NEWARK, N.J. -- While Tiger Woods' return after eight months from a knee injury ended on Thursday with a two-and-out, an anti-climactic finish to the hype machine, another sports legend returned from a major injury Thursday night. This one, however, delivered on the lofty expectations we place on athletes deemed to be superhuman.
Far from the spectacle surrounding the Accenture golf tournament, tucked away in an alcove called the Prudential Center, New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur posted a 4-0 shutout in his return from a torn triceps that cost him four months. In any other sport this is an epic story, another surreal chapter in an all-time career. In the NHL, where major occurrences test the very limits of the if a tree falls in a forest... conundrum, its significance is largely unrecognized. The 16,107 fans inside the alcove, however, understood the weight of the moment.
Let me clarify: I, by no means, am attempting to trivialize what Tiger's done in his career. He's every bit as good as he's given credit for, which is quite remarkable given that the general consensus is that he can walk on water. His return, by realistic standards, was a success. Brodeur's return, however, was a success by unrealistic standards.
Granted, hockey is a team sport, unlike golf. And Brodeur's teammates did make his job relatively easy -- few of the Colorado Avalanche's 24 shots were incredibly challenging, and they didn't generate much traffic around Brodeur until a 6-on-4 advantage with 1:30 left and the game already out of hand. Likewise, the Avalanche are hardly the dynasty-era Oilers. Still, to return the way Brodeur did cannot be ignored.
Brodeur is an enigma that is hidden in the shadow of his cross-sport peers -- Tiger, Kobe, Peyton. Note that the talent of those three is so immense that we instantly recognize them on a first-name basis, and if you reference "Marty" to anyone with a basic knowledge of hockey, they'll know who you're talking about. His accomplishments are ridiculous -- three Stanley Cups ('95, '00, '03), four Vezina trophies as the NHL's best goalie ('03, '04, '07, '08), youngest goalie ever to 500 wins, career 40-win seasons (seven), most single-season wins (48), most shutouts in a single postseason (seven), Calder Trophy as rookie of the year ('94), 10 All-Star appearances, and an Olympic gold medal ('02). Oh, and he's scored two career goals as well, including one in the playoffs.
Most notably, he's only seven wins from breaking Patrick Roy's record for most career wins by a goalie (551) and five shutouts away from Terry Sawchuck's record of most career regular season shutouts (103). He should break the former this season, but might have to wait until early next season for the latter.
In the four months that Brodeur was on the shelf, he was stuck on 544 career wins and 98 career shutouts. It only took him one game to get to 545 and 99. And you could tell from an hour before the puck was dropped that it was going to be a special night.
Fans tailgated early and flocked behind Brodeur's net for the pre-game warmups. He got an enormous reaction when announced as starter, was wildly cheered with every touch of the puck (no matter how innocuous). As the night progressed the MAR-TY (CLAP CLAP) chants increased in intensity, reaching a level in the final minutes that shook the floor beneath our feet.
"It was different," Parise said of the atmosphere. "It felt like we had more jump. The crowd was more into it. A team can really feed off that. No question the crowd was unbelievable."Though it took nearly six minutes to face his first shot, a fluttering puck that he easily trapped in his chest, Brodeur would display some of the typical Brodeur histrionics we've seen over the years -- flashing out the injured glove hand, controlling rebounds. His crease was relatively clean, but Brodeur handled the traffic without signs of hesitation. He didn't make any really challenging plays moving the puck, but wasn't forced to either, and he looked comfortable venturing to the corner to play the puck when it was called upon. When the out-manned defense allowed a little too much activity late in the game, Brodeur responded.
Those in attendance understood the magnitude of what was occurring, yet a large majority of the sporting world had their ears and eyes elsewhere. Still, I can attest to this personally -- if an NHL legend adds another milestone to a historic career, and the sporting world largely ignores it, did it happen? It did, indeed.