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Martin Brodeur's boyhood bedroom in a trim house on a trim street in the Montreal suburb of St. Leonard is a shrine to goaltenders. On one wall is an action montage of Ron Hextall, Sean Burke and Patrick Roy, the NHL goalies Brodeur admired most. Behind the door is a picture of Brodeur, at 16, with Soviet legend Vladislav Tretiak, both of them wearing hockey gear and tight smiles at a summer goalie school. Above the bed are 1995 snaps of Brodeur and various family members with the Stanley Cup. These icons-by-Nikons are the work of a professional photographer who happened to share a bathroom with Martin. Denis Brodeur, Martin's father, takes sports pictures for a living, which certainly has paid off for the two of them.
But before f-stops came stops of a different sort for Denis. He was also an accomplished goalie, having received an Olympic bronze medal as a starter for the Canadian team at the 1956 Games. The assumption has been that the 25-year-old Martin, who is entering his fifth full season with the New Jersey Devils and who is considered the best young goalie in the NHL, inherited the puck-stopping gene from his father. Martin gives a shrug at the apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree theory and points out that he's 6'1" and righthanded while his father is 5'6" and lefthanded, so the trees hardly look as if they come from the same orchard. The truth is that neither can remember skating with the other more than a few times; Martin had to learn the position without many tips from Dad. But Denis's role in aiding Martin to reach the NHL is as undeniable as it is indirect. His profession helped light the way, although at times it was Martin who was lighting Denis's way.
Martin occasionally worked as his father's assistant, trundling the 25 minutes from St. Leonard to the old Forum, helping with the strobes and the backgrounds, doing the heavy lifting that goes into taking photos more polished than vacation snapshots. When Martin was a promising 15-year-old goalie but a middling lighting technician, he chatted with Roy while his father did a promotional shoot involving Roy for a hamburger chain. Roy asked Martin how he was doing, but Martin couldn't ask his idol how he was doing. In Montreal, everybody knew how Roy was doing. Still, being around the hallowed Forum was wonderful exposure for Martin. He saw the game and its people through the zoom lens of personal experience, his father's camera having been the pass into a neighborhood in which he later would feel remarkably comfortable as a player from the start.
"My dad would talk to players like Claude Lemieux and Stéphane Richer and tell them one day his son was going to play in the NHL," Martin says of the two former Devils teammates. "How many dads say the same thing? But, gee, he was right."
Now Brodeur, whose 1.88 goals-against average last season was the lowest in the NHL since 1971-72, is playing with history. Of post-'67 expansion goalies only the Chicago Blackhawks' Tony Esposito, who had 32 shutouts in his first 181 games, and the Montreal Canadiens' Ken Dryden, who lost just 25 of his first 178 matches, have numbers as stunning for the start of a career. Even Roy, who won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in his first complete year, 1985-86, had 13 fewer victories over his first four full years than Brodeur, who won a Stanley Cup in his second full season. Among goalies who have played at least 200 games since the center red line was introduced in 1943-44, Brodeur's 2.25 career goals-against average trails only Dryden's 2.24. Among goalies with at least 40 playoff games, Brodeur's 1.83 is third behind Davey Kerr, the Stanley Cup goalie for the '40 New York Rangers, and Clint Benedict, who played the bulk of his career before talkies. While the Buffalo Sabres' 31-year-old Dominik Hasek is the NHL's best goalie—his spiffy .927 save percentage since 1993-94 tops Brodeur's .915, which ranks third in the NHL during that period—Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford says Brodeur's age makes him the goalie every franchise would want to build a team around.
"Brodeur's numbers are terrific, but I'm not impressed by them," New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury says. "Here's a guy who plays for a team that puts a choke hold on the opposition's attack, so I'm not surprised [by the low goals-against average]. What I'm impressed by, and what makes him a great goaltender, is that he stops the puck when it needs to be stopped. He's cool. The pressure doesn't bother him. Night after night he seems to be involved in 1-0, 2-1 games, and the pressure never seems to be a factor."
This is the New Jersey Factor, which tends to obscure rather than illuminate Brodeur's talents. The Devils, whose discipline and constipating neutral-zone trap allowed nearly eight fewer shots per game on Brodeur than Hasek faced last season with Buffalo, can give a goalie a comfort zone, as long as he doesn't start babbling to himself out of boredom. This is the Devils' bargain, a cup many goalies would view as half empty. Of course, Brodeur doesn't see it that way. Not only is his cup half full—"I'd never be a jerk with my teammates because I know I need them to be successful," he says—but it also contains hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows.
There's a dark side to Roy, a wiseacre whose blowup with former Montreal coach Mario Tremblay got Roy traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. There's a dark side to Hasek, the only Sabre who couldn't get along with former coach Ted Nolan. But Brodeur has what his father might call natural light. He is 350 days a year of sunshine. For a goalie, says Dallas Stars defenseman Shawn Chambers, Brodeur's road roommate with New Jersey last season, "Marty is one of the most normal guys I've ever been around." This is a compliment.
"His biggest asset is that he keeps two feet on the earth," says New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, referring to Brodeur as a stand-up guy more than a stand-up netminder (although since working with goaltending instructor Jacques Caron the last three years, Brodeur has pretty much become that too). "Good upbringing. Good values. He knows how to deal with the people around him."
The only person who seems to baffle Brodeur is Lemaire, whose personality is even colder than his knowledge of the game. He was party to three incidents last season that irked Brodeur. Midway through the third period in a game against the Islanders on Nov. 9, Brodeur took a stinging shot off his shoulder. When he skated to the bench during a break, Lemaire inserted backup goalie Mike Dunham, whom the Devils needed to play at least 25 games in 1996-97 to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent after the season. Brodeur returned to the net after only 41 seconds had been played and New Jersey won 4-0, but under NHL rules the breather denied Brodeur an official shutout. He would finish the season with 10, the most since Dryden in 1976-77. Says one Devils official, "The problem is I don't think they [the coaches] were aware of the rule."