Martin Brodeur got a head start on greatness: a classic SI story
This story originally appeared in the October 6, 1997, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Martin Brodeur’s boyhood bedroom in a trim house on a trim street in the Montreal suburb of St. Leonard is a shrine to goaltenders. On one wall is an action montage of Ron Hextall, Sean Burke and Patrick Roy, the NHL goalies Brodeur admired most. Behind the door is a picture of Brodeur, at 16, with Soviet legend Vladislav Tretiak, both of them wearing hockey gear and tight smiles at a summer goalie school. Above the bed are 1995 snaps of Brodeur and various family members with the Stanley Cup. These icons-by-Nikons are the work of a professional photographer who happened to share a bathroom with Martin. Denis Brodeur, Martin’s father, takes sports pictures for a living, which certainly has paid off for the two of them.
But before f-stops came stops of a different sort for Denis. He was also an accomplished goalie, having received an Olympic bronze medal as a starter for the Canadian team at the 1956 Games. The assumption has been that the 25-year-old Martin, who is entering his fifth full season with the New Jersey Devils and who is considered the best young goalie in the NHL, inherited the puck-stopping gene from his father. Martin gives a shrug at the apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree theory and points out that he's 6' 1" and righthanded while his father is 5' 6" and lefthanded, so the trees hardly look as if they come from the same orchard. The truth is that neither can remember skating with the other more than a few times; Martin had to learn the position without many tips from Dad. But Denis’s role in aiding Martin to reach the NHL is as undeniable as it is indirect. His profession helped light the way, although at times it was Martin who was lighting Denis’s way.
Martin occasionally worked as his father’s assistant, trundling the 25 minutes from St. Leonard to the old Forum, helping with the strobes and the backgrounds, doing the heavy lifting that goes into taking photos more polished than vacation snapshots. When Martin was a promising 15-year-old goalie but a middling lighting technician, he chatted with Roy while his father did a promotional shoot involving Roy for a hamburger chain. Roy asked Martin how he was doing, but Martin couldn’t ask his idol how he was doing. In Montreal, everybody knew how Roy was doing. Still, being around the hallowed Forum was wonderful exposure for Martin. He saw the game and its people through the zoom lens of personal experience, his father’s camera having been the pass into a neighborhood in which he later would feel remarkably comfortable as a player from the start.
“My dad would talk to players like Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer and tell them one day his son was going to play in the NHL,” Martin says of the two former Devils teammates. “How many dads say the same thing? But, gee, he was right.”
Now Brodeur, whose 1.88 goals-against average last season was the lowest in the NHL since 1971–72, is playing with history. Of post-’67 expansion goalies only the Chicago Blackhawks’ Tony Esposito, who had 32 shutouts in his first 181 games, and the Montreal Canadiens’ Ken Dryden, who lost just 25 of his first 178 matches, have numbers as stunning for the start of a career. Even Roy, who won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in his first complete year, 1985–86, had 13 fewer victories over his first four full years than Brodeur, who won a Stanley Cup in his second full season. Among goalies who have played at least 200 games since the center red line was introduced in 1943–44, Brodeur’s 2.25 career goals-against average trails only Dryden’s 2.24. Among goalies with at least 40 playoff games, Brodeur’s 1.83 is third behind Davey Kerr, the Stanley Cup goalie for the ’40 New York Rangers, and Clint Benedict, who played the bulk of his career before talkies. While the Buffalo Sabres’ 31-year-old Dominik Hasek is the NHL’s best goalie--his spiffy .927 save percentage since 1993–94 tops Brodeur’s .915, which ranks third in the NHL during that period—Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford says Brodeur’s age makes him the goalie every franchise would want to build a team around.
“Brodeur’s numbers are terrific, but I’m not impressed by them,” New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury says. “Here's a guy who plays for a team that puts a choke hold on the opposition’s attack, so I’m not surprised [by the low goals-against average]. What I’m impressed by, and what makes him a great goaltender, is that he stops the puck when it needs to be stopped. He’s cool. The pressure doesn’t bother him. Night after night he seems to be involved in 1–0, 2–1 games, and the pressure never seems to be a factor.”
This is the New Jersey Factor, which tends to obscure rather than illuminate Brodeur’s talents. The Devils, whose discipline and constipating neutral-zone trap allowed nearly eight fewer shots per game on Brodeur than Hasek faced last season with Buffalo, can give a goalie a comfort zone, as long as he doesn’t start babbling to himself out of boredom. This is the Devils’ bargain, a cup many goalies would view as half empty. Of course, Brodeur doesn’t see it that way. Not only is his cup half full—“I’d never be a jerk with my teammates because I know I need them to be successful,” he says—but it also contains hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows.
There's a dark side to Roy, a wiseacre whose blowup with former Montreal coach Mario Tremblay got Roy traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. There’s a dark side to Hasek, the only Sabre who couldn’t get along with former coach Ted Nolan. But Brodeur has what his father might call natural light. He is 350 days a year of sunshine. For a goalie, says Dallas Stars defenseman Shawn Chambers, Brodeur’s road roommate with New Jersey last season, “Marty is one of the most normal guys I’ve ever been around.” This is a compliment.
“His biggest asset is that he keeps two feet on the earth,” says New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, referring to Brodeur as a stand-up guy more than a stand-up netminder (although since working with goaltending instructor Jacques Caron the last three years, Brodeur has pretty much become that too). “Good upbringing. Good values. He knows how to deal with the people around him.”
The only person who seems to baffle Brodeur is Lemaire, whose personality is even colder than his knowledge of the game. He was party to three incidents last season that irked Brodeur. Midway through the third period in a game against the Islanders on Nov. 9, Brodeur took a stinging shot off his shoulder. When he skated to the bench during a break, Lemaire inserted backup goalie Mike Dunham, whom the Devils needed to play at least 25 games in 1996–97 to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent after the season. Brodeur returned to the net after only 41 seconds had been played and New Jersey won 4–0, but under NHL rules the breather denied Brodeur an official shutout. He would finish the season with 10, the most since Dryden in 1976–77. Says one Devils official, “The problem is I don’t think they [the coaches] were aware of the rule.”
Two other decisions by Lemaire resonated more deeply. On Nov. 30, in New Jersey’s only visit to Colorado, Lemaire used Dunham in a 2–1 loss to Roy and the defending Stanley Cup champions. For Brodeur, who played a record 4,433 minutes in 1995–96, missing a rare matchup against Roy was like a kid being taken to the beach and being told that he couldn’t go in the water. Lemaire also chose not to start Brodeur on Feb. 1 in Montreal, a decision Brodeur didn’t learn of until a few hours before the game. He wasn’t amused. Presumably neither were the more than 20 friends and relatives for whom he had bought tickets.
The metropolitan New York media surmised that Lemaire was trying to mess with Brodeur’s mind. Lemaire can be enigmatic, but he definitely is not certifiable. He didn’t plan to toy with his best player just for kicks. While sorting through the prosaic reasons for turning to Dunham on those two occasions—Brodeur had played indifferently on the road trip before the Avalanche game; he had told Caron he hadn’t slept much the night before the Montreal match—Lemaire says he sensed something deeper. “Martin had been talking to Patrick and was excited about playing against Patrick,” Lemaire says. “Well, the game is not Patrick versus Martin. It’s the Avalanche versus the Devils, and it should stay that way.”
By denying Brodeur a mask-to-mask showdown with Roy and later a showcase game in his hometown, Lemaire was offering subtle reminders that big-time pros must put aside childhood dreams. “Yeah, not playing against Patrick and how I found out I wasn’t playing against the Canadiens upset me at the time,” Brodeur says. But no one scribbled a mustache on Lemaire’s picture in Brodeur’s boyhood bedroom (Brodeur and Lemaire posed on the day of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft in 1989, when Lemaire, then the head of the Verdun Junior Canadiens, picked Brodeur in the third round), and a few days after the Montreal game, goalie and coach met on the ice during practice to clear the air. Brodeur insists the relationship has never been better.
“Hockey isn’t only a job for Martin,” Lemaire says. “It's his toy.” The inner child still can be found outdoors sometimes, playing forward in street hockey games in St. Liboire during the off-season. While fatherhood has kept him off the streets more than usual this summer—he and wife, Melanie, have a two-year-old, Anthony, and 11-month-old twins, William and Jeremy—he grabbed some guys from his old neighborhood for a game against players from his new town, St. Hyacinthe. If Willie Mays could go three sewers in stickball, why couldn’t Brodeur boom slap shots off the pavement? Even now hardly a day goes by without a neighbor’s child ringing the doorbell to ask, “Can Martin come out and play?”
Yes, he can play. Four full seasons in the NHL are proof. He plays angles, moves economically, handles his stick superbly and absorbs shots as much as he stops them, so he rarely leaves bad rebounds. But Brodeur probably is better known for two saves he didn’t make. Stephane Matteau of the Rangers stuffed a wraparound past him in the second overtime of Game 7 in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals to end the most compelling playoff series of this decade. Last spring another Ranger, Adam Graves, knocked out the powerless Devils in the second round of the playoffs with an overtime wraparound after Brodeur missed a poke check. “Marty was angry after the Graves goal, but he didn’t come into the room and start breaking sticks or anything,” Chambers says. “He was disappointed because we weren’t going to keep playing.”
In February, Brodeur will become an Olympian, as his father was, unless he is injured or Team Canada general manager Bob Clarke and his fellow selectors have a massive brain cramp. In September 1996, Brodeur was content to back up the Edmonton Oilers’ Curtis Joseph in the World Cup and would gladly go to the Nagano Games even if he were No. 2—especially if Roy were the starter. Brodeur and Roy briefly were teammates on the players’- association-sponsored Team Quebec during the 1994 NHL lockout. “There was a breakaway contest, and we were down two goals,” Brodeur recalls. “Patrick says, ‘You guys go ahead and score. I’ll stop everything else.’ Gee, I wouldn’t say anything like that. Not even in practice.”
Brodeur wouldn’t say it because he has no guile, which is the part of Denis’s handiwork that you can’t frame. Martin was brought up to understand that just because you do something special doesn’t necessarily mean you are special. This makes for the most flattering portrait of all.
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