Back before his team won three Stanley Cups and he set countless goaltending records, making him a New Jersey sports treasure, Martin Brodeur landed in Newark on a flight from Montreal. He was 18. He’d been to Jersey before—a vacation in Wildwood as a kid. But this was different. The New Jersey Devils had made him the second goaltender taken in the 1990 draft, the 20th pick overall. Now, three months later, he was about to begin his professional career.
He barely knew where New Jersey was, he admits now with a laugh. His friends had told him, “Don’t worry—it’s in the U.S. It’s good!” His first clue came as the plane passed Manhattan on its path into Newark Airport. Wow! Brodeur remembers thinking. This is right by New York City!
Yet it was not the bright lights of Gotham that ultimately won the heart of the young phenom from Saint-Léonard, now a part of Montreal. Rather, Brodeur began a long-term love affair with his adopted home state that, 23 years later, shows no sign of abating. He has spent his entire NHL career with the Devils, helping them win those three championships and blossom into a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer.
There are bigger, more avid NHL markets, like his native Montreal, where the TV ratings soar and the populace dotes on all levels of hockey. Or even the Big Apple. If he played across the river, wrote New York Post hockey columnist Larry Brooks before this season, “he would have a candy bar named after him.” Does he miss that kind of adulation?
“For me, the guy I am, this suits me a lot better,” Brodeur says. “There’s tons of fans and tons of different things here. My whole grown-up life has been in New Jersey. Yes, there’s Montreal, but my real home, where my kids were born, where I became a citizen of this country, is New Jersey.”
People do often ask him if he misses playing in a bigger market. “It’s something that never crossed my mind,” he says. “When people ask me that question, I always shake my head. Am I not big enough? I think I’ve done pretty good for myself. I’m in Montreal for two months [in the summer], and I’m ready to get out. In New Jersey, you’re able to live your life. I’ve played golf everywhere in New Jersey. People are nice to me. It’s great.”
Like recently retired Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, the 41-year-old Brodeur is regarded as a genius of the save, an all-time shut-down artist with a trademark style and a self-effacing temperament. His achievements—including most victories, most shutouts, four NHL Vezina Trophies (for superlative play in net)—set a standard to which all goalies aspire, from the NHL down to the Pee-Wees.
Brodeur’s two-year contract with the Devils expires just after the 2013-2014 NHL season. Neither he nor the Devils have spoken publicly about his future, fueling speculation that he might finally call it a career. What might influence his decision is the team’s current state of flux.
On draft day in June, the team traded for Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider, a 27-year-old considered to have strong potential. In July, Ilya Kovalchuk, the high-scoring forward who helped propel the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, stunned the organization by retiring from the NHL at age 30 (with 12 years and $77 million still on his contract) to play professionally in his native Russia. In August, the Devils, deeply in debt, were sold to new owners. And in September, a week before the start of the new season, Brodeur’s father, Denis—a former Canadian Olympic hockey player who became the Montreal Canadiens’ beloved official photographer—died at age 82. Brodeur flew back to Montreal, and Schneider became the first goalie not named Brodeur to start a Devils season opener since 1993.
Down the road—perhaps well down the road—Schneider might face competition from another Brodeur. Back on draft day, the incumbent took the stage at the Prudential Center in Newark to announce the team’s selection of his 18-year-old son, Anthony Brodeur, a goaltender, in the seventh and final round of the NHL draft.
As for Brodeur père, “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about retirement,” he said after a recent practice at the Devils’ training facility next to the Prudential Center. “I want to do it the right way—when I’m ready to do it, not when someone else is ready for me to do it. That’s the way I’m going to approach all year. I’ve tried not to address it as much as possible. Just play it out.”
Either way, one thing is certain: Though he bought a house in South Florida a few years ago, largely to play golf when winter grips the Garden State, New Jersey will remain his home. These days, Brodeur and his family live in West Orange. His kids—four boys and a girl, ages 4 to 18—have never been pestered about their famous father. He can attend youth hockey games at area rinks without being mobbed. He recently showed up early for one of 11-year-old Anabelle’s soccer games. He sat alone in the Cedar Grove park, to which he had never been before, just enjoying the scenery. No one bothered him.
“It’s amazing how much you find new spots in New Jersey,” he says. “There are a lot of hidden areas, things to do. With New York, you know what it is. But in Jersey, you find places that are fun to go to. It could be a restaurant. It could be something to do with my kids in sports. There’s a lot more out there than you think.”
Jersey kind of crept up on Brodeur. He honed his craft in the minors in Utica, New York, until the Devils made him their full-time goalie for the 1993-94 NHL season. (He won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie.) At first, he rented an apartment in Hackensack. Then, when son Anthony was an infant, he and his first wife, Melanie, who is French Canadian, bought what he calls a “nice little house” in North Caldwell. The Devils won the first of their three Stanley Cups in 1995. They repeated as champions in 2000, beginning a span that Brodeur looks back on as the high point of his career. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, he helped Canada win the hockey gold medal. And in 2003, the Devils captured their third cup.
That same year, he and Melanie divorced. In 2008, he married another French-Canadian, Genevieve Nault. Their son, Maxime Phillippe, was born in 2009. Hardcore Devils fans know that the initials printed on the back of his helmet are those of his children—Anthony, twins William and Jeremy, Anabelle and Maxime. He kisses the letters before the start of each game.
Brodeur’s teammates appreciate that he is a special player. “I truly believe he’s the best goalie of all time,” says Travis Zajac, the 28-year-old center who has been Brodeur’s teammate for seven years. “You see that every day—his competitiveness and his attitude coming to the rink. Whenever he’s here, he wants to win.”
The Devils opened this season in a seeming stupor, losing their first seven games. In a critical game in October against the rival New York Rangers, coach Peter DeBoer started Schneider in goal—the first time in 20 years Brodeur had not started a home game against the Rangers when healthy. Later that month, after DeBoer gave Schneider several successive starts, Brodeur told reporters, “I think he’s in the net now to stay.”
Nevertheless, Zajac says, “to me, it seems like he can play as long as he wants. He’s been really good for us this year. I know we haven’t won much, but we haven’t helped him.”
When the day comes, Brodeur is certain to have his number 30 jersey hoisted to the rafters next to those of his Cup-winning teammates, defensemen Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer. Brodeur has been such an integral part of the Devils’ defense-first system that it is hard to imagine the team without him.
“He’s the face of the franchise wherever he goes,” says Jaromir Jagr, the star forward who joined the Devils this season at 41 after competing against Brodeur for many years. “He’s got all the records he needs. But here, it’s more about the team than anywhere else. He bought into it. He could easily be the guy who runs the show, but he doesn’t. He’s sacrificed for the team.”
Case in point: his relationship with Schneider, the heir apparent. Having played in the Western Conference until now, Schneider has a lot to learn about the Eastern teams the Devils play regularly. Brodeur, Schneider says, is “trying to help me [learn] tendencies [of] certain players. Each [arena] offers its own little quirks, too. He’s been very forthcoming with that. Just hearing him talk about his experiences—not just to me—gives you an appreciation for how much he’s done.” Unyielding on the ice, Brodeur off-duty, Schneider says, is a surprisingly “laid-back, approachable guy. He’s really been helpful to me.”
Brodeur paid attention this year to Mariano Rivera’s season-long farewell, with the legendary Yankee closer meeting with fans and stadium workers (and being showered with gifts) as he made his final appearance in each big-league city.
“It’s not something I’m banking on doing,” he says. “I want to just play. I’m a regular hockey guy. I don’t see myself differently. Every game, everything we do [in hockey] is so important that, when you spend the season or even two months [saying goodbye], it affects a lot of people. I’m the last guy to want to have it affect what we need to do.”
David Caldwell covers sports and outdoor recreation for New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment