- George Johnson, NHL
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The pursuit of Patrick Roy may have been put on hold by the NHL lockout. The chase for immortality continues in Austria.
"I'm just glad to be playing,'' says Martin Brodeur, sighing. "I love playing hockey. I've missed it.
"Being part of this team is great. Being back in the hockey atmosphere is great. Going over for the world championship is going to be fun. I'm just so, so, happy to be part of this."
Mention Martin Brodeur, and the response is unanimous: Easily the best of his generation.
Maybe, when all is finally said and done, the best ever.
His presence between the posts makes Canada a pretty fair bet to capture its third consecutive world title when the tournament opens April 30. He stands among today's goaltenders, as Sinatra sang the King of the Hill, A-No. 1, Top of the Heap.
Da Man. The undisputed champeen.
It's easy to forget that wasn't always so.
"I really think there's a pre-'02 perception of Martin Brodeur and a post-'02,'' says former goalie and current Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kelly Hrudey. "And I was as guilty of that as anyone. Salt Lake City elevated him. Before, it was kind of like 'Oh, he's playing for the New Jersey Devils. They play such great team defense. He should be winning games, should be winning Cups.' That was really unfortunate, and obviously a bit narrow-minded.
"So Marty didn't get the kind of recognition he really deserved.
"I think the whole Olympic time, and the save he made on Brett Hull with, what, three minutes left in the gold-medal game cemented his status for a lot of people.
"He went in that tournament from being a very good goalie to one of the best ever. And it wasn't as if he wasn't tested. That Canadian team gave up a lot of good scoring chances. But he was always there for them.''
It seems absurd now to argue that Salt Lake City "made" Martin Brodeur. He'd already backstopped the New Jersey Devils to two Stanley Cups before then. Won a Calder Trophy, split two Jennings trophies.
But in spite of all that, regardless of the numbers and the accolades, people forget now that he didn't even start the Olympics in goal for Canada. Curtis Joseph did. A 5-2 Swedish drubbing of the Canadians in the tournament opener prompted the leathery old Irishman Pat Quinn to make a switch.
Brodeur took the opportunity and ran with it, flourishing as Canada ended a 50-year Olympic-gold drought. Then, for an international follow-up, he won the World Cup last fall.
"Until you get outside your comfort zone, I don't think you get that sort of universal attention,'' admits Brodeur. "I'm sure before Salt Lake people were asking about me: 'What's he going to be like without Scott Stevens in front of him?' Or 'Can he win without the trap?' All that kind of stuff.
"It's frustrating, but there's nothing you can really do about. You just go out every night, play to the best of your ability and see what happens.''
King Martin will be 33 on May 6 and, with 403 wins, he is 148 regular-season victories shy of Saint Patrick. This lost season hasn't helped his assault on arguably the most coveted goalie record of them all. But those who should know aren't counting him out.
"What impresses me most about Brodeur is his calm,'' marvels Hrudey. "It's only natural that as a goalie gets older, the stress starts to tell. The same way an older golfer gets the yips on the greens.
"Not this guy. He hasn't changed a bit. He doesn't have any yips. Which makes him a younger goalie than he really is. He's still at the top of his game, still has great years left in him."
Right now, Brodeur's not worried about more great years. Just one great tournament.
"I think you're always looking for new challenges. I like the international game. It's fun.
"We won the Olympics in the U.S. and the World Cup in Canada. Now the challenge is to win in Europe. I played in one other world championship, in '96. I thought the whole atmosphere was fantastic. Different. The fans sing, they chant. It's like a soccer crowd.
"There's a definite difference for a goaltender. On the big ice surface, you have to be more patient, which is tough for a guy like me who likes to come out and challenge."
The Canadians began with a mini-camp in Calgary, and then moved on to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to begin a round of exhibition games. Given the bitter feelings of hockey fans toward the locked-out NHLers, does Brodeur anticipate any animosity pre-Austria?
"Oh, I don't think so. I think people realize we're giving our time to represent our country. We're not playing for the NHL or the NHLPA here. We're playing for Canada."
So highly regarded is Brodeur, such is his near-iconic status nowadays, that Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers, the man who backstopped the Canadians to back-to-back world gold medals, starts on the bench for coach Marc Habscheid. And given Martin Brodeur's pedigree and penchant for seizing the moment, he'll probably end up there, too.
This Canadian team, while dotted with stars, is nevertheless missing quite a few high-powered players. And it's a young group, with only three players, including Brodeur, over 30. But in goal, the key position, it's rock solid.
And that's where the leadership starts.
Coach Marc Habscheid certainly understands how lucky he is.
"It's a comparison used all the time, I suppose, but goaltending is to hockey what starting pitching is to baseball," he says. "And we've got an ace, a Cy Young winner, Marty Brodeur, going to the hill for us."
"And the great thing is, our ace doesn't need four days rest between starts.''
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
5dBonnie D. Ford