The fast hands and acrobatics you take for granted. No goalie gets within reach of one of the game’s most venerated marks without the type of physical gifts most of us only dream about.
Yet those things alone can’t explain Martin Brodeur’s success.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve looked into that wire cage of his near the end of a 1-0 game — and that’s been the score in nearly half his wins — and seen him smiling. Or if play is stopped and Marty sees a fan making eye contact, he’ll wink,” said Mike Emrick, who’s been the Devils play-by-play man for all of Brodeur’s 15 years with New Jersey.
“It says something about the guy that when things are at their most tense,” Emrick added, “he seems to be at his most relaxed.”
It says something about a guy, too, who breaks just about every record with the same club, and before his 37th birthday to boot.
Yet even Brodeur didn’t relax completely until the buzzer sounded Tuesday night, sealing New Jersey’s 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks and the 552nd of his career. Evidence of that came with five seconds left, when Brodeur got his right pad on a last-gasp shot by Chicago’s Troy Brouwer from the slot.
The win gave him one more than childhood idol and Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, and Brodeur celebrated exactly the way you would expect: without making much of a fuss.
“I didn’t want the chase to this record to be a disturbance to the team, because we played so well all year and now we’re coming into a last stretch here to get ourselves into the playoffs,” he said. “I didn’t want to drag it too long.
“Now,” Brodeur added, “it will be old news by the time the playoffs start. That’s the way I wanted it to happen.”
You have no idea how rare that temperament is in a netminder. Even in the tightly wound world of pro sports divas, they are a breed apart.
Some chug Maalox because nerves won’t allow them to keep solid food down. Others kick their wives in the middle of a deep sleep when the nightmare that ends with the puck in the back of the net has them in its grip.
Glen Hall, who dominated the 1960s, used to throw up before every game. Former teammates of Billy Smith, who dominated the 1980s, still do impressions of the Islander goalie’s “Exorcist”-like pregame ritual — working himself into a lather until he hated every one of that evening’s opposing forwards.
A personal favorite involves Canadiens great Gump Worsley. He’d just retired and was having dinner at home one evening when his wife put a steak in front of him. At that moment, an ambulance went careening down the street. As the flashing red light reflected off the dining room walls, something in Worsley snapped. He looked down at the plate and backhanded the steak off the table in disgust.
So why is Brodeur almost always smiling?
Some of it, no doubt, can be attributed to the confidence that comes with growing up in a hockey family. Brodeur’s father, Denis, was the goaltender for Canada’s 1956 Olympic bronze-medal winning team and later a photographer for the Montreal Canadiens.
As a kid, Martin tagged along to games and practices. He was in awe of Roy, Montreal’s goalkeeper at the time. But in those days before free agency, he also had a chance to see firsthand how important stability can be to both a club and a player’s career.
Brodeur became a star early in his career, winning the Calder Cup for best rookie in 1993-94, then four Vezina trophies (best goaltender) en route to three Stanley Cups. Yet never once did he try to hold the Devils up when contract time came around. He negotiated his latest deal without an agent and just as in the past, left a few dollars on the table to give management the flexibility to sign talented players to put in front of him.
So it’s no coincidence the Devils boasted one of the league’s stingiest defense over the course of his career.
Brodeur simply figured out why Steve Yzerman, Jean Beliveau and a handful of greats in other sports — baseball’s Cal Ripken, football’s Dan Marino and basketball’s Bill Russell — toiled their entire careers in the same place. There’s more camaraderie, less wear and tear, and still plenty of money to go around.
“He definitely had opportunities to chase the big contract and go somewhere else,” said teammate Jamie Langenbrunner, who notched the Devils’ first goal Tuesday. “He’s given the team a discount to play here and make us more competitive. …
“Sometimes, you’re blind about certain things, but hopefully, people will take a look at that,” he added. “A few guys around the league have stuck it out with one organization and they’ve reaped the rewards. It’s a testament that they were willing to do that.”
It’s probably not a coincidence, either, that Patrik Elias became the Devils’ career leading scorer on the same night. The Czech winger collected his 702nd point by assisting on a short-handed goal by Brian Gionta late in the second period that gave New Jersey a 3-0 lead.
Afterward, Brodeur admitted some regret at stealing his friend’s thunder, that Elias’ own mark “kind of got a little overshadowed because of what I accomplished.”
But the grin returned in a hurry, in plenty of time for Brodeur to head out and collect his family.
“Some athletes don’t have a chance to experience some things with their kids because they’re so young and they don’t remember. A couple of Stanley Cups that I won, my kids were pretty young.
“So this day,” Brodeur said about son Anthony, the oldest of his four kids, “he’s 14 years old.
“If he doesn’t remember, then that’s his own fault.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org