Martin Brodeur, pride of New Jersey

FILE - In this June 9, 2003, file photo, New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur hoists the Stanley Cup after the Devils defeated the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 3-0 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in East Rutherford, N.J.. Brodeur is retiring to take a front office job with the St. Louis Blues. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
FILE - In this June 9, 2003, file photo, New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur hoists the Stanley Cup after the Devils defeated the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 3-0 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in East Rutherford, N.J.. Brodeur is retiring to take a front office job with the St. Louis Blues. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

They call my home state of New Jersey the “Garden State.” I always imagined it was the runner-up to the rejected original winner, “Constant State of Inferiority.”

We’re a punch-line. We’re a weird growth on the ass of New York. We’re trash heaps and smoke stacks and odd odors that creep through your vents while traveling down I-95. We’re Snooki and The Situation and Joe Piscopo and Chris Christie and clichés about Springsteen songs and where everyone looks like Tony Soprano.

When you’re from Jersey, you always hear about the concept of “Jersey Pride.” It’s this notion that we’re something more than the jokes that define us, something more than the being “The Garbage State.”

It’s a difficult concept to grasp for many reasons, being that we’re a collection of self-deprecating jerks half the time. It was especially difficult growing up as a sports fan in New Jersey during the 1980s and ‘90s, because nothing that was good about Jersey sports was actually ours.

The Giants and Jets, playing their home games in the swampy Meadowlands? New York’s NFL teams. The Nets’ most cherished player had his number hanging from the Brendan Byrne Arena rafters, yet Dr. J only played three years with the franchise, all of them in New York.

Same story with the Devils. Peter Stastny, who would go on to be the first Hall of Famer that played in New Jersey, was a Nordique. Slava Fetisov had played roughly 15 years for the Red Army before he showed up in New Jersey, and then didn’t win a Cup until heading to the Red Wings. Scott Stevens was a Capital and a Blue before coming to the Devils, the product of a fortunate arbitration hearing decision. And then he didn’t want to be there for the first few seasons.

This is what made Martin Brodeur special. Drafted by New Jersey, No. 20 in 1990. Nurtured by New Jersey. Played every game with New Jersey, save for a regrettable seven-contest coda with the Blues this season.

Set records with New Jersey. Won Cups with New Jersey.

Suddenly Jersey Pride wasn’t an obtuse concept. You could see it, touch it, marvel at it. He wore No. 30, and his mask was adorned with one primary image: A ‘J’ with Devils horns and a tail attached.


Scott Mackie was a Devils fan I knew back in the day, who once penned this about the experience of being one:

“To be a Devils fan …especially one IN the area, by nature you pick up a certain hostility and a good bit of ‘f--k you’ attitude about things. All you hear all this time ‘your team has no fans,’ ‘your team doesn't belong here,’ ‘the Devils are a nice story, but we'd talk about it 100 times more on WFAN if it was the Rangers,’ ‘your team's boring style is ruining the sport,’ and all that kinda stuff. And it builds up.

“And yes, this team has been THE dominant franchise in the East the last 10 years, and maybe some of that is why you hear the RANGERS SUCK chant all game or why ‘we're classless to other team’s fans.’ Or your little goalie has to hear 19,040 yell SUCKS at him before each game. But being a Devils fan in this area almost REQUIRES that level of attitude, and you don't get it if you're not FROM here and have to live through the day to day stuff like that. Just try to understand that we DO, and it's part of that fighting spirit and the constant feeling of it's the world against US.”

All of this was to say that we were the most defensive, angsty fan base in hockey. In Brodeur’s early years, that was embodied by Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko breaking bones, and an “interchangeable flock of forwards” who would just as soon punch you in the mouth as they would beat you with a goal.

But Brodeur was a combination of defiance and elegance. His goaltending style was picturesque – a controlled, confident technique augmented by an unprecedented ability to play the puck. His focus was incredible, given the Devils’ ability to suppress offense with their system. If a shot got through on him, it was going to be a quality one. He’d stop them all, when called upon. He was Charlie Watts with the Stones – the backbeat of the Devils classics, carrying the tune when necessary.

He orchestrated a system that frustrated foes, NHL management and television executives. Think of the Devils’ trap like a video game: Once you battle your way through dozens of levels of difficult opponents, the Big Bad at the end is the hardest Big Bad in the game. Beat the forward, beat the defense and there was Brodeur. It was exhausting.

Yet he’d beat you with a smile on his face. The fans were screaming “SUCKS” and the players in front of him where bloodying the ice and here was Brodeur, the jovial ringmaster, laughing at plays and joking with the officials.

His personality was part of the appeal. So was the fact that he was a regular dude. With that physique. With that family drama -- the Flyers fans chanting "UNCLE DADDY!" is still bitterly acknowledged as genius. With that laid back attitude.

It was a glorious juxtaposition to most modern athletes.

Then again, so was a player from New Jersey demanding, and receiving, respect from the outside.


Before their first Cup, there was a perfect storm of additions for the Devils. The acquisition of Stevens. The drafting of Scott Niedermayer and Brodeur. The hiring of Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson. I’m not sure if the dynasty – and that’s what it was, be real here – happens without any one of these factors. Stevens, to me, was the more important sea-change for the Devils. But Brodeur’s right there, and frankly did more to class up the joint in the eyes of the rest of the League.

The 1995 Stanley Cup was raised from the ashes of 1994, in which the Devils lost to their arch rivals in Game 7 of the conference final. Messier guarantee. Matteau Matteau Matteau. You know the drill.

