-- At 38, Martin Brodeur
is still is the face of the New Jersey Devils
franchise. That's what 17 seasons with one team, three Stanley Cups and unprecedented success will do for a goaltender.
Brodeur was in attendance for Tuesday's news conference to announce the signing of Ilya Kovalchuk
to a record-setting 17-year deal, one that will expire long after Brodeur is inducted into the Hockey of Hall of Fame. It's a signal that times are changing in New Jersey, but Kovalchuk made sure to let everyone know his lucrative deal doesn't mean this is now his team.
"No way," said Kovalchuk when asked if his contract makes him the new face of Devils hockey. "You have to deserve to be the face of the franchise. And that guy deserves everything."
Brodeur was seated in the front row for Kovalchuk's news conference along with forwards Zach Parise
, Patrik Elias
and Jamie Langenbrunner
. First-year coach John MacLean
was on the podium with Kovalchuk when a reporter asked if the Russian superstar's deal was a sign the Devils would begin to open things up offensively and get away from the defensive style that helped make Brodeur a legend. MacLean spoke highly and enthusiastically about the team's newfound ability to score and play an exciting brand of hockey.
Devils President and GM Lou Lamoriello, who was also on the podium, had a great view of his players' reactions to that question and made sure to let everyone know what he saw before the next question could be asked.
"I was looking at the expressions on faces up here in the front when that question was asked and I saw the smiles from Zach, Patrik and Jamie," Lamoriello said, "and then I looked over at Marty and he gave a stare as if to say, 'What is he going to say?'"
Don't worry. Brodeur is a realist. He knows he doesn't have a lot of time left as a player, and he knows what locking up a star like Kovalchuk -- and eventually Parise -- long-term means to the only franchise he's known. As long as it results in continued success, Brodeur doesn't mind if Tuesday's events mean his days of being the face of the franchise are nearing an end.
"I've been here for long enough that I understand that when people have talked about the Devils, my name is always related to the team," Brodeur said. "But I think him, eventually, what he's accomplished today, signing his deal and the success that he will have here along with Zach, these guys will be it. I think it's important that people relate to players and I think that's how you build your fan base and I think it's a great opportunity for us to have a player like that in our building every night. We're going to be on the road, we'll be an exciting team to watch -- regardless if we trap it up once in a while, we're going to be pretty good."
A player doesn't set the NHL record for wins unless he cares about winning, and Brodeur clearly does. He knows he can’t play forever, but he sees himself as a Devil and will continue to see himself that way long after he retires. Brodeur grew up in a suburb of Montreal and was a fan of the Canadiens, a franchise with a sterling reputation for success.
Brodeur knows the Devils will never be mentioned in the same breath as the Canadiens when it comes to their history, but moves like locking up Kovalchuk can keep them on the path of a franchise that puts winning above all else.
"I care about this organization," Brodeur said. "I lived all my life here. I've seen our fan base grow. I want to make sure it continues. I know I've been a big part of it … and now seeing other players coming in, and you see the commitment of Kovy coming in today. For me, it's important. Because hopefully I'll stick around. It doesn't mean I'm going to be a hockey player all the time for the Devils, but I might be around in a different capacity.
"It's something where the better we are, the better reputation we have. We talked about the prestige of our organization. When you're part of that … I've lived in Montreal and I've seen that organization as high as it can (be) because of who they are. Hopefully, it's a pipe dream to think we're going to be like them because it's different markets for hockey, but there's a possibility if we keep going the way we are."
When Kovalchuk first came to the Devils in a blockbuster trade in February, Brodeur wasn't sure what to expect from a Russian superstar. Would Kovalchuk be a "me-first" player who commanded attention and the spotlight? Would he ruffle feathers in the Devils' team-oriented locker room?
It didn't take long for Brodeur to figure out Kovalchuk was all about winning a Stanley Cup, which is why he said he has no problem with passing the torch -- eventually -- to Kovalchuk.
"For me, it was how he blended with the team right away," Brodeur said. "It took him a week after everybody was kind of looking at him all the time and looking at what he was doing, it was fun to have him around. That surprised me a little bit because I didn't know. You figure when a Russian player comes in -- we only had (Vladimir Zharkov
) there, and he's a young guy -- so it's how is he going to blend in and boom, right away, it was tremendous."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo