On Friday in Los Angeles, Dustin Brown of the Kings spent part of the afternoon skating with family and friends on the frozen sheet on the Dodger Stadium infield, a once-in-a-lifetime moment that Brown, as a West Coast NHL player, never thought he’d experience.
The Stadium Series game in LA, like the NHL’s other outdoor games, provides players with unforgettable memories, nostalgia, spectacle and grandeur. It's a time for family and a time to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the game. They’ve become career “Bucket List” items for the players, testing their smartphone’s memory capacity with all the images and video they capture in those days surrounding the game.
But, in the end, it’s still a game. A regular season game. Two points in the standings, usually against a critical rival.
“We compete in the Pacific Division and it’s two points,” said Brown, one day before the Kings went 17 points down in the standings to a victorious Anaheim Ducks team. “Growing the game is great. But we gotta play the game.”
The New Jersey Devils had a game to play at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Like the Kings, it was against a heated division rival, the New York Rangers. Two very important points.
So coach Pete DeBoer had a decision to make: Treat the game with utter consequence or as an event where two points are ancillary to the inimitable experience of hockey at Yankee Stadium.
In starting Martin Brodeur, he signaled it was the latter.
And that’s OK.
Look, if it was about two points, then Cory Schneider starts. He hasn’t lost in regulation since Jan. 4, and hasn’t given up more than one even strength goal since Dec. 23, over a total of eight starts. He’s the Devils’ best goalie, and one of the NHL’s best this month. It’s as much a no-brainer as the Devils taking the Christmas tree jerseys out of moth balls for the Yankee Stadium game. (Because, like Schneider, they’re awesome.)
Schneider did play at Yankee Stadium, for 20 minutes. That’s because Brodeur was smoked for six goals on 21 shots, and it was mutually agreed that he’d remain on the bench for the third period.
"They threw pucks at the net. They kept it real simple. Some of the goals they scored they didn't even shoot the puck on net. It went off of them or they tried to make a pass and it went off our guys. Just kind of a tough break, tough game to be part of … you're looking forward to these kinds of events and then you have a result like that."
It’s true that a few of the six goals were odd deflections, and others were breakdowns defensively in front of Brodeur. But this Marc Staal goal near the end of the first period was neither:
It was soft, terrible and moment sapping. It changed the game for the Rangers, who had a 3-3 tie just 2:48 into the second period before scoring five straight against the Devils.
Brodeur’s given up his share of soft goals in the past. The difference now, at 41, is that he can’t atone for them in the same way. ‘Twas a time when a flubbed goal to cut a lead to one goal meant Marty shut the door the rest of the way; now, the door to the bench swings open after Marty gives up four more where that came from.
So the decision to bench Schneider looks like a titanically stupid one in hindsight, underscored by DeBoer’s odd “who cares about your save percentage?” justification before the game. The decision to start Brodeur, despite his two wins against the Rangers this season, may have cost the Devils two points.
But again: This game wasn’t about the two points for the Devils.
This was using a draft pick on the son of your star goalie, only on a grander scale. This was another “thank you” to a player that will retire as, statistically, the best goalie in NHL history. This was the gold watch for a career in which he’s backstopped the Devils to three Stanley Cups, five conference championships and a 20-year run of contention. He could have left for bigger money and a stage like Montreal’s at any point during that run. He stayed, and for a discount rate.
This was, in effect, the Devils' gift to Marty Brodeur.
It was the first outdoor game in Devils history, and it’s OK to say that the team owed Brodeur this moment. For what he’s achieved, for what he’s meant and for what he’s going to mean to this franchise in perpetuity.
(Of course, they no doubt thought the result would be fawning game stories rather than a dozen Martin Brodeur career obituaries being published since Sunday.)
Look, every outdoor game we demand as fans that these teams treat them like any other game, because we want the ferocity and quality of play of a real NHL contest and not a no-touch exhibition game. But we’re talking about games played in snow, in stadia, in front of 50,000 fans. We’re talking about downright spectacle, not dour seriousness. We're talking about a game unlike the other 81 in the season. We're talking about something historic.
It's a constant battle for teams: Treat it like an oddity, or treat it like "just another game."
Starting Brodeur in the Yankee Stadium game makes sense if, like DeBoer, you’re willing to signal to your team that the outdoor game is a different animal, a special event and something where nostalgia trumps logic in lineup decisions.
If he’s still starting No. 30 without justification in Game No. 82 with a playoff spot on the line, or in Game 1 of the playoffs, then we’re entering to the realm of slavish dedication to a player in the last effective days of his career.
But Brodeur deserved the start on Sunday. Not for his 28 games this season, but for his previous 1,220 with the Devils. And for an event that traffics in family and nostalgia, that's the way it should have been.