Tuesday January 27th, 2015

This story originally appeared in the March 16, 2009, edition of Sports Illustrated.

There are connective threads that tie the generations and disparate styles of the NHL’s best goaltenders. The greats have played with masks on and without; they’ve faced shots that hugged the ice in the straight-bladed era and have parried today’s high-tech slappers; they’ve played stand-up and butterfly. But these goalies, with rare exceptions, share a checklist of attributes: flexibility, hockey sense, a wellspring of fearlessness and, well, eccentricity.

Martin Brodeur got a head start on greatness: a classic SI story

Whether facing 90-mph shots attracts or creates lunatics is a chicken-and-egg question, but the top goalies of the past six decades certainly are a rogue’s gallery of the maladjusted, a list as suited to Psychology Today as to The Hockey News. Jacques Plante, a seven-time Vezina Trophy winner and the backbone of the Canadiens’ 1950s dynasty, was a fretful man who liked to knit. It could never really be Happy Hour when Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk, who died in 1970 at age 40 from complications sustained in an alcohol-fueled fight with a teammate, walked into a bar. Glenn Hall, who played 502 consecutive games from 1955 to ’62 and had 407 career wins with three NHL teams, would feel better when he was physically ill and often threw up before the opening face-off. The tempestuous Patrick Roy, who has a league-record 151 playoff wins, famously asked the Canadiens president during a 1995 game to trade him, was shipped to Colorado four days later and three years after that smashed TVs and a video machine in a coach’s office after being yanked from a tie game and missing out on a win. The inscrutable Dominik Hasek, a two-time league MVP with Buffalo, barely knew some of his teammates’ names, and Ed Belfour, third in career wins, had such obsessive prepractice routines that the Stars had to move their practice schedule back by 30 minutes to accommodate him.

Then there is the goalie perhaps destined to go down as the Greatest of All Time. Three shy of Roy’s mark of 551 regular-season wins and three shutouts behind Sawchuk’s record of 103 through Sunday, the DevilsMartin Brodeur, now in his 16th NHL season, is surely the most balanced of the men who rank among the elite. He is garrulous and engaging, his spirit roaming far beyond the 48 square feet of blue paint outside his goal. He appears more than, in hockey's favorite phrase, “normal ... for a goalie.” He actually seems normal for almost anybody.

“There's Marty after the second period, having his Sprite and half a bagel, working on a shutout, and he’s talking and joking with the guys in the room,” says Oilers defenseman Sheldon Souray, a former New Jersey teammate. “Then he'll go out and stop 10 shots in the third. There’s just this calmness about him. Maybe it’s because he still thinks of hockey as a game.”

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As victories and shutouts add up, the issue is not whether a seemingly nice guy will finish first but how high on the top shelf Brodeur will store those career records. His contract takes him through 2011–12, when he will turn 40 during the playoffs. Assuming good health (and until a torn biceps tendon in his left elbow sustained on Nov. 1 shut him down for four months, Brodeur had played at least 70 games in every season since 1997–98), he is capable of creating a statistical case that will have enough weight to crush any challenger. While Brodeur does not have career-defining saves or moments like so many others in the pantheon—think of Roy and his 10 straight overtime playoff wins in 1993—in a sport in which 300 regular-season victories has been as much of a benchmark as it is for a pitcher in baseball, Brodeur, boosted by skilled and defensively responsible New Jersey and by the additional win-loss decisions that come from the postlockout shootout, could approach 700. Considering he has averaged one shutout for every 5.5 victories, he could finish with 125.

The renewed appreciation of Brodeur, who, incidentally, has kicked a habit of drinking soda between periods and is in the best physical condition of his life, comes less than six years after the elegies surrounding Roy’s retirement anointed him as the greatest. The blink of an eye in which Roy ruled the top of the goaltending world is indecent given his playoff successes and his role in establishing the modern norm—the butterfly—for the position. But as Devils president Lou Lamoriello says, “Greatest is a very difficult word. Tomorrow comes along awfully quick.”

Brodeur returned from his tendon tear on Feb. 26 with a 4–0 victory over Colorado and then won his next three games, including another by shutout, stopping 96 of 100 shots in the four matches and relaunching his career as if he’d been shot from a cannon. Despite all his shutouts, Brodeur says he never wakes up thinking he has to blank an opponent that night, just beat it. Roy’s victory record is a brighter beacon because, as Brodeur says, “when you win, everybody’s happy.” He is guarded enough not to add that he also especially wants this record because it belongs to Roy.

