Broten's hockey legacy far exceeds his public profileby Tal Pinchevsky
For Neal Broten, mornings in River Falls, Wis., typically start around 7 a.m. The small town, located about 40 miles from Minneapolis, is where Broten owns 75 acres and where he and his wife, Sally, used to tend to the needs of 44 horses. The couple began selling those horses a decade ago, so Broten now spends much of his time removing snow during the winter and working the grounds during the summer.
Since ending his hockey career in 1997, Broten has had nearly no affiliation with the game that made him a household name throughout the hockey community in the United States.
He did skate last month with his brothers, fellow former NHL players Aaron Broten and Paul Broten, in an alumni game that was part of the 2014 Hockey City Classic, in whichthe University of Minnesota hosted Ohio State University at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. That was Neal's first time skating in two years.
He said he doesn't keep up with the game and at no point has given the faintest thought to pursuing a career as a coach, scout or executive. One of America's most influential hockey players lives without a hint of ego or pretension, and he couldn't be happier.
"In the winter it gets a little slow. On a typical day in the winter I go out and feed the horses a little bit, come inside and have some coffee and relax a little bit and just kind of goof around the farm. I kind of just do what I want to do," Broten told NHL.com. "Summers are a lot of mowing and keeping the place looking halfway decent. Golf two or three days a week. That's about it."
It's an anonymous existence for a Minnesota hockey legend. In a state that cherishes its icons, from Paul Bunyan to Joe Mauer, Broten is among them. Just ask the dozens of Minnesotans who have played in the NHL since he retired.
"He kind of helped make Minnesota high school hockey well known and created a rich tradition of good players coming out of there," New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "He's definitely a big name and done lots for the game in Minnesota. Everybody just remembered how much he would win and how much he would do for his team. It seemed like he would always put his team on his shoulders and help them win."
New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo said, "He's obviously a Minnesota legend. Anytime that he's around or his name is mentioned, that respect factor, just talking about him, is definitely still there."
St. Louis Blues captain David Backes said, "He's definitely an idol of a lot of young kids in Minnesota and was one of mine. Just his success and the route he took and the way he was able to inspire me. He had a career established with all those milestones. Those are the things you strive for."
McDonagh, Okposo and Backes share one other important distinction — they were not yet born when the Neal Broten legend took hold in the State of Hockey.
NCAA champion. Olympic gold medalist. Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner. Stanley Cup champion.
Broten is the one player in the game's history who can boast all of these achievements. But his legacy began to percolate in the tiny town of Roseau, Minn., when he and his brothers were in high school. Roseau is a short drive from Warroad, Minn., where T.J. Oshie grew up. Oshie's shootout heroics led the United States to a pulsating 3-2 victory against Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics on Saturday.
Broten had won a bantam state championship before he became a high school star in the hockey-mad town of 2,600, and it was in this classic Minnesota backdrop that Neal Broten first became a household name.
The Roseau High School Rams went undefeated in Broten's junior and senior seasons, establishing him as one of the best players in the state. But he was unable to win a championship at the Minnesota state tournament, and despite the numerous honors he would earn through the years, those losses still sting more than 35 years later.
"That was one of the most disappointing things. I can remember coming home when I was a senior on the bus. Your senior year is done; you're done playing with all your buddies. The emotions started. Once you got five miles from town you could see the water tower, things kind of hit you," Broten said. "I knew I was going to the University of Minnesota, but still I'm not going to play with these guys ever again. I grew up playing with them for 10 years. It was an emotional time. I did tear up a little bit driving on that school bus, thinking, 'Man, this is it.'"
There's a sense that Broten, 54, hasn't completely abandoned the spirit of that plucky kid from Roseau. Exhibit A: his liberal use of the word "awesome."
Scoring the winning goal as a freshman against arch-rival North Dakota to give Minnesota the 1979 NCAA championship? Awesome.
Making the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that would shock the world by winning gold after defeating the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice? Awesome.
The talent on the Soviet team the Americans beat in Lake Placid? Awwwwe-sommmmme.
He could probably try to find a more profound word to describe the life-changing moments in his amazing career. But why bother? After all, they are awesome.
Broten's importance to the state's hockey community may have been sealed when the Minnesota North Stars selected him in the third round (No. 42) of the 1979 NHL Draft. When it came time to call Broten's name, the North Stars were looking for more than just a local boy to make good.
"That was a big draft for us. A great pick for us," said Lou Nanne, the former North Stars player and coach who chose Broten in one of his first moves after becoming general manager. "In the state people still talk about Neal Broten and how good he was. He is very highly thought of in the state."
Broten was on his way toward fulfilling his dream of playing professional hockey. By his own admission the kid from Roseau wasn't quite sure exactly how much his life was about to change.
