Photo by OnlineClock.Net

OnlineClock.Net

Flanked by two shaven-headed handlers, Martin Brodeur sat at a rickety wooden table that looked slightly too small to be comfortable in a bookstore that has long since been put out business. Outside the store, devoted fans lined up for yards, standing in concentric loops in an adjacent strip mall, chattering excitedly or fidgeting with their fans’ jerseys—this was before smartphones dulled the pain of waiting on a line.

For a certain part of New Jersey, too far west to comfortably get to New York City and too far north to get to Philadelphia, Martin Brodeur is the closest thing to a hometown hero. The New York Jets and Giants claim to represent the other side of the Hudson River, though they play in East Rutherford, and the Nets moved to Brooklyn. But Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils have remained loyal to the Garden State and its residents, who have repaid the star player and his team with admirable allegiance. This is not to say that it has been difficult to be a Devils fan. The team has been rather successful, winning three Stanley Cup Championships and finishing at the top of their division nine times in the past twenty years. But today, the Devils are far from the consistently competitive team they once were—they failed to reach the playoffs for the second straight year.

As a child, I would listen Devils’ games on the radio. I wasn’t allowed to watch television during the week, and the games ended far past my bedtime. For years, I drifted off to sleep to the soft, static-y hum of the radio commentators’ incessant but soothing yammering. Each time Brodeur made a save, the radio would nudge me awake. “What a save by Brodeur!” The commentators would suddenly yell, reminding me, half-asleep but half-keeping score, that the game was still ongoing. The radio broadcast of a hockey game was like a ghostly echo of the game itself, the faint scrapes of the players’ skates and the occasional distant boom of the puck hitting the boards audible beneath the stream of color commentary. Listening to the rhythm of passes and checks, punctuated by staccato notes marking Brodeur’s acrobatic saves, was how I followed hockey until I was older, when it became possible to watch highlights of the previous night’s game online. 

Martin Brodeur no longer plays the way he did when he toured New Jersey’s suburbs, signing copies of his co-written memoir for adoring fans. This past season, he shared goaltending duties with Corey Schneider, who was five-years-old when Brodeur played his first game in the National Hockey League. The man who set the record for the most minutes played by a goalie played less than half of this past season’s games. For those of us who know what Brodeur looked like even just five years ago, the Brodeur of the very recent past resembles a slower, subdued version of his former self. His brilliant, limb-flashing saves are less frequent and his once-risky ventures outside of his crease are less daring. 

Eventually, after waiting on line, sandwiched between a gas station and a Stop & Shop, for what felt like hours to my pre-adolescent self (but in retrospect was probably more like forty-five minutes), I met Martin Brodeur. His bigness startled me. He was just the right size for a man who makes a living stopping pieces of vulcanized rubber flying at eighty miles an hour with his body. I had assumed that, without his multiple chest and shoulder pads, he would appear less thick in person, but the equipment just made up for the loss of perspective that typically accompanies television broadcasts. During a heated playoff game, Sean Avery, who was then a player on the New York Rangers, allegedly called Brodeur “fatso.” The insult, though the product of a particularly acrimonious relationship between Avery and Brodeur, forever made fans of latter aware of his weight. 

I do not remember what I said to him when I handed him a copy of his memoir to sign. I do not remember what he said when he signed it. I only remember feeling like I had encountered a being from another world. David Foster Wallace described watching Roger Federer as a religious experience. Hockey, however, is not a game of revelation; it is extraterrestrial—in the most literal sense. It is not played on the ground but on a surface somewhere elevated above the ground. The inside of a hockey arena is like a glimpse at the inner life of a different planet where sounds are either crushingly loud or nearly inaudible—thunderous cheers and chants or tenuous silence, save for the whisper of the puck sliding along the ice. It is a world where everything is dark except for the ice, which is nearly fluorescent. Outfitted in protective equipment, the players become more-than-human soldiers, their sticks and skates fusing to their bodies as supplementary appendages. The goaltenders are alien kings, with oblong masks decorated with abstract, grotesque graphics. Even the players’ helmets, particularly those with visors, are like the battle-gear of a future army. 

When writing about sports, it is not entirely possible to escape the ecclesiastical comparison. After all, the entire spectacle is a kind of ritual process—preparing for the game, dressing the part (the team’s colors, naturally), and then partaking in the sacraments, whether barbecue or poutine, while watching what amounts to mostly successive instances of terrible brutality. 

