Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Best There Ever Was

At age 36 and still competing at the highest level, he is the best there ever was at his position in professional sports. And this isn't some easy position either. Take the biggest and baddest NFL lineman, the toughest NBA front court player, or any hard-nosed MLB catcher and put them in his position for just one practice and that player would be running for the bench within seconds. Well, not running, more like skating. Because the sport that we are talking about is professional ice hockey, the position is that of the goaltender, and the player is named Martin Brodeur. He is the goaltender for the New Jersey Devils in the National Hockey League, a position which he has manned for that fortunate team for the past 15 seasons. The lucky local favorites, our own Philadelphia Flyers, have been forced to play in the same division as Brodeur and the Devils for the entirety of his career, and more often than not his presence has been the difference. In those 15 seasons the Devils have won the NHL's Atlantic Division title 7 times while the Flyers have won 5 division titles. The two teams have finished 1-2 in the division nine times in that span. This is what is termed a legitimate rivalry, folks, and so the Flyers and we fans have gotten to see far more of Marty Brodeur between the pipes than most any other opposition goaltender. Lucky us. While the regular season battles have been epic and usually tight, there is no comparison when it comes to the post-season. Brodeur has led the Devils to three Stanley Cup championships in his career: his rookie year in the spring of 1995, again in 2000, and most recently in 2003. The Devils also reached the Cup finals in 2001 before losing to Colorado. In that same time span the Flyers have played for Lord Stanley's Cup only one time, over a decade ago now in the spring of 1997 when they were drubbed in four straight games by the Detroit Red Wings. Before the arrival of Brodeur, the Devils were almost a hockey laughingstock. Born in 1974 as the Kansas City Scouts, they played two seasons in KC before relocating and becoming the Colorado Rockies. It was here in Colorado that the Flyers got their first taste of real competition with the franchise, eliminating the Rockies in a 2-game mini-playoff sweep in 1978. The franchise then finally moved to North Jersey for the 1982-83 season and did not make the playoffs for its first five seasons in New Jersey. The Devils finally began to become a regular playoff team in the early 90's, and it was then that Martin Brodeur came on the scene. He had been the Devils 1st round draft choice, the 20th player selected overall, back in the 1990 NHL Draft. The Flyers selected Mike Ricci as the 4th overall pick that same year, and a number of future NHL greats went before Brodeur including Jaromir Jagr, Keith Primeau, Owen Nolan, Derian Hatcher and Keith Tkachuk. In 1994, Brodeur won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year and led the underdog club to a dramatic 7th game loss in the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers. The following season the Devils eliminated the Flyers in six games in the conference finals before defeating the Detroit Red Wings for their first-ever Stanley Cup victory. This period launched the great pro career of Martin Brodeur, one that has included those 3 Stanley Cups, 4 Vezina Trophy awards as the NHL's top goaltender, 4 Jennings Trophy awards for allowing the least goals in the NHL. Brodeur has also starred internationally for his native Canada, leading them to a 2002 Olympic gold medal and a 2004 World Cup championship as the starting goalie. He also shares the distinction with the Flyers' Ron Hextall in being the only two goalies to score goals themselves in both the regular season and the playoffs. Brodeur is the only goalie in NHL history to score a game-winning goal. And last night, Martin Brodeur became the winningest goaltender in NHL history when he made 30 saves as the Devils defeated the Chicago Black Hawks by a 3-2 score in front of his home fans at the Prudential Center in Newark. I became a hockey fan as a 10-year old at the end of the 1972 season when the Flyers missed the playoffs by allowing a last-second goal in the final game of the season, and have enjoyed almost four decades of the best goaltending in NHL history. I watched the greatest 2-year display of playoff goaltending in the games' history by the Flyers Bernie Parent, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups and playoff MVP's in 1974 & 1975. I have seen some of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the game play in the prime of their careers including Parent, Hextall, Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, Grant Fuhr, Dominik Hasek, Billy Smith, Pelle Lindbergh, Eddie Belfour, Tom Barrasso, and the great Patrick Roy. But for my money none was greater over a sustained period of time than Martin Brodeur. With his 552nd victory and the achievement in becoming the NHL's all-time winningest goaltender added to all of his other team and individual achievements, and in appreciation of him as a tremendous rival to my own beloved Philadelphia Flyers, it is no stretch at all for me to consider Martin Brodeur as the best there ever was.

No comments: