HAZELWOOD, Mo. — Growing up in the St. Louis suburbs, Ray Trudt fell in love with hockey and two goaltenders in particular: Curtis Joseph and Martin Brodeur.
Trudt would switch allegiances as Joseph switched teams. When Joseph played for the Blues, Trudt was a Blues fan. When Joseph was traded to the Oilers, Trudt became an Oilers fan. Trudt followed Joseph to the Maple Leafs, to the Red Wings, to the Coyotes, to the Flames and back to the Leafs again.
With Brodeur it was different. All Trudt ever had to be was a Devils fan. For 21 seasons, Brodeur played for the Devils, collecting three Stanley Cups, four Vezina Trophies, an NHL-record 124 shutouts and an NHL-record 688 wins. For 21 seasons, Trudt rooted for the Devils, collecting cards, magazines, posters, pucks, sticks and jerseys – all kinds of Brodeur memorabilia.
Needless to say, Trudt felt weird when he came to see Brodeur practice with the Blues on Tuesday.
“Extremely weird,” he said.
Trudt couldn’t just switch allegiances with Brodeur the way he once did with Joseph, even though Brodeur had come to play for his hometown team. He wore a Devils hat. He wore a Devils jersey with Brodeur’s name on the back.
He wore his heart on his sleeve and under it. As he sat in the corner of the rink near the net, he rolled up the left sleeve of his jersey, and there, on his upper arm, right where No. 30 had been, was a Devils tattoo. He got it his senior year of high school. He’s 31 years old now.
He will root for Brodeur to reach 700 wins. But will he buy a Blues jersey with Brodeur’s name on the back?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “One, they’re expensive. And two, it just doesn’t look right.”
* * * * *
No, it doesn’t look right.
Martin Brodeur not only has won more games than any other NHL goaltender; he has won more games than six NHL franchises. He has made more than $82 million in his NHL career. He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Yet he is 42 years old and hasn’t played well in at least a couple of seasons, posting a .901 save percentage in both 2012-13 and ’13-14.
Now he has signed a one-year deal with a prorated base salary of $700,000, plus bonuses. He will make $10,000 for every point earned while he’s in goal, more if he’s on an NHL roster in February and March, more if he succeeds in the playoffs. He said he does not have a no-trade or no-move clause, nor a gentleman’s agreement.
Why did Brodeur pass on the chance to spend his entire NHL career with one franchise? What more does he need? Why go from red to blue?
Why did the Blues sign him, even if Brian Elliott has a knee injury? What more can they get out of him? What happens when Elliott comes back?
They are good questions.
But for Brodeur, this isn’t about how other people look at him or what they want. It’s about how he looks at himself and what he wants, and he looks at himself as a hockey player who wants to play for a contender. He doesn't have to face his former team because the Blues have already exhausted the Devils games on their schedule.
As for the Blues, this is a chance to buy time for Elliott to heal and a statement that they will do whatever they can to win. They have added an all-time great who is motivated to show he still has it. Beyond that, they don't have any answers.
“I just want to have fun,” Brodeur said. “I’ve got nothing to prove to myself. I just want to go out and enjoy the season and enjoy the winning way, like I was able to do in New Jersey for a lot of years.
“Things changed there over the past few years. It was hard to leave the game not making the playoffs two years in a row. For me, I just want to get back. It’s so much fun playing hockey when you win. I want to gain that back. Hopefully with the Blues it’s going to be a long year ahead.”
After he failed to find a job in the off-season, Brodeur trained on his own and waited for a call. One finally came last week from the Blues after Elliott went down.
It was based on reputation. Coach Ken Hitchcock was with the Stars when they lost the Cup to the Devils in 2000. He coached against Brodeur many other times in the NHL and also coached him with Team Canada. Asked why he thought Brodeur could still play at a high level after struggling statistically the past two seasons, he said: “I don’t know. I didn’t watch him play to be honest with you.”
You wonder how Elliott and Allen felt – Elliott especially. Brodeur was on the market this summer, and the Blues signed Elliott to a three-year, $7.5 million contract. Elliott, a 29-year-old vet, entered Tuesday night tied for second in goals-against average (1.82) and fourth in save percentage (.931). Allen, a 24-year-old rookie, was ninth in goals-against average (2.16) and 17th in save percentage (.918).
