NEWARK, N.J. – Martin Brodeur and Jaromir Jagr are now both 41 years old. They are both headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame when their playing days are finished, and have both faced each other hundreds of times over the last 20-plus NHL seasons.
But as the New Jersey Devils officially opened training camp for their veterans Wednesday at the Prudential Center, Brodeur and Jagr now find themselves in a different scenario.
“We’ve always had mutual respect,” said Brodeur, beginning his 20th season with the Devils. “He’s one of the best players to ever play the game. He’s as good as it gets. It’s like bringing a Wayne Gretzky or a Mario Lemieux to our team. He’s a quality player, still at his age.”
A humble Jagr signed a one-year contract with New Jersey after the Devils’ top scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, retired from the NHL and signed with the KHL in his native Russia.
“I’m not in that category,” said Jagr, who split last season between Dallas and Boston, tallying 16 goals and 19 assists in 45 games. “I just try my best.”
Jagr will need to be at his best if the Devils are to make up for last season. New Jersey faltered down the stretch, Brodeur was hurt, and the Devils missed the post-season one year after winning the Eastern Conference.
“I have played a lot of games against the Devils, no question,” said Jagr, who scored his first career NHL goal against New Jersey in 1990 while with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has also played for, among others, the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, two key New Jersey rivals. “We were always in the same division. The Devils were always tough to score on, because they had a good defence and Marty in nets.
“It’s going to be exciting in practice, looking to score on him.”
It’s a different training camp for Brodeur for a lot of reasons. For starters, the team has new ownership, the fourth different group that he has played under. Also, the Devils are trying to shake the stunning move by Kovalchuk, who walked away from the $77 million he had remaining on his contract. And finally, Brodeur’s son, Anthony, 18, is in training camp with the team. New Jersey selected him in the seventh round back in June. He, too, is a goaltender.
“I wish I could just let him go and I can stop being a dad,” Brodeur said. “For me, it’s going to be a fun camp, just to be able to sit with him and talk to him. His changing stall is right next to mine. I never thought something like this could ever happen. He’s been around this his whole life.
“I don’t think I’m going to get worried about the whole thing.”
Brodeur admitted that he was stunned by Kovalchuk’s desire to go back to Russia.
“But now I think it’s over and the organization has dealt with it well,” Brodeur said. “They did the right thing to move on. The timing of it was a little bit bad, but it was impressive to see how quickly the organization moved to bring in a lot of new faces. It’s going to be an adjustment for everyone. It’s going to be interesting to see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit.”
One of those pieces is Jagr, who spent three years in the KHL before returning in 2011 to play for Philadelphia. He was traded from Dallas to Boston last season, and helped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Finals though he did not score in the post-season.
“I’m excited, because I love the game and want to keep playing,” said Jagr, who has scored 681 goals during his storied NHL career, and is noted for his off-ice workouts that help him stay young. “I just want to stay healthy and make the people who brought me here happy. I think the three years in Russia helped me appreciate the NHL more. I might not still be playing if I didn’t go back to Russia.
“Age really doesn’t matter to me. As long as I’m willing to work hard, that’s what keeps me young.”
Dainius Zubrus, who played just 22 games last season due to injury, is excited to see Jagr, who won two Stanley Cup titles with the Penguins.
“He’s still a very good player,” said Zubrus, who had a career-low two goals last season. “Honestly, he was working just as hard as I ever saw him last year and was making big plays, scoring big goals. No question, we were all disappointed that we weren’t in the playoffs. But I think we have a better team that last year.
“We’re bigger and stronger.”
They’ll need to be to compete in the NHL’s new Metropolitan Division, a grouping that includes the Rangers, Islanders, Flyers and Penguins.
“Having size and strength is a big advantage, especially when you get to the playoffs,” Jagr said. “I think it will help.”
The veterans arrived for physicals Wednesday. They will take the ice for the first time Thursday. The rookies and free agents began their training camp on Monday.
The Devils open the season at Pittsburgh Oct. 3.