When I look at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014, the first thing I think of is the eye-popping talent and character of the players and people. The second thing that comes to mind, oddly enough, is Martin Brodeur.
Because as the former Devils goalie floats in limbo these days, not employed by any team but not ready to say he’s retired, I hear some say he’s doing himself a disservice by not realizing what the lack of job offers is telling him, and suggest Brodeur should call a press conference as soon as possible to put his 21-season career to bed. But when you look at the careers of this year’s HHOF inductees, it becomes clear even the best of the best can’t help but play past their best due date. Guys like Red Wings icon (and 2015 lock Hall-of-Famer) Nicklas Lidstrom or Canadiens great Ken Dryden, who retire before a precipitous decline in effectiveness sets in, are the exception. The majority of the elite – including 2014 honorees Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano, and to a lesser degree, Dominik Hasek and Rob Blake – did not leave the sport at their peak.
Forsberg, a stunning talent with an ornery streak, had his career shortened by his willingness to play a ferocious physical game, but the things he achieved in a decade as a member of the Colorado Avalanche far outshone the way he bounced from Philadelphia to Nashville to Colorado to the Swedish League and back to the Avs once more in his final six seasons, his body breaking down every step of the way. Similarly, Modano’s final couple seasons in Dallas weren’t great – he had 29 goals and 79 points in his last two years as a Star, numbers he used to put up in a single season during his prime – and his one season in Detroit was forgettable. None of that takes away from the fact Modano is the highest-scoring American-born NHLer in league history, or that he was everything you could ask for in a cornerstone component of a Stanley Cup champion franchise.
Hasek, a physical freak who played until he was 43 and still might today at 49 if someone extended him the opportunity, didn’t have as much of a sharp decline in his abilities, but he never had the same level of mastery after he left Buffalo in 2001. And while Blake’s final two NHL seasons as a Sharks blueliner weren’t anywhere close to a disaster, he was third among San Jose defensemen in time-on-ice average in his last year at age 40. Could both Hasek and Blake have continued to play? It sure looks like it, but they would’ve been increasingly depreciating assets as well.
All of which brings us back to Brodeur, who will turn 43 in May. Yes, we know he’s a shadow of his formerly dominating self and has been for some time. But why can’t he dream a little bit longer – maybe imagine himself stepping in mid-season for a playoff-bound team whose regular starting goalie is seriously injured – and have the confidence he’s got just enough left in the tank to experience the glory of a great playoff run once more? How does a dream like that tarnish all the dreams he’s already realized?
Newsflash: it doesn’t. We’ve all got our own fan fiction storylines that would make ideal endings for the best players the NHL has ever seen, but it’s unfair to hold those players to our expectations. Sometimes a Godfather Trilogy-type epic is going to end with The Godfather Part III, yet that isn’t a blemish on the perfection that was the firsttwo films in the series.
So leave Brodeur alone. His legend is going to grow regardless of how the next few months turn out.
When the NHL's footsoldiers see their skills wither, they’re usually gone in an instant whether they like it or not. The legends of the game have earned the luxury of going out on their own terms.