Who: Martin Brodeur, the goaltender for the New Jersey Devils for the last two decades. It is a cliché of hockey that when a team wins handily, commentators say “the goalie stood on his head.” Watch this, and you will see why.
Why: For the fourth of my most beautiful team sports player pieces, I suppose you’re shocked that I didn’t pick a Chicagoan—say, my Blackhawk heroes Eddie Belfour, Jeremy Roenick, and Chris Chelios—for this honor. Yeah, I am too. After all, my most beautiful baseball, football, and basketball players all wore Chicago uniforms. But that’s not the common thread. All those guys were all-timers at one critical thing: defense. More than anyone else who played their position, they would destroy your hopes of showing up on a poster, unless it was their poster. So there’s no way this spot is going to anyone but a goaltender, and of course that means it’s going to Brodeur. The lifelong Devil lived up to that name, by being cruelly smarter than the attacking player at knowing where his own shot would go. Brodeur wasn’t one of those goalies who butterflied in front of the net like an elephant. He stood up, often flying out of the box to take away the puck. The NHL made a rule called the Brodeur rule, which stopped the goalie from handling the puck outside a trapezoid area behind the net. The goal was to stop Marty from being Marty. Didn’t work. You can Zamboni the playing surface, but all that does is give you a chance to be better. Brodeur’s job is to kill chances, and he does it better than anyone.
Impact: Most wins. Most saves. Most minutes. Most games played. Most shutouts. Most goals—that is, most goals scored by a goalie. And I think the one he’s most proud of, fewest teams. That no one in the Eastern Conference ever got a chance to avoid playing Brodeur was a burden those players faced every year they visited the Rock. He might retire this year. He might not. People like Alex Ovechkin, victimized recently by Brodeur in a shootout, sure hope he does.
Personal Connection: I do, anyway. My team has the indignity of having given Brodeur the record for wins, with his 552nd coming against the Blackhawks on St. Patrick’s Day, 2009. From the minute the game started, I knew we were doomed. Ah well, we won the Cup the next year anyway. That’ll have to do.
Other Contenders: hockey’s biggest mouth, Jeremy Roenick, who was so flashy that his near-invincibility in the videogame NHLPA ’93 made you forget it was named after a labor union; Hayley Wickenheiser, just about the scariest sight a female goalie can see coming at her; Mario Lemieux, whose many victories include beating cancer and saving hockey in Pittsburgh; from hockey’s violent side, Scott Stevens, the other reason the Devils ended many playoff dreams; Don Cherry, a passable player/coach whose blinding fashion sense came to epitomize Canadian hockey extravagance; the bespectacled Hanson brothers, who just want to play old time hockey.