Brodeur could have a chance to tie Roy’s mark—and certainly to move to the precipice of it—on Saturday in Montreal, Brodeur’s hometown and St. Patrick’s domain for two of his four Stanley Cups. Says New Jersey captain Jamie Langenbrunner, “A little ironic.” With Roy's freshly retired number 33 jersey hanging above him, Brodeur might add another episode in the soap-operatic psychodrama between these goaltending titans.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

“A rivalry between two French guys,’ one former NHL goalie says of the relationship between Brodeur and Roy, and while that assessment contains an element of truth, it barely hints at the complexity. To posit that they dislike each other is no more illuminating because they really don’t, at least not in an easily digestible Carolina–Duke kind of way. “My relationship with Patrick is good,” Brodeur says. “If we see each other anywhere, we’ll take the time to go out of our way to say hi. But I don’t have his number and he doesn't have mine.”

Textbook Case A in the Brodeur–Roy Passive-Aggressive Handbook: When Roy was asked after his 2003 retirement to name the next great goalies, he mentioned Anaheim’s Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Florida’s Roberto Luongo but not Brodeur. “The reason,” Roy says now, “is I thought Marty was already there.” Brodeur claims not to recall the incident, but a former Devils teammate insists the goalie was stung by the perceived slight.

Textbook Case B: Brodeur never hesitates to express his disdain for the butterfly, a percentage-based technique that allows a splay-legged goalie to cover the lower part of the net. Brodeur is the antibutterflyer, tracking the puck and standing up, dropping to one knee or even stacking his pads to stop it, an amalgam so old-fashioned that Devils TV commentator Glenn Resch, a former Stanley Cup-winning goalie, likens it to a tennis player winning a Grand Slam with a wooden racket. Of course, whenever Brodeur, who as a teenager bolted the goalie school run by Roy’s guru, goaltending instructor François Allaire, dismisses the butterfly style, he is also prodding its progenitor, Roy. “Actually Marty butterflies more than he lets on,” says New Jersey backup Kevin Weekes. “We laugh about it. At a stoppage or when we come in the [dressing] room, I’ll say, ‘Nice butterfly.’ He'll kinda giggle and say, ‘You saw that? It wasn't really a full butterfly.’”

The precise origins of the distant relationship are not clear, but it probably dates to their time as teammates during the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Brodeur says that on the flight to Japan, Team Canada coach Marc Crawford, who was also Roy’s coach in Colorado at the time, told Brodeur that he would not play at all in the tournament. “I’ll never do that to another guy,” says Brodeur, who won Olympic gold in 2002 and approaches next year's Vancouver Games as co-No. 1 with Luongo. He is referring to Roy, not Crawford. “I don’t know if he said it or his coach or whatever, but the decision was made before we even skated.”

Three years later at a Team Canada camp, Brodeur, so adept a puckhandler that his style spurred the NHL to restrict the area where goalies could play the puck, remembers spending an entire practice giving Roy, clumsy with the puck, some tips.

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“You know it's hard not to appreciate Patrick,” Brodeur says. “The guy was unbelievable. I played against him in the playoffs. [The Avalanche’s four-games-to-three win over the Devils in the 2001 Cup finals can also be read: Roy 1, Brodeur 0.] For me, he’s the top goalie, the guy I looked up to all my life. I don’t hide that ... We’re just two competitors. He was there first. I was just the one trying to push him off some of the records.”

Before the arm injury delayed Brodeur’s chase, Roy—who insists he could have extended his 19-season NHL career “two or three more years to make it tougher for him to get it ... but that’s not the way I am”—said he hoped that his schedule would permit him to attend the potential record-breaker. Serendipitously, the junior team that Roy coaches, the Quebec Remparts, is off this Saturday, and Roy has said that he might attend that night’s Devils–Canadiens game at the Bell Centre if Brodeur is in position to tie the wins record. “The Sawchuk family was great when I broke his record [of 447 career wins] and set a good example for how to deal with it,” Roy says. “Whatever I can do that will be great for Marty, I will.”

Roy and Brodeur—or should it be Brodeur and Roy?—will converge at 551, possibly in the wintry city so important to them. If the record is not matched then, it will be soon. And then Brodeur will wave goodbye, taking goaltending numbers to places over the horizon.

GALLERY: Martin Brodeur Through The Years

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