Brodeur faced Mike Ritcher in that Game 7, and it was one of his all-time greatest goaltending duels: Two overtimes, and 46 saves from Brodeur, capping his first playoff run with a .928 save percentage and a 1.95 GAA.

One year later, and Brodeur was the dominant backbone of a crushing defensive effort. He didn’t give up more than two goals his last six playoff games, including that sweep of the Red Wings.

The 2000 Stanley Cup saw the same thing: 12 goals allowed in his last nine playoff games, as Brodeur limited the Dallas Stars to one goal in each of the last four games.

The 2003 Stanley Cup was Brodeur’s best shot at the Conn Smythe he had previously conceded to Claude Lemieux and Scott Stevens during the earlier wins. But his three shutouts in the Stanley Cup Final weren’t enough to overcome a 5-spot in a potential Cup clincher, and Jean-Sebastian Giguere had the better narrative.

Three Stanley Cups and five conference championships, the last one a career renaissance that absolutely no one saw coming in 2012. That 26-save Game 4 shutout against the Panthers in the first round remains one of the most important wins of his career, and it may have been trumped by that 43-save effort in Game 7.

Three rings. Two gold medals. Four Vezina Trophies, after being runner up to Dominik Hasek twice in the 1990s. Considered the greatest of all-time. Sorta.

St. Louis Blues' Martin Brodeur smiles as he announces his retirement from from NHL hockey during a news conference, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, in St. Louis. Brodeur finished his career with St. Louis after 21 seasons as goaltender with New Jersey. He will remain with the Blues as a senior adviser to general manager Doug Armstrong. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

This being New Jersey, there’s always a caveat, an asterisk. Hell, their first Stanley Cup came in half-a-season.

Brodeur is the best goalie of all-time in wins and shutouts, two records that will necessitate a series of very unique circumstances for anyone to eventually break. And yet there’s been a cottage industry of detractors, right up until the day of his retirement.

Those gripes, in short:

* “He’s not as good as Dominik Hasek or Patrick Roy.”

* “He was a product of the trap and the trap era.”

* “He was a product of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko and Brian Rafalski.”

* “Advanced stats tell us he’s an overrated goalie.”

Some of this has merit. Even as a Brodeur fan, I struggle with the chicken or the egg argument about the system he played, eventually settling on the oft-repeated rejoinder of “just like the West Coast offense worked best with Joe Montana, Brodeur was the perfect talent for the Devils’ system.”

But his save percentages were never stellar, especially in comparison with his goals-against. And there’s no question that as more of those elite defenders and coaches left the fold, his numbers ballooned; and yet that also happened in conjunction with him leaving his prime.

Brodeur’s heard all the criticisms, and in true Jersey fashion, his answer is defiance.

“You think I’m a product of a system and the talent in front of me? Here, lemme backstop a team with Bryce Salvador as my No. 1 defenseman to the Stanley Cup Final at 39 years old…”

“You wanna make a rule that restricts what I’m able to do as a goalie? Here, lemme win two more Vezina Trophies with a trapezoid behind me…”

“You wanna say my stats should be better? I can’t hear you with my face buried in this record book …”

There used to blog called Brodeur Is A Fraud. It was a chronicle of mainstream fawning over Brodeur, and an interesting counterpoint to that adoration. I checked back in with it on the day of his retirement, only to find it dormant.

“Martin Brodeur is one of the greatest goaltenders of all-time.  He may be overrated in some circles, particularly among members of the mainstream media, but he is certainly not a fraud,” wrote the editor, “The Contrarian Goalie,” in a farewell message.

“There is good reason to believe that a basic save percentage analysis underrates him to the point that he does deserve to considered one of the top 6-8 goalies ever.  This is because Brodeur adds value in terms of non-save skills (I believe primarily through puckhandling and keeping the play going to reduce faceoffs in his own zone), and because his home-town scorekeeper cost him several points on his save percentage through undercounting shots relative to other rinks around the league.  Goaltending is about finding small edges that add up over time, and once those two things are factored in, Brodeur's initially good-but-not-necessarily-elite save percentage record looks a lot more impressive.”

A critic giving a second thought to anything New Jersey related is a first.


Brodeur didn’t mention the Devils in his retirement speech with the Blues, save for answering a question about his relationship with Lou Lamoriello. The last two years haven’t been exactly a happy ending between franchise and franchise player; sort of like Shane riding off into the sunset and then catching on fire.

As a Devils fan, I didn’t care. He’s not the first legend to have an awkward goodbye with his former club; and if a hockey player knows anything about wounds, it’s that they heal. He’s as legacy obsessed as any athlete I’ve covered. He’ll be a Devil again.

Jersey’s where he became a star. Became a champion. Raised a family. Taught a fan base how to appreciate defense, if even that appreciation didn’t extend further into the state’s populace. Gave us a chance to cheer victories, chant “Marty’s Better” and mean it no matter who was between the pipes at the other end. Made us buy “BRODEUR 30” jerseys to wear with pride, knowing that he’d be the constant in a business that encourages roster turnover.

He won us championships, but above all else he won us respect.

I say this as a kid who grew up surrounded by Rangers fans in school hallways and the upper deck of the Meadowlands, who read pundits from other cities crapping on the franchise and cheerleading for its relocation. For 21 seasons, we had something they couldn’t deny, something that they had to respect even as they trashed every other aspect of the team, the state and the fans. We had someone from a team a Hockey God called a “Mickey Mouse franchise” that, each year, moved closer and closer to joining that pantheon of immortality.

We had Martin Brodeur, goaltender, New Jersey Devils. And we will forever take pride in that.