NEWARK, N.J. — Martin Brodeur is being dragged to the end of his career kicking and screaming, so it was only fitting that his teammates had to give him a nudge away from the bench door and onto the ice following their game Sunday afternoon.
After the New Jersey Devils defeated the Boston Bruins 3-2 in what was very likely Brodeur's final game with the franchise and perhaps his career, fans at Prudential Center stood and cheered as the entire team raised their sticks to show their appreciation for all the support during a playoff-less season. As they skated away from the center ice, several Devils blocked the door to the bench so Brodeur would have to take one final twirl for the fans that came to love him during his 21 seasons in New Jersey.
Chants of "Mar-ty" and "Marty's better" echoed throughout the arena during the final five minutes of the game, and they continued after the final horn. It was a show of appreciation for one of hockey's all-time greats, who remains emphatic that he wants to continue his career after this season, although it would likely have to occur somewhere else.
"You know it was a little emotional," Brodeur said. "These things are hard. I've spent all my life here. A lot of the fans that are out there know me. They think they know me by my name and I feel they know me. They've been calling my name for 20 years. Every time they stop me and talk to me, they're great. For me, I see their kids grow also. It kind of means a lot because it's something, it's a relationship that people have with the people that support him. It was definitely fun, but it was a little emotional."
No one, not even Brodeur, knows what the future holds for the goaltender this offseason. He spoke at length Sunday about how he's not ruling out a return to New Jersey. He talked about his willingness to be a backup for a contender. He talked about how if there is nothing to his liking in free agency, this may have been his final NHL game.
Twenty minutes after an emotional game is hardly the time to think clearly about your future, but Brodeur said if he can prepare himself mentally for 30 games as a backup next season, he could see himself doing that anywhere, even New Jersey.
"I don't want to prepare myself like I did this summer and get ready for a great season and sit on the bench," Brodeur said. "But if I'm ready for 30 games next year in an organization and (if) the Devils can't give me that, that's going to be something that will probably make my decision easier or harder."
On potentially playing against the Devils next season, Brodeur said: "Just the thought about playing against the Devils will kill me. That's one of the things that bothers me the most."
It's tough to begrudge the greatest goaltender in the history of the NHL for wanting to continue his career, even if just for 30 more games. If he never takes the ice again, he would retire with the NHL records for career wins (688), shutouts (124) and games played (1,259), all of which have come with one organization.
There's something special about that, doing it all with one team. But it's only as special as the player wants it to be, which is something Brodeur will consider this summer.
For those who say his win totals are inflated by the shootout, consider this: Brodeur has 42 shootout victories but lost 152 games during the prime of his career because of three lockouts. It's safe to say if the shootout never existed and Brodeur was able to play in those 178 games, he would've found a way to win more than 42 of them.
The trapezoid behind the net was invented almost exclusively for Brodeur, whose ability to the play the puck and start breakouts made him almost like a third defenseman.
Critics of Brodeur would always point to two things they believed gave him an advantage most goaltenders never get to experience—he played within the Devils’ defensively stringent trapping system during the hook-and-hold era and had the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Ken Daneyko on defense for most of his career.
Yet when those great defensemen retired or departed via free agency and the NHL changed its rules in 2005-06 by removing the two-line pass and calling obstruction penalties far more frequently, it did nothing to stifle Brodeur’s greatness.
Brodeur won back-to-back Vezina Trophies in 2007 and 2008 at ages 34 and 35 with a .922 save percentage in 2007 and .921 save percentage in 2008, his best numbers in that category for his career. Rafalski was still around in 2007, but that 2008 Vezina was won with Mike Mottau and Johnny Oduya leading the team in games played among defensemen.
Vitaly Vishnevski, Sheldon Brookbank and Karel Rachunek combined to play 160 games in 2007-08, yet Brodeur found a way to win 44 games.
"He did something nobody can do again," Jaromir Jagr said of Brodeur. "I would say it’s comparable to Wayne Gretzky’s numbers and what he did and all the records he got. To be for 20 or more years, the starting goaltender for one team and in the toughest position, you have to be the No. 1 goalie if you want to play that many games."
