Martin Brodeur had the kind of year he wanted to forget. New Jersey was a complete disaster last season, a rarity for the franchise over the last 20 years. The Devils failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1996. They fired their coach, John MacLean, and they rehired an old one, Jacques Lemaire.
The aging and aching Brodeur was banged up, missing time because of a bruised right elbow and a knee injury.
It was the type of year that would make even the youngest Devils count down the days until April and the long summer ahead. For Brodeur, 39, on the puny list of all-time great goalies, it was a torturous test that would force him to consider retirement.
"Last year was a real grind, trust me," Brodeur said. "It was not a fun year. That's one of the reasons why I thought this year could be the last, because I didn't enjoy it.
"I want to have fun playing the game."
Fast forward to this season. Brodeur's 26 wins are three more than last season's total. The Devils have rebounded under new coach Peter DeBoer and will likely make the Eastern Conference playoffs. Brodeur added to his monster milestone numbers with career win No. 650 (and counting) and, suddenly, retirement seems like an idea for other old-timers to consider, not him. Instead of calling it a career, Brodeur is having fun again and leaning toward playing next season at 40 and making a run at another Stanley Cup.
No active goalie has had a better career than Brodeur. And it sounds like the same thing will be said about him next season.
"We'll see," he said, "if they're going to take me back."
Brodeur ??? always open and talkative with the media for parts of three decades ??? is joking, of course. Hard to believe New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, who drafted Brodeur and has often referred to him as the game's greatest goalie, would ever let the Montreal native play elsewhere.
"I'm having fun. It's been a great year so far," Brodeur said. "But I'm not 100 per cent sure what I want do to yet."
He's done enough already, certainly.
He has won three Stanley Cups (1995, 2000, 2003). He's won two Olympic gold medals, playing for Canada (2002 and 2010). He's won the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league's top goaltender, four times. And he will easily retire as the game's best stickhandling netminder.
The Devils are the only franchise he's known after New Jersey made him its first-round pick in 1990. He received a brief taste of the NHL in 1991, and was there to stay in 1993.
Brodeur is in the final year of his contract, and for him, playing anywhere other than the Garden State seems impossible to consider. Of course, no one thought quarterback Peyton Manning would play anywhere other than Indianapolis, either.
The difference here is New Jersey's long-term plan. There is no Andrew Luck waiting in the wings to replace Brodeur. Backup Johan Hedberg has had a terrific season with the Devils, posting a 16-7-2 mark with four shutouts, one more than Brodeur.
In fact, Hedberg blanked Ottawa, 1-0, on Tuesday to drop his goals-against average to 2.27.
But he is 38 years old himself, and is probably taking his career one season at a time, as well.
Brodeur watched the Manning saga play out from afar and hoped he would never have to consider wearing another team's sweater. How would Brodeur look in turquoise blue shoulders and black trim?
"It's a little tricky," Brodeur said. "The passion for the game is there. But sometimes, organizations are going to go a different way. It happened to the best quarterback in history. It could happen to anybody. It's a possibility, but it's unlikely, for me to really have a feeling about thinking about going somewhere else if this team still wants me around."
Panthers centre John Madden won a pair of Cups (2000, 2003) with Brodeur in New Jersey. For him, Brodeur was more than just a great goalie. He made the kind of impact in the locker room that's often difficult for goaltenders to achieve.
"What I'll always remember, is he was such a great leader for us," said Madden, who was a fresh-faced rookie on the 2000 championship team. "To be a goalie, and to have all that pressure, but he was also such a leader for us, and we looked to him in the locker room.
"He'd lift us up ??? and sometimes that wasn't easy to do, there were some tough times there ??? and we'd carry that out onto the ice together."
As 40 creeps in on May 6, Brodeur keeps pushing the limits of what players can do. He 651 victories ??? most in NHL history ??? are exactly 100 ahead of second place, held by the retired Patrick Roy. Roberto Luongo is in second place among active netminders. And with 335 through Tuesday, the Vancouver goalie is nowhere near the player everyone's always just referred to as "Marty."
In fact, Brodeur's total, wherever it may land, may never be caught.
"It's a big number, but it's definitely something I never really looked at, because no one ever had that number before," he said. "But at the end of the day, I didn't reach anybody. I'm just pushing that envelope for the next guy coming, trying to get it as high as possible to make the next one work as hard as possible."
His work ethic, his passion, his durability are why he still puts on the mask and pads for every game. If those traits flickered a bit last season, they've clearly roared back this year. Before a bit of a rough patch in his last two outings ????????? nine goals against ????????? Brodeur made six straight starts of allowing two tallies or less. His 1-0 win last week over Colorado gave him 118 career shutouts.
"Marty was always just as strong in practices as in the games," Madden said. "Try beating him in practice ... not easy. Everything was so important to him, and it was always about hockey with him. Wherever you were, you go out to dinner with him, and he'd talk hockey. Locker room, he'd talk hockey. Such a fan of the game, and that was great to be around. I've always felt honoured to play a good part of my career with Marty Brodeur."
Bernie Parent won two Stanley Cups with the Flyers and made the Hall of Fame. He said it's a tossup between Brodeur and Jacques Plante, who won six Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, as the greatest goalie in NHL history.
"The amazing part is the passion that he still has for the game," Parent said. "It's mind boggling. He has the same passion as a 22-, 23-year old-kid."
Brodeur was just a kid when he gave up the worst goal of his career to the rival New York Rangers ????????? Stephane Matteau's double-overtime wraparound in Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals. Though he'd win the Calder Memorial Trophy that season for being the league's top rookie, Matteau's goal denied Brodeur and the Devils their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
No worries, though. He used it as motivation to win his first championship the very next season. In his first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, in fact, he swept the Detroit Red Wings in June 1995.
The only significant blip came in 2008-09 when he suffered a torn biceps and missed four months. He rebounded with a 45-win season, but posted a rare losing mark last season.
"He was on (Hole No.) 18," said Eddie Olczyk, who calls games for NBC, and played for that 1994 Rangers team that defeated the Devils and Brodeur. "He was on the fairway."
But he's not ready to turn in that scorecard yet.
Hedberg, clearly, has been an outstanding backup and DeBoer has been careful not to overuse Brodeur. And though his career may not be over, Brodeur's marathon seasons of 70-plus starts are.
Either way, the Devils are back in the post-season mix, and all seems normal again in New Jersey. DeBoer's crew is likely headed toward a first-round date with either the Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, or Pittsburgh Penguins.
Brodeur has defeated all three of those teams in playoff series before.
"When everything's said and done," he said, "I'll be able to sit and take my hat off and say, 'I did pretty good in this league,'"
That hat rack will probably stand empty for another season.