"I didn't even know what the draft was. I asked my dad; he said, 'The North Stars drafted you and they have your rights. You can't try out for every team,'" Broten said. "Back then I watched ‘Hockey Night in Canada,' so I wanted to go play for the Montreal Canadiens. I didn't really watch any North Stars games."
In a two-year span Broten scored the NCAA championship-winning goal, was drafted by the North Stars and won an Olympic gold medal. He returned for his junior season at Minnesota, when he again led the Gophers to the NCAA championship game but lost to the University of Wisconsin. He closed his college career by winning the inaugural Hobey Baker Award, now given every year to the top Division I men's player.
A few weeks later the 21-year-old was leading the upstart North Stars into the 1981 Stanley Cup Final, the first in franchise history, though the North Stars lost in five games to the defending champion New York Islanders.
It's a stretch of success rivaling that of any player, professional or amateur, and established the Broten legacy. But it would be some time before he got another chance at a championship.
"I felt like, 'This is pretty smooth sailing,'" Broten said. "You just feel how fortunate you are to be involved with the University of Minnesota, which was a great team, and then the Olympic team, which was a Cinderella upset story, then with the North Stars and making it all the way to the Final. It's hard to get to that Final again. It's a tough road."
Broten would learn the hard way exactly how difficult it was to return. It would be 10 years before he got back with the North Stars, who lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1991 Cup Final.
Between Final appearances Broten established himself as one of the League's most dynamic, if understated, playmakers. In his second full season he played in the NHL All-Star Game alongside North Stars linemates Dino Ciccarelli and Tom McCarthy. Wayne Gretzky scored four goals to earn his first All-Star MVP, but the Minnesota line combined for four points in the Campbell Conference's 9-3 win against the Wales Conference.
Though the North Stars struggled through much of the 1980s, Broten further endeared himself to his home state. He ranked fifth in the League with 76 assists in 1985-86, behind only four future Hall of Fame members: Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey and Peter Stastny. In 1982 Broten engaged Gretzky in a fairly one-sided fight that was among the few of the Great One's career.
It all contributed to the growing Broten legend, especially when his brothers joined him in the NHL.
"He's one of the greatest players the state has ever had. He played with the attitude of a kid playing pond hockey. You just have fun at it," Nanne said. "That's the way he approached it and that's the way he played. He played with a great amount of skill. He was a tremendous hockey player."
After living his entire life in Minnesota, Broten encountered the unthinkable in 1993. He appeared to be entering the downside of his career just as his home state was losing one of its most cherished treasures.
On March 10, 1993, North Stars owner Norm Green announced he would be relocating the team to Dallas. The move put a shocking end to what had been the most disappointing season of Broten's career.
Not only had Minnesota missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years after finishing fifth in the Norris Division, but with 33 points in 82 games Broten had his worst statistical season. And at age 32 he would be living somewhere other than Minnesota.
"Herb Brooks was our [1980 Olympic] coach, so we were based in Minnesota for that," Broten said. "I played all my youth hockey in Northern Minnesota and with the University of Minnesota for two years and then with the North Stars for 13. For the first time in 1993, I left Minnesota and played somewhere else. It was kind of surreal. I knew where Texas was but I had only been there once before. It didn't really hit me until the moving van pulled up in my driveway and they started moving the furniture down to Dallas.
"Once we got down there the people were really awesome and treated us great. It was kind of refreshing and something different. It re-energized my career. I would have rather stayed in Minnesota and played there, but you've got to do what you've got to do."
With 52 points in 79 games Broten enjoyed a renaissance in his first season in Dallas. He became a crucial part of the city's hockey history when he scored the Stars' first goal, against the Detroit Red Wings. But that success didn't translate to the following season, and Broten was sent to the New Jersey Devils shortly before the 1995 NHL Trade Deadline.
The perception among many was that his career was coming to an ignominious end. But arriving in New Jersey, Broten enjoyed one of the best stretches of his career and was rewarded with the Stanley Cup, the one piece of hardware missing from his mantle.
With four points in the first three games of the Devils' opening-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins, Broten went on a tear that hadn't been seen from him in years. The oldest player on the Devils, Broten finished second on the team with 19 points in 20 playoff games. What's more, he proved to be incredibly clutch with four game-winning goals.
"He brought more than I think anybody anticipated. He was one of those guys you need come playoff time who you can count on," Devils teammate Ken Daneyko said. "I don't think anyone could have expected how integral he was going to be. In my opinion, we don't win the Stanley Cup without making that trade."
Broten scored the winning goals in Games 3 and 4 of the Cup Final sweep of the Red Wings. Almost 20 years later Broten admits that part of his heart still was in Minnesota when he was enjoying one of the landmark wins of his career.
"It [the trade] lit a little fire under my butt, to say, ‘Hey, I'm not done,'" Broten said. "I would have rather won a Stanley Cup in Minnesota. I had more connection with that organization. Not to say that winning in New Jersey wasn't awesome; it was. But it would have meant more to me if it was in Minnesota."
After splitting the 1996-97 season between the Devils, Stars, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Roadrunners of the International Hockey League, Broten called it a career with 289 goals and 634 assists for 923 points in 1,099 NHL regular-season games. Months before he announced his retirement, Minnesota got its team back when the Minneapolis-St. Paul region was awarded an NHL expansion franchise.
On the surface the timing couldn't have been better for Broten to begin his next chapter in the game with a new team in his home state. The local hero could have seized any opportunity he wanted with a franchise looking to establish roots in Minnesota. But Broten was perfectly happy going back to the farm in River Falls.
With the Brotens establishing their horse farm, Neal's prolonged absence from hockey caught some fans off guard. But for the people who knew him best, the search for obscurity didn't come as a surprise.
"When he retired, he just wanted to get away and do his thing. He's just a laid-back, quiet guy, finding out there's more to life than hockey," said Bob Suter, a teammate at the 1980 Olympics. "He kind of always liked to be outside. He always wanted to do something outside after practice. Now he rides a lawnmower over in northern Wisconsin."
It was only a matter of time before the Minnesota Wild came calling as they approached their inaugural 2000-01 season.
Tasked with building the Wild from the ground up, general manager Doug Risebrough named former Montreal Canadiens teammate Jacques Lemaire the franchise's first coach. It was around the same time Risebrough asked Broten to help with marketing and community outreach.
Broten appreciated the offer, but the work simply wasn't for him.
"I was doing some stuff for [the Wild] when they first started up," Broten said. "Going out and doing some promotional stuff with some of the other players on their team. Just being around the people and stuff like that, more PR stuff. I got kind of bored with that. That's not what I enjoy doing.[Risebrough] said, ‘If you're interested you could be a scout for us.' Scout? That's on the road five days a week. I played over 1,000 games and went to the rink twice a day for 17 years, except for the summer. I needed a break."
There are numerous examples of great players who have gone on to scratch that competitive itch by working as a scout, coach or executive. From Steve Yzerman with the Tampa Bay Lightning to Mario Lemieux with the Pittsburgh Penguins to Patrick Roy with the Colorado Avalanche, many have furthered their legacy long after their playing days ended.
Broten and the Wild would have been a perfect partnership. But when Broten stopped playing, he effectively said goodbye to the game for good.
"I think some people are surprised I'm not involved in some type of coaching. I just kind of had my fill with hockey," Broten said. "There's a lot of coaches out there that enjoy coaching. I just like to sit back and maybe go to a few games every now and then. I just hang back."
When a Wild fan vote in 2009 named him the greatest Minnesota-born player of all time, Broten's legacy was cemented. And in typical Broten fashion, he made an appearance at Xcel Energy Center, waved to the crowd, posed for some photographs and went back to the farm, a simple life where his daughter and two grandsons, ages 5 and 3, are a 20-minute drive away.
"There is no schedule. I do what I want to do. It's a nice situation," Broten said. "I could get a job and go to work and have to put on a suit or whatever. Go to Minneapolis and go to work and give the government half of what I make. I have enough money to be happy and do what I want to do. We don't live an extravagant lifestyle. Some days I do nothing, other days I baby sit until 5 o'clock and come home and have dinner and relax."
Many former athletes exercise their right to shy away from the spotlight. But Broten didn't just stop participating in hockey; he says he hasn't spent a single passing moment keeping tabs on the game. He doesn't watch hockey, he doesn't read about hockey. He barely even talks about it.
"I don't really know anyone who is playing anymore in the NHL," Broten said. "I don't follow it very closely. I couldn't tell you who is in first place or who is in last place."
For the countless fans who lived and died by his every goal, it's almost unfathomable to imagine that Neal Broten could leave hockey so far behind. But in a way, it adds to his mystique.
"What he loved about the game was playing the game," Nanne said. "He didn't get involved in other parts of the game, like management, coaching or any of that stuff. He just loved playing the game. He had a tremendous amount of fun playing the game. It was a joy for him. It didn't matter if he was playing in an outdoor rink or the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He felt the same way about it. That's his attitude."
One that helped Broten establish one of his state's enduring sports legacies.
"I don't really think about it that much. I just played the game. I loved playing the game. I had a passion for playing with my teammates," Broten said. "I'm not big on talking about legacy. I was a decent player; I wasn't a great player. But things worked out. I played with some great players and good teams and won some championships."