In Brodeur’s final great season—2009-10—he won a league-high 45 games and had a 2.24/.916 split with Andy Greene, Colin White, Bryce Salvador and Mottau as his top four defensemen for most of the year. Brodeur was a Vezina finalist for the ninth and final time of his career, finishing third in voting as a 37-year-old.
It was also the final time he would be a finalist for any award in a career that would continue four more seasons. Brodeur descended into mediocrity, although he offered vintage play in the 2012 playoffs, pulling the Devils to within two wins of the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup before falling to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
Brodeur also exorcised the ghosts of 1994 during that run to the Cup Final, defeating the New York Rangers in the conference finals 18 years after Stephane Matteau ended the Devils' season during the same round of the playoffs.
It would have been a wonderful way for a wonderful career to end, a 40-year-old future Hall of Famer flashing back to his prime one final time before riding off into the sunset. There would have been a tear-jerking ceremony to open the following season (albeit a shortened one because of a lockout) that would have allowed fans and Brodeur to give each other a proper goodbye.
Instead, Brodeur is the guy who won’t leave the party.
"It's not a question that the Devils will be in the running for me to come back," Brodeur said. "If I am ready mentally to do that job (backing up), I'm going to look for the Devils, but right now I'm keeping everything open. I'll talk to (Lou Lamoriello) and see what he feels is the best for the organization. It's not about me anymore. I'm free. He's not stuck with me anymore."
There’s no right or wrong way to end a career, especially one as amazing as Brodeur’s.
In the NFL, Barry Sanders is arguably the greatest running back of all time, and Jerry Rice is arguably the greatest wide receiver of all time; Sanders decided to call it a career at 29 while at the top of his game, while Rice retired after 20 seasons in the NFL at the age of 40 when the Denver Broncos told him he’d be at the bottom of their depth chart.
Mariano Rivera (and Derek Jeter in 2014) timed his retirement from the New York Yankees so that he was allowed a season-long farewell tour, much like Kareem-Adbul Jabbar did with the Los Angeles Lakers.
That’s the ideal way to retire, for both players and fans. Brodeur had a chance to make this season a farewell tour of his own after seeing the Devils acquire Cory Schneider at the draft, a sure sign the Devils were ready to head in another direction with Brodeur on the decline.
Brodeur, however, remained defiant throughout the season that he could still play, despite statistical evidence to the contrary. A hockey player with nothing left to prove still believes he has something to prove, which is a characteristic that made him the greatest but is now doing more harm than good.
Some people want to compare Brodeur to football’s Brett Favre, who earned a reputation for hanging around far too long when his eroding skills should have told him to retire long before he did. It is somewhat apt, as Favre did not retire until he was 41 years old, but he guided the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game in 2010 as a 40-year-old, throwing for 4,202 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions before one more forgettable season.
That comparison makes the most sense when you consider Brodeur's presence prevented Schneider, the owner of the second-best save percentage among goaltenders since 2011-12, from ascending to the throne. Schneider has become hockey's Aaron Rodgers, exuding patience and diplomacy while the legend orchestrates his exit from the organization to newer pastures.
"He deserves all of it," Schneider said. "He deserves every second of the cheering and the fan support and the support from us. It’s been fun to get to know him. He’s a great goalie and an even better person."
Since turning 40, Brodeur hasn’t had a save percentage better than .901 in a season. That’s what makes imagining him somewhere else in 2014-15 so difficult.
What should Martin Brodeur do this offseason?
"Listen, if I sign somewhere as a backup, it's not going to be just barely make the playoffs; it's going to be for a team that can contend to win the Stanley Cup," Brodeur said.
Brodeur won’t go just anywhere, and there are several free-agent goaltenders who are far more attractive options for teams in need of goaltending—Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak and Jonas Hiller, to name just a few.
It’s impossible to understand what it’s like for an elite athlete to come to grips with the end of his greatness, the end of his career.
Here’s to hoping Brodeur comes to his senses, finds peace with the end and makes the hockey world’s final memory of him beating the Bruins on a warm spring day in April as a New Jersey Devil.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.