After all the hype and anticipation that had been building for months to yesterday’s number retirement ceremony for the legendary Martin Brodeur, the hour between 6:15 and 7:15 last night actually managed to live up to the advance buildup, if not surpass it. Last night had pretty much everything you could have ever envisioned and more – joy, laughter, surprises, poignance and reverence. Before I get to that however, I’ll recap a busy weekend that set the stage for Tuesday.
For me, last night was the culmination of an entire weekend where the buildup crested as the night approached and we, the fans got pieces of what was to come Tuesday throughout. At Saturday’s game against the Capitals they started selling some of the Brodeur memorabilia that fans would line up around the Prudential Center to get three nights later. Fortunately I only really wanted either a program or a t-shirt if not both, but given the t-shirts were $40 and I already have plenty of Devils t-shirts I opted for the $18 program ($20 sticker price, but the 10% sth discount knocked it down to $18). It’s a good thing I got the program at Saturday’s game since it was supposedly a commemorative edition that they only made 3000 of. Probably not the smartest business decision since they could have sold ten times as much, even if the program was mostly pictures with the occasional quote from a former player or other hockey VIP interspersed throughout…some of the pictures were pretty unique and not highly circulated though.
My main concern for both Monday’s season ticket holder event at the Prudential Center and Tuesday’s ceremony was twofold – hoping for good weather since there were intermittent reports of snow on both nights, and getting there on time since both events were slated to start at 6-6:15…not to mention actually finding parking there. Even for Saturday’s sellout game against the Caps (a rare weekend matinee game, and a promo day at that with a Mike Cammalleri bobblehead giveaway) my usual lot was nearly filled a half hour before the game, a $7 lot that’s a few blocks away from the arena and almost never close to filled. Fortunately weather proved to be no concern on either night, and on Monday me and my friend got to the arena around 5:30ish but the garage where everyone was offered $5 parking for the night – normally a $30 lot – was predictably filled, so we had to park across the street in a lot that also had a reduced price of $10.
When we got there on Monday it took us a while to get to the free food since the club wasn’t designed to handle the amount of people that were crammed into there all at once. Despite the ice level being open and also having food and drink there there were just too many people around and before Marty came out to do a brief Q/A with NBC’s Bruce Beck everyone wanted to eat and/or pick out their spot near the stage. Fortunately for us the Q/A didn’t actually start till 6:30 even though it was supposed to begin at 6 so we had plenty of time to finally get some food and pick out a seat to watch it from, but the Q/A was extremely brief for obvious reasons and when Beck asked if he had anything he wanted to say to the fans, Marty himself started with ‘I gotta save something for tomorrow’ <giggle giggle chuckle chuckle> before making a few brief remarks. Fans could get pictures with the Marty statue which was unveiled and on display, as well as the Stanley Cup but the line looked a little intimidating so we passed – we would get a picture with the Cup the next night though, and since the statue itself’s going to be just outside the Prudential Center for at least the next twenty years we weren’t in any rush for that either.
Mostly we just watched the game, and I ate more food once we were at ice level and the lines cleared. They even had chicken parm pieces which I almost never resist eating as well as hot dog balls and a few other little things here and there. They even offered free wine drinks, though I had a few sips of that I mostly stuck to water, and everyone got a commemorative coin upon leaving which was nice. Marty and Bruce Beck came out one more time during the first intermission of the Devil-Ranger game to play a trivia contest with factoids around Marty’s own life (I had no idea his middle name was Pierre for example), where fans could play along and win prizes. Me and my friend left in the third period with the game 2-0 mostly cause of the long night ahead of us the next day. And since Tuesday’s usually one of my late days at work I was anxious as to when we’d be able to leave and get there.
Fortunately that proved not to be a concern either, as it was not very busy at work for once on a Tuesday so I left normal time, and me and my friend managed to get to Newark at 5:30 where there were still spots in our usual lot on Halsey Street. No such luck for my friends in 120 who sit two rows below me since it took them at least a half hour to find a lot as theirs was filled up, though they actually got to Newark earlier than us so they still were able to make it on time for the ceremony on time at 6:15. Pretty much the only thing I knew about the ceremony beforehand was who was going to speak and of course the fact that the masterful Doc Emrick would be emceeing. Just seeing the ice you could tell this night was going to be special, as the stage itself had a big goal net with 30 in it and a big stick and mask around it, with all of the awards Marty won yards away in front of him on five different podiums and all of the visiting digniataries and family members seated off to the right of the stage, including the current Devils and staff who were either standing or sitting around the bench area.
