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Devils' first championship team reunites after 20 years

by Dan Rosen / New Jersey Devils

NEWARK, N.J. -- Martin Brodeur will eventually have his night at Prudential Center to speak to the fans, to thank everyone he wants and to watch his No. 30 go up to the rafters. The New Jersey Devils haven't announced plans to honor Brodeur and his 20 years of record-breaking, championship goaltending, but that's going to happen, perhaps as early as next season.

However, it was somewhat fitting that Brodeur's first trip back to the arena as a retired player was to celebrate a Stanley Cup championship team instead of his phenomenal career.

Through 28 years of leadership from general manager and president Lou Lamoriello, the Devils have been built on a team-first, star-less mentality even though two members of the 1995 championship team being honored this weekend, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Brodeur is expected to join them when he's eligible in 2018.

The '95 team was the first that not only epitomized Lamoriello's vision, but came through with a championship. They were back together Saturday to play an alumni game as part of a weekend to honor the 20th anniversary of their first of three Stanley Cup championships. It was like nothing had changed, except for some wrinkles, gray hairs and pot bellies.

"I don't think you know how you're going to feel or what it's about until you get in the room," said former defenseman Ken Daneyko. "[Friday] we ran into guys, guys we haven't seen in a while, there's handshakes and the how are yous, but then we got in the room, got the gear on, and everything comes right back. There's the camaraderie, the memories. I'm sitting here next to Scotty Niedermayer, one of the more laid back guys on our team at the time, and you could see he felt how special it was to get our gear on again, to go back out there. I don't think any of us expect that until we get out there."

Brodeur was the last line of a great defense and arguably the team's most important player with his 1.67 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in winning 16 of 20 playoff games, but he was far from the only reason the Devils won the Stanley Cup that season.

There were other stars such as Stevens, Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer. Stevens was the captain, inspirational leader, and impenetrable force on the blue line. Lemieux was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner with 13 goals and 16 points in 20 games. Richer led with 21 points.

"Everybody says it wasn't that talented of a team and how did they win, just with pure heart and guts," Daneyko said. "Yeah we had a lot of that, but we had stars."

There were veterans such as Daneyko, John MacLean and Bruce Driver who had been through the bad times with the Devils.

There were young standouts such as Niedermayer, Bill Guerin and Brian Rolston who were finding their way in the NHL.

There were veterans who came late via trades such as Neal Broten and Shawn Chambers.

There was an unselfish fourth line of Bobby Holik, Mike Peluso and Randy McKay that became known as "The Crash Line" for their ability to play physical with some offensive flair. They combined for 13 goals and 41 penalty minutes in the playoffs.

And, of course, there was coach Jacques Lemaire, who already had won the Stanley Cup 10 times, including eight as a player with the Montreal Canadiens.

"Just a great bunch of guys that were led by probably one of the greatest coaches," Brodeur said. "We listened, we put our heads down, and the result was a Stanley Cup."

All these years later they were back together, minus Richer, Broten and Kevin Dean (they couldn't make it to New Jersey this weekend because of prior commitments), and it was as though the 20 years apart was more like 20 days.

"I don't know how anybody else feels, but I feel when we get this group back together, which has been very few times since we won, we all just kind of fall back into our roles," said Guerin, who is now an assistant general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I feel like a young kid again. Guys in Pittsburgh laugh at that, but I do. I just hold these guys in the highest respect. Just everybody falls back in place. It's great to see everybody. Just great guys."

They put on a good show too.

Brodeur played center for two periods while wearing his goalie skates. He scored a goal on a redirection from the slot and setting up Daneyko for another one.

"He's got skills," Niedermayer said. "Maybe not speed, but he's got skills."

Brodeur played the third period in goal and allowed five goals on 21 shots. The defense dried up in front of him because of some tired old legs.

"The fans were great, as I expected," Brodeur said. "I think it's fun for the organization to celebrate our 20th anniversary of winning a Stanley Cup. It's a big weekend for the players all coming back together and talking about it. It's always fun to come back home."

With Brodeur playing forward, Driver was subjected to playing goal. Rolston scored a hat trick on him, partially because the typically stingy, defensive-minded Lemaire let a forward cherry pick at the red line. As if he would have ever allowed that in the days of the neutral-zone trap.

"Jacques has changed," Guerin said, laughing. "Jacques let me stay on the ice for defensive-zone faceoffs and he told us to hang a guy in the neutral zone. I said, 'I don't know this Jacques Lemaire.'"

Old defense partners Niedermayer and Stevens played together behind "The Crash Line," and rarely let the puck or anyone get behind them.

"It was nice to play alongside him," Niedermayer said. "I broke into this League doing that, a great place to start for a young D-man."

As was expected, Niedermayer, now 41, looked like he could still play in the NHL. Whereas the other skaters were breathing heavy as they tried to catch their breath, Niedermayer was gliding with ease, faster than everybody else.

"Honestly, he should get the Not Fair Award, because it's not fair the way he can skate," Guerin said. "I was chugging to get a scoring chance and he just glided back and lifted my stick. But you know what, that's what made him special."

Even some current Devils players took in the event. Patrik Elias watched from the stands with his family. Scott Gomez, who played with several of the alumni players on the Devils 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup championship teams, was in the dressing room with them.

"I was laughing before because [Gomez] comes in to see these guys, he sees Randy McKay, and I remember Randy played with him, and Randy is like, 'Hey, go get me a water,'" MacLean said. "[Gomez] is like the oldest guy on the Devils now and you're telling him to go a water. Once you get into the locker room it just goes right back to the pecking order, which is funny."

The pecking order on Saturday featured Brodeur as just another player on a championship team. Sure he was more than that and yes his night, the celebration of his career, will come soon. But this weekend is not about the goalie who is arguably the best to ever play the position.

This weekend is about the team, which in New Jersey is nothing new.

"This group set the foundation for this franchise," Daneyko said. "It was a character group on and off the ice. That's what made it special."

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