Armstrong said he spoke to Elliott and Allen before going too far with Brodeur’s agent. “What I said to them was, ‘We’re bringing Marty in. I’m letting you guys know out of respect for what you guys mean to this team. Don’t read too much into it. But every point matters, and we have to put the best guys on the ice,’ ” Armstrong said. “It had zero effect on Jake. But Brian, being experienced and being around, there’s a little bit of, ‘What does this mean?’ ”
Brodeur joined the Blues on a tryout basis. He went through their morning skates Friday in St. Louis and Saturday in Minnesota. He skated on his own while the Blues took Sunday off. He went through full practices Monday and Tuesday. At first, the players were respectful – almost too respectful, taking easy shots on the old guy headed to the Hall of Fame. But then they loosened up and started shooting to score. Brodeur responded well.
Veteran goalie coach Jim Corsi, who once tutored Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller with the Sabres, said Brodeur was so strong on his skates that you could hear his edges cutting the ice. He said Brodeur read the play well, got to the right spots and improved from practice to practice. Tuesday was his best day. “He looked exceptional,” Corsi said.
More than anything, though, the Blues wanted to see how Brodeur’s body recovered from hard workouts. Armstrong told him after Monday’s practice that he wanted to sign him if he felt good Tuesday. Brodeur was a little sore Tuesday morning, but fine. He declared himself fit after Tuesday’s practice, so Armstrong signed him – and said he felt guilty he could offer so little because of the salary cap. “It was an easy decision for us when he told us he thinks he can compete at this level,” Armstrong said.
It won’t be easy for Brodeur to show he can compete at this level, though.
“He has a significant challenge, and the challenge is getting up to speed in a league that’s already well underway,” Hitchcock said. “But man, if he’s willing to meet this challenge, then let’s give him an opportunity because he’s earned that opportunity based on his career and everything he’s done.”
It will be fascinating to see what happens next. Brodeur will back up Allen on Wednesday night in Chicago. He will start Thursday night in Nashville or Saturday on Long Island. Hitchcock said he would judge Brodeur period by period, game by game. Elliott is not expected to be out long, even though his official status is “week to week.” He looked good skating on his own Tuesday morning and is traveling with the team to rehab.
Hitchcock called this a “short-term situation” for the Blues. “We need some help here right now,” Hitchcock said. “We need somebody involved with the team that’s a good team guy that’s willing to come in and helps us win a few hockey games.”
Armstrong was more non-committal while supporting Elliott and Allen. “Hopefully we have some hard decisions to make,” Armstrong said. “We’ve talked about the what-ifs, but we haven’t spent a lot of time on the what-ifs. Marty’s been dealing with the what-ifs to get here today. He’s going to go and he’s going to play when he’s asked to play, and when Brian’s ready, he’ll be back in here. Our goaltenders are Brian and Jake. We believe in them.”
Brodeur talked about helping the Blues – and spoke as if he would be with them the rest of the season. “I think it takes a lot of character to go and have a good season and go into the playoffs,” Brodeur said. “You need any kind of leadership you can, and hopefully I’ll provide that. The situation of the goalies is definitely going to be different when Brian comes back, but that’s something that I know what I’m getting into. I’ll be prepared for it.”
Asked if he would be showcasing himself, Brodeur said: “I want to help this team, and I want to play well. I don’t know if I’m showcasing myself. Teams that will look at me, like the Blues, to a certain extent, you know what you’re getting, you know?”
* * * * *
This is not that unusual. Great athletes often spend careers with single franchises and even become synonymous with them, then finish elsewhere for whatever reason. It feels weird – extremely weird. It doesn’t look right. But it doesn’t change what they did with their original teams.
Two recent examples: Mike Modano spent his career with the Stars, then finished with the Wings. He is still beloved in Dallas. Daniel Alfredsson spent his career with the Senators, then finished with the Wings. He will retire in Ottawa to great fanfare on Thursday night.
One day, Brodeur will be feted in New Jersey. Trudt does not need to remove that tattoo.
“He said it himself,” Trudt said. “He’s always a Devil.”
He’s just not a Devil at the moment.
“I’ll come across that when it happens,” Brodeur said. “I’m not there yet. For me, the Devils … I played my career. I got drafted by them. I’ve won three Stanley Cups. I’ve done so much with the Devils. I mean, that’s never going to go away. This is a new challenge for me. Right now I’m a St. Louis Blue. But when it’s going to be all over, I’ll be a New Jersey Devil slash St. Louis Blue – little slash.”
You never know. There might even be another little slash, another team.
Brodeur hasn’t ruled out playing beyond this season.
“I don’t know,” Brodeur said. “We’ll see. I was not going to retire this year. I was going to wait it out all year and make a decision next summer. Now I’ve got a chance to play. We’ll see. We’ll see how I feel and what’s the relationship I’m able to build here or anywhere.”
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS: