Martin Brodeur's 688th win capped a celebratory and mournful night in Newark, as fans sent off the face of their franchise with a tentative goodbye. Unlike Teemu Selanne, who was in a situation where he could run up the odometer and exit at a time of his own choosing, Brodeur may have just run out of gas before he was ready to go.
After 20 years in New Jersey, hockey's all-time winningest goaltender may have played his final game in a Devils uniform—the only NHL uniform he's ever known. After racking up one more victory, Brodeur was embraced by his teammates, and sent out to center ice alone to soak up the cheers and "Thank you Marty" chants from the crowd.
"Patty [Elias] asked me. He said, 'Go by yourself. You deserve it,'" Brodeur joked. "I probably would've done it anyway, but it was nice of him to step in."
"It was pretty hard," Brodeur said of the reception. "These people are my family." And like many family get-togethers, this one was awkward. Brodeur, perhaps the best ever, doesn't want to retire. He wants to keep playing—at least 30 starts a year, he says, and only for a Cup contender. The Devils have no place for a 1B goalie with worse stats and a richer contract than any given AHL call-up. I can't imagine many NHL teams do.
There are few things sadder in sports than legends leaving on anything less than their own terms, but that's the rule and not the exception. The body usually goes before the desire to play evaporates. It doesn't matter how many Cups you've won or how many jerseys you've sold. Eventually, you just can't do it anymore. Barring a resurgence at age 42, Brodeur's reached that point. The Devils owe Brodeur so very much. They don't owe him a job. They're a hockey team trying to win.
This ends badly. The happiest of outcomes, a long shot, is a sympathy contract from the Devils, and another year of a very good goaltender losing starts to a mascot. The saddest is that Brodeur finds no interest, and retires before he's ready. The most likely is probably the least appealing: Marty Brodeur, wearing a uniform other than the Devils'.
"It's hard for me. Just the thought of playing against the Devils would kill me. That's one of the things that bothers me the most."
Brodeur deserves better than this, but age insures that very few get what they deserve. If a long and fruitful relationship between a team and its goalie came to a close yesterday afternoon, it did so like most relationships: with one party ending it before the other was ready. The cheering and graciousness and unflawed love from the Devils crowd was tinged with a bittersweet overtone: Thank you for everything you've done. Don't try to do any more.