By Steve Lichtenstein
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We know about all of his NHL records and accomplishments, but possibly the most remarkable aspect of Martin Brodeur’s 21-year career in New Jersey just might have been exactly that — the fact that he stuck around.
For this purpose, I am going to ignore Brodeur’s seven-game, Joe Namath-like stint in St. Louis last year at age 42. That life detour didn’t change how thankful I am that Brodeur chose to be a fixture in the Garden State all those years.
Brodeur may have been raised in Montreal, but his legend was created and cultivated next to a swamp off Exit 16W of the Turnpike. He became a Jersey Guy.
And now, even with Brodeur in retirement as a player and working as an executive for the Blues, Devils fans can catch a glimpse any time they want of the greatest goaltender of all time — etched in bronze. The Devils on Monday night unveiled a slightly-larger-than-life-size statue of a jubilant Brodeur, which will soon be moved outside of the Prudential Center in Newark.
Several thousand fans were on hand for the ceremony and another 17,625 admirers are expected for Tuesday’s official “Martin Brodeur Night.”
Prior to the Devils’ tussle with Edmonton, Brodeur’s number 30 will be raised to the rafters of “The Rock.”
That jersey took off in prominence at the end of his rookie season, when he nearly stole the 1994 Eastern Conference finals from the Rangers. A year later, it was immortalized in a Seinfeld episode in the midst of the Devils’ first of three Stanley Cup championship runs.
Brodeur went on to establish league records for, most notably, most wins for both a season and a career, most career shutouts, most career saves and most minutes played by a goalie.
Not to mention the record for most goals scored by a goaltender (three), which included one of only two that had ever been scored in NHL playoff history.
In my mind, it was Brodeur’s abilities as a skater and stickhandler that set him apart from his peers as much as his acrobatics stopping the puck. Brodeur acted as a third defenseman, roaming with ease to play pucks in the corners and ignite counterattacks. His stretch passes on power plays were as crisp as those of any skater.
His skills were so impactful that the league decided before the 2005-06 season that it needed to change the game. The “Brodeur Rule” still prohibits goalies from wandering outside of a makeshift trapezoid behind the goal line.
One would expect such a transformational figure to set the marketplace in terms of contract parameters.
Or at least test the marketplace.
He had every right to hold a grudge after then-Devils president Lou Lamoriello low-balled him into a three-year deal after his rookie season. Instead, Brodeur often took huge hometown discounts, passing on multiple opportunities to parlay his fame into contracts that paid him more extravagantly than the financially-strapped Devils could afford.
Much to the disappointment of the NHL Players’ Association, Brodeur negotiated his next three contracts without an agent, starting with the four-year extension worth $16 million he signed in the middle of the 1997-98 season. To get a sense of what a bargain that was, Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek was making almost twice as much per year.
In his book, Brodeur: Beyond The Crease, he explained that it was more important to build his relationship with the organization than it was to squeeze every nickel he could out of it.
Equally important was that New Jersey was his home. He wanted to be close to his four children, especially after his messy and scandalous divorce from his first wife in 2003.
Brodeur’s extension in 2001 for five years and $40 million (which was cut back by the 2004-05 NHL lockout) made him the third highest-paid goalie in the NHL at the time, but there’s no doubt he would have attracted higher offers if he was willing to leave New Jersey. The same went for the six-year $31.2 million extension Brodeur signed in 2006. That deal cut his annual salary to $5.2 million per year, placing him ninth among goalies by 2011-12, the season he backstopped the Devils to an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Remember, despite all of the Devils’ success on the ice during that time, hardly a year went by where there weren’t any rumors of relocation, ownership changes, or bankruptcy. The (insert defunct corporation name here) Arena at the Meadowlands was behind the curve in terms of revenue production, which meant that the Devils often felt they needed to act like a small-market club, even though they were competing in the New York market. The financial picture didn’t get much rosier upon the opening of the Prudential Center in 2007.
We’ll never know what would have happened to the franchise had Brodeur decided he wanted to bolt in free agency or demand a trade so he could get paid his fair value.
On Tuesday night, Devils fans will surely show their appreciation for all that Brodeur has meant to not only the Devils organization, but to the state of New Jersey as well.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.