Underneath his wraithlike mask, Brodeur is a bulletproof cherub. During interviews, his reddish-blond hair and peach-sized ruddy cheeks match the red of his jersey, he rarely appears flustered or raises his voice, and he nearly always manages to smile. He is the saintly exemplar of net-minding. Fortunately for him, the New Jersey press, which certainly has the ability to be vicious, never paid much attention to Brodeur’s less-than-saintly private life. His wife filed for divorce amid rumors that he was having an affair with her sister-in-law. Despite this, Devils fans adore Brodeur.

Brodeur’s affability contrasts with the demeanor of his more mercurial and older rival, Patrick Roy. Roy held most of the records that Brodeur steadily claimed over the past several years. Brodeur only rarely appears visibly frustrated. When players bother him, like the pest-like Sean Avery, who used to wave his hands in front of Brodeur until the referees deemed that kind of behavior unsportsmanlike conduct, Brodeur reacts sharply but subtly. A slap with the fat goalie stick to the offending player’s skates. A shove at the back. Nothing too violent. Roy, though, is famous for skating across the ice, his oversized jersey billowing behind him like the terrible cape of a comic book villain, and pouncing on the opposing team’s goalie. Roy’s fight against Chris Osgood is one of the most famous goalie scraps of all time, second perhaps, only to the vicious Ron Hextall’s attempt to nearly decapitate Chris Chelios in 1989. 

There is no shortage of descriptions of Brodeur’s success. On paper, he is indisputably the most successful goaltender in the history of the sport. But the two awards Brodeur has failed to win are those that deal most in intangibles—the awards for most valuable player during the regular season and postseason. Brodeur has won pretty much everything else, including the Calder Trophy, for rookie of the year. It is fitting, perhaps, that those awards, which above all else award individual accomplishments, have proved elusive for Brodeur. More than players of other positions, the goaltender relies on the ability of his teammates. Even the best goaltender cannot lead a team with a porous defense to victory. A greater number of shots on goal increases the likelihood that the goalie will give up more goals—it is statistically inevitable. When the Devils were the team with the league’s best defense, Brodeur’s was an impregnable fortress in front of the goal line. But now that the Devils’ most famous defensemen have either been traded or eased into retirement, Brodeur’s success has been more limited. 

Martin Brodeur was an anachronism almost as soon as he was drafted. He was one of the last goaltenders to play a hybrid style—a combination of two different techniques, the butterfly and stand-up. Today, almost all goalies play in the butterfly style. They remain close to the ice, often with the sides of their oversized, almost clownish leg pads splayed to the left and right to eliminate any possibility of the puck sliding along the ice and into the net. With an upright torso and outstretched glove, butterfly goalies defend the upper part of their net from rising slap shots or floating wrist shots. As the name suggests, stand-up goalies remain, for the most part, upright. They use their stick to patrol the ice’s surface and their girth and glove to cover the rest of the goal. Brodeur was a rare combination of the two. Like a rubber band, alternately taut and relaxed, Brodeur would spring from standing position to kneeling on the ice. For Brodeur, a kick save was less of a kick and more of a kind of triumphant flail, while simultaneously bringing his entire weight onto his other leg. 

The Devils last game of the season before packing away their gear for the summer might have been Martin Brodeur’s last game of his career. His current contract expires this year. And at forty-one years old, Brodeur is not likely to return to play at peak form. Still, he has been reluctant to contemplate retirement, even suggesting that he might look to play for a different team—a prospect that, for most Devils fans, is unthinkably tragic. Brodeur is, and has been for two decades, the symbol of hockey in New Jersey. The Devils’ franchise was built on his success and his image. His departure will leave a void that will not be filled easily. Attempts to find a player to succeed Brodeur as the team’s icon have been mostly unsuccessful, notably Ilya Kovalchuk’s scandalous contract and then abrupt decision to return to his native Russia. 

After meeting Martin Brodeur in the bookstore that is now a CVS, I kept his memoir on my bookshelf for years. I never read it in its entirety; I figured, then, that as an avid fan I knew most of what it contained. But now that it has been several years since I watched a Devils game, even more since I listened to the radio, I might have reason to open the book, to see what I missed or what I failed to understand when I was younger. And maybe, to search for a little bit of the youthful excitement that I once felt for the game but that, in the years since I got rid of my radio, has faded away.