A deal with the devil
How else to explain the otherworldly longevity of New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur?
As North Jersey landmarks go, put Marty Brodeur right up there with the Meadowlands stadium and Satriale's Pork Store.
Ah, but those structure are mere brick and mortar, vulnerable to the wrecking ball. The fictional Sopranos hangout has already been razed (they're building condos), while the home of football's Jets and Giants awaits a similar fate.
Brodeur, the 36-year-old New Jersey Devils goaltending institution, appears to be made of stronger stuff.
As he embarks on his 14th NHL season, the three-time Stanley Cup champion and winner of four of the last five Vezina trophies is closing in on two milestones that speak to his unmatched combination of brilliance and durability. Brodeur needs just 14 wins to surpass Patrick Roy (551) for the all-time NHL record, and eight shutouts to overtake Terry Sawchuk's mark of 103.
Barring catastrophe, those standards will soon belong to Brodeur, who logs more ice time at a higher level than anyone. But the man, we assume, is flesh and bone. So we have to ask: is this the year Brodeur finally breaks down?
Brodeur is indefatigable. The Montrealer enters the 2008-09 season riding a streak of 10 straight campaigns with at least 70 games played (plus playoffs), and he looks to be gaining steam.
Despite being in his mid-30s, Brodeur shouldered his largest workloads in his last two seasons: 78 (of a possible 82) appearances in 2006-07, and 77 in 2007-08. He won the Vezina as the league's best goalie at the end of both seasons, averaging a stellar 2.17 goals against and a .921 save percentage.
"I kind of enjoy it. I think it's fun," Brodeur, apparently a closet masochist, told reporters during a pre-season conference call. "If I have to show up at the rink, I might as well play."
Brodeur is indestructible. Since becoming the Devils' clear-cut No. 1 guy in 1995-96, he's shown an uncanny ability to avoid the trainers' room. A Google search for "Martin Brodeur injuries" turns up fewer pertinent results than "Sean Avery fan club," and you'll sooner see Brodeur compliment the Stars' pest on his goalie-screening techniques than miss significant time due to injury. Apart from a six-game absence with a right knee problem in November 2005, Brodeur hasn't missed a significant stretch of time in his 14 seasons as an NHL regular.
"I'm not a nervous goalie. I don't put extra pressure on myself," Brodeur said. "And definitely the way that the Devils have been playing, as far as the system is concerned, it's pretty rare I'm going to get into these big shootouts having to stop 45 shots one night, then travel somewhere else and have to kill 12 penalties.
"We're a pretty structured team. Games are not maybe as hard as other teams'."
Brodeur also knows how to go easy on the joints. His goaltending style — a hybrid of the all-the-rage butterfly and the now-defunct standup approach — puts less stress on his body than the one employed by most of his peers.
"I think [the butterfly] really puts a lot of stress on your hips when you fall down, when you have to get up. Definitely an awkward position for your legs to be in."
"I believe you don't need to be a butterfly goalie to be a good goalie in the NHL. I mean, when you have good mobility and you're able to skate really well, you don't need to go down on your knees all game long."
Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kelly Hrudey, whose NHL goaltending career (1983-98) spanned the standup and butterfly eras, isn't sold on the alleged dangers of the latter. He credits Brodeur's bulletproof body to a mix of nature, nurture and plain old good fortune.
"He was blessed with a unique body and he knows how to take care of himself," Hrudey told CBCSports.ca. "But even the best-conditioned athlete, the guy who's figured out his body better than anybody, still needs a lot of luck on his side.
"When you've gone that long without a major injury, that's a feat unto itself."
Martin Brodeur plays too much. This is not uncommon for No. 1 goalies in the salary cap era, a time when GMs are loath to commit precious dollars to seldom-used backups.
New Jersey head coach Brent Sutter knows this. And he wants to give Brodeur more rest. Honest. But that would mean giving more ice to backup Kevin Weekes, he of the 2.97 GAA and .894 save percentage last season. An unpalatable option given life in the cutthroat Atlantic Division, where Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers are waiting to pounce.
Brodeur started 63 of New Jersey's last 65 games last season, including the final 41, as the Devils rallied from a slow start to claim the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Ever the willing soldier, Brodeur said he hasn't talked with Sutter about the possibility of reducing his workload.
"It's always up to the coach to make the decision," Brodeur said. "It's important for him. He's living with that decision of playing me or not playing me."
It's a decision Sutter was still struggling with in training camp.
"[Weekes] might play five [games]. He might play 10. He might play 15," Sutter told the Bergen Record. "A lot depends on how Marty is feeling and how we're doing as a hockey team."
"When you think about how the year went last year and how tight it was down the stretch for teams to get in the playoffs, at the end of the day, I'm not regretting the fact that we went with Marty Brodeur as much as we did because we might not have made the playoffs," Sutter said.
Perhaps Sutter is right. But how much is too much? Is there a game — 79? 80? 81? — that could be the straw that breaks the back of hockey's most tireless player?
Maybe there is no limit. Maybe Marty Brodeur is just crazy enough to play all 82 games this season.
"I would love to," he said when the idea was floated. "I love to play. But it's really hard in this era to play every single game.
"But who knows, maybe it will happen."