 70s, kicking, flopping, half-butterflying. Oh lord! Make it stop!
And I go back to my original conflicted feelings: How much longer can this guy last? Not just physically, but mentally. How, when you’ve accomplished everything, do you continue to find the fire in the belly required to play at this level successfully? Especially in goal where the pressure is so high and inconsistency is so obvious and damaging.
The bottom line, I suppose, is that he does continue to find it, but I hope he doesn’t stay too long. As much as he’s earned the right to play until he says he’s done, I hope the same grace and wisdom and good humor he’s exhibited during his career comes to bear as he decides when to call it a day.
It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, but there’s no doubt she’s warming up, and George Costanza Rules apply (as they always should): Leave on a high note.
But is it even possible for a player to leave with fans wanting more while not wanting more himself? Here’s to Brodeur pulling off one last feat of magic and doing just that.