As usual Doc had a sense of the moment and how to use something little known but easily understandable that everyone could relate to, such as when he made reference to the fact that in Marty’s rookie season five goalies held eight important records (including wins in a season, wins in a career and shutouts in a career), all of them Hall of Famers and finishing with ‘and now…only one goalie holds all eight records!’. Of course he didn’t have to say which goalie that was. Doc went on to introduce the family members and former teammates and coaches in attendance with one of the most heartfelt ovations of the night going to Jacques Lemaire, the coach who brought the Devils to prominence in 1994-95.
Perhaps seeking to get the awkwardness out of the way early, the first speaker after Doc was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman who was met with predictable boos. And as usual the commissioner powered through the booing with his usual sardonic humor thanking the fans for their enthusiastic welcome. After a few minutes, Bettman turned the mic over to Devils ownership and some dude I never heard of that works for the Prudential company who made some bizarre comment about how they were happy Prudential was going to be on the jersey raised to the rafters. Devils co-owner Josh Harris also made an odd remark when he said the Marty statue would be stationed outside Championship Plaza ‘for the next twenty years’. Where, exactly is it going after that? Of course it isn’t the first time Harris has sounded a bit…on his own planet when speaking in public.
Getting that awkwardness out of the way, eventually Ken Daneyko came to the podium to say a few words and also Patrik Elias made an appearance later on. When the fans started standing for him Elias said somewhat kiddingly ‘okay you guys can sit down now….this is like the Oscars where I only have 45 seconds to say something’. Ironically, the real zinger of the night came from Lou Lamoriello, who was the last speaker before Marty. Taking the stage to chants of ‘Loooouuu!’ in his first public appearance at the Prudential Center since leaving the Devils, Lou remarked, ‘Commissioner, that’s not the same reaction that you got!’, much to the delight of everyone and the amusement of Bettman himself. After Lou’s remarks and a scoreboard montage narrated by Kiefer Sutherland (which even mentioned the trapezoid rule being put in because of Marty), then the moment arrived where Marty walked toward the stage, past the current Devils – all wearing 30 jerseys for the warmup skate that would take place after – with sticks raised, and around all of his friends and family.
After taking the stage to thunderous applause and chants, Marty attempted to get through his speech quickly, perhaps showing his nervousness. It was Doc himself who had enough of a sense of the moment to go up to Marty with a tap on the shoulder and tell him to take a breath while the fans laid out all of their emotions.
“Doc said, ‘Stop a little. Let them cheer you on,’” Brodeur recalled. “It was great. The response from the fans was something special for me. I played lot of years and got to know these fans a lot throughout my career and I don’t know if I expected that ovation and it was really overwhelming.”
Perhaps it was the night’s biggest irony that with the world’s most accomplished goaltender in the building and one of the best currently in the NHL also wearing a Devils uniform, it was Doc who came up with the night’s biggest save. After another few moments, the noise finally died down enough for Marty to make his speech where he displayed the same humility he had as a nineteen-year old rookie, acknowledging everyone from behind the scenes people like doctors and PR people to family to ex-teammates on all his Stanley Cup winning teams, even speaking to his family in French fulfilling a wish of his late father. Brodeur ended his speech with a message to the fans:
“And finally to you, the fans…I value and I cherish the relationship I had with you guys. I’ll remember it forever. Thanks for the memories, thank you for all the Marty’s Better chants, and keep on being one of the best fanbases in the NHL. Good night and thank you!”
After the speech came the banner raising, then another poignant twist as Marty exited the ice….with his Devils jersey on he gave one more salute pose right next to his statue to the entrance of the tunnel before fading to black, in an exit that was somewhat reminsicent for me as a Mets fan of when franchise legends Mike Piazza and Tom Seaver were the last two men off the Shea Stadium field, exiting via the warning track a la the movie Field of Dreams.
Once the ceremony was finally finished I knew I was a part of something special, despite the fact that I was at the number retirements of all three prior honorees (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko) last night trumped all of them in terms of emotion and meaning, especially given the length and breadth of Brodeur’s career. It seemed pretty hard for the crowd to remain emotionally engaged for the game afterward, but in the end the current Devils delivered the only acceptable result – two points in yet another hard-fought 2-1 game. Fittingly Cory Schneider was one of the game’s three stars though Reid Boucher was the man of the match with a power play goal in the third period that took teammate Jacob Josefson off the griddle for shanking an open net seconds before.