From the outside, it might be hard to understand. Why does Martin Brodeur keep talking about playing elsewhere? He has spent his entire career with the New Jersey Devils. He has made millions of dollars. He has won 684 games – more than any other goaltender in NHL history – and three Stanley Cups. Why not go out with grace? What more does he need?
But Brodeur isn’t afraid of hanging on too long. He’s afraid of not hanging on long enough. He isn’t worried he will regret leaving the Devils. He’s worried he will regret leaving the game. In the end, he said, he doesn’t want to sit there and say to himself, “I should have done something.”
“That’s what I’m scared of the most – not living to the fullest in the NHL,” Brodeur said. “If they let you play, you might as well play.”
Brodeur is 41 and at the end of his contract. He is unhappy backing up Cory Schneider, a 27-year-old the Devils acquired from the Vancouver Canucks last year for the ninth overall pick in the draft. All season, he has talked about being open to a trade if he could play more, if he had a chance to win the Cup and if it helped the Devils.
But general manager Lou Lamoriello didn’t trade Brodeur before the deadline Wednesday – because he didn’t want to, because there was no market or both.
Clearly Lamoriello values a player spending his entire career with one franchise. “Very few have had the opportunity to do it – or the ability to do it – so it’s unique,” Lamoriello said. “It’s certainly not the end of the world [if it doesn’t happen], but it’s unique.”
Maybe Lamoriello could have traded Brodeur but the return wouldn’t have been worth it –not just for posterity, but for the playoffs. The Devils are in a dogfight to make it in the Eastern Conference and need Brodeur down the stretch. He is scheduled to start Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Maybe Lamoriello couldn’t have traded Brodeur no matter how hard he tried. Brodeur had a .901 save percentage last season. He has an .899 save percentage this season. He just isn’t what he once was. At a time when several goaltenders were available, he was a poor option, despite his experience. As several goaltenders changed teams, he stayed put.
The decision was made for him Wednesday. It might be made for him again this summer. If I’m Lamoriello, I don’t offer him another contract. I want Schneider to take over next season with no distractions. Brodeur can see what’s out there. If he finds an opportunity he likes and plays elsewhere, that’s his call – and he’s welcome back when he’s done. If he doesn’t find an opportunity he likes, he can retire as a Devil.
“I don’t think the market has changed for what I could bring to somebody or here,” Brodeur said. “We’ll see.”
This is going to end one of two ways:
Brodeur is going to have a night like Nicklas Lidstrom did Thursday. Lidstrom spent his entire 20-year career with the Detroit Red Wings. He won seven Norris Trophies, four Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe. His No. 5 was raised to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena. Brodeur said he watched the ceremony – the first 20 minutes, anyway.
“That’s something that’s pretty cool,” Brodeur said.
Or Brodeur is going to have a night like Mike Modano will on Saturday. Modano spent his entire career with the same franchise – four years as a Minnesota North Star, then 16 as a Dallas Star – before one last year in Detroit. He suffered a serious injury with the Red Wings. He ended up a healthy scratch in the playoffs. It didn’t matter. He won a Cup in Dallas, helped grow the game in Texas and came back to the organization as an executive. His No. 9 will be raised to the rafters at the American Airlines Center.
“It’s not necessarily something that’s tainted for Modano,” Brodeur said. “It’s still a great honor. Even though you move around, you’re always going to be who you are. Modano’s always going to be a Star.”
Brodeur is always going to be a Devil no matter what happens, and he knows it.
“I understand there is a lot of hope that maybe he stays with one franchise,” said Daniel Alfredsson, who spent his entire 17-year career with the Ottawa Senators, then left for Detroit in free agency after a contract squabble. “But when you want something and still have that desire in you, then you’ve got to go with that. I’m sure he will work it out and then find what’s the best fit for him.”
Every athlete is different. The Wings wanted to keep Lidstrom; he retired, anyway. Lidstrom quit as soon as he started to slip from his high standard, and he was happy with that. His perfectionism is what defined him. The Stars didn’t want to sign Modano; he wanted to play, anyway. Modano found that summer he just wasn't ready to quit yet. He later wondered whether he should have, but at least when he was done, he knew he was done for sure. There are fewer Lidstroms, and that makes them special. There are more Modanos, but they are still special, too.
“I don’t know if there is a perfect story out there – maybe Nick yesterday,” Alfredsson said. “If you could script anything, that’s what you would like. But it’s hard.”
Told everyone has an opinion about what an athlete should do but it’s the athlete’s life, he laughed again.
“And life,” he said, “is short.”
The Devils have another all-time great. His name is Jaromir Jagr. He is 42 and has bounced between teams in the NHL, the KHL and the Czech league. In the last three years alone, he has played for four NHL teams. There is no discussion about whether he should stay with one team.
Jagr and Brodeur still have much in common. They often sit in the back of the bus together, talking about the past, enjoying the present, for one simple reason: They can.
“I think players to our caliber, we want to play hockey, we don’t need to play hockey,” Brodeur said. “We want to play hockey. That’s the bottom line.”