The best hockey player in the New York area right now is also one of the greatest hockey players ever, and he’s a Methuselah, a 40-year-old in a sport where pro careers typically last five or six years. Martin Brodeur, now in his 20th season with the New Jersey Devils, has played so well for so long that even hockey people have tended to take him a little for granted. He’s hardly an unknown, but he would be more fussed over and wondered at if he didn’t play in Newark and if his position were not the lowly, unglamorous one of goalie.
In hockey mythology, it’s an article of faith that all goalies are a little flaky. You have to be a bit nuts, the theory goes, to want to play the position in the first place — to stand in front of the net while people sling hard rubber discs at you at more than 100 miles an hour — and only certain personality types can withstand the strain. The annals of the game are full of memorable head cases. Glenn Hall, a goalie during the ’50s and ’60s for the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, used to throw up before every game. Gary Smith, a goalie from the same era, insisted on removing all his gear and taking a shower between periods.
The loopiest goalie of all was Gilles Gratton, who bounced around in the minors in the ’70s before ending his career with the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers. Gratton liked to skate in the nude sometimes, wearing just his goalie mask, and refused to play if the stars did not line up properly. He believed that in a previous life he was an executioner who stoned people to death, and that he was fated to become a goalie — someone on the receiving end of a stoning, so to speak — as punishment.
Martin Brodeur, who has been the Devils’ starting goalie since 1993, the backbone of the team’s three successful Stanley Cup campaigns, is the exception to this tradition of brooding and eccentricity. He’s probably the most well adjusted, happiest-seeming person I have ever met, so normal that it’s a little eerie. Jokey and gregarious, he doesn’t even mind talking to the media, though like a lot of hockey players he speaks to the press in breathless run-on sentences, like someone dashing across thin ice, fearful that if he stops, he’ll fall through.