Brodeur could face tough decision

TORONTO -- Martin Brodeur was leaning against his locker Friday morning, white bandages wrapped tightly around what is suddenly the most important wrist in Canada, the ever-present Brodeur grin beaming out at reporters anxious to know whether he was sound enough to be between the pipes in the country's most important hockey game since winning gold in Salt Lake City in 2002.

"Got a shot off my glove and kind of sprained my wrist and right now it's a little tender," Brodeur said of his left, catching hand on which he was gently propped. "But everything structurally is fine. I'm not worried about hurting it more. It's just if I'm able to handle the pain playing through it.

"If it improves the way it improved from yesterday to today, if it does the same for today or tomorrow I think I'll be all right."

Brodeur didn't participate in Saturday's morning skate, and team sources told ESPN.com that the injury will prevent him from extending his nine-game unbeaten streak in international play against the Czech Republic in the evening's semifinal.

"I miss, knock on wood, probably three or four games because of injury my whole career. If I don't play it's because I really can't play," Brodeur said.

But is it important to him to finish the job he started here?

"It's real important. But I can't jeopardize the whole team because of my self," the Montreal native said. "I'm going to do everything I can to be in the nets tomorrow. I don't want to take the chance of Team Canada advancing because of my ego and I just want to keep going."

To understand Brodeur's position and the significance it holds for one of the most celebrated goalies of this generation, one must first travel back in time to the 1998 Olympics. During the flight to Nagano, Brodeur was told that Patrick Roy would not only be the No. 1 netminder for the tournament, but that Roy would, barring injury, play every game. Which is exactly what happened.

Fast forward to 2002 and the Salt Lake City Olympics. Brodeur had led the New Jersey Devils to a second Stanley Cup in 2000 to go with the team's 1995 championship, but Brodeur was once again relegated to the backup role behind then Toronto Maple Leaf Curtis Joseph. But when Joseph faltered in the first game against Sweden, the coaching staff turned to Brodeur who led Canada to its first gold medal in 50 years, allowing just nine goals and en route to a 4-0-1 record.

"He was a very key element to our success there," said Canadian coach Pat Quinn, who had to make the difficult decision to lift his own goalie in favor of Brodeur.

Another Stanley Cup championship and successive Vezina Trophies later, Brodeur arrived at the World Cup of Hockey training camp last month for the first time looking down from the top of the goaltending pecking order.

"I don't think there was any question coming in he would be our starting guy," Quinn said. "He's right at the peak of his game."

Still, the humble, self-effacing Brodeur refused to take anything for granted, didn't want to be handed a job but to earn it.

"I didn't want to get any kind of number of games I want to play in my mind because then you get your hopes up and you might not get what you wanted," Brodeur told reporters during training camp. "I'm better to come in here with no expectations and just let it unfold."

It has, until a harmless shot-on-goal dump in late in Canada's quarterfinal win over Slovakia handcuffed him, unfolded magically. In four straight tournament wins Brodeur has allowed three goals. He has stopped 97 of 100 shots.

"He's been exceptional in this tournament so we hope he's healthy," executive director Wayne Gretzky said Friday. "He's a pretty resilient kid and he's worked hard the last two days of treatment. He says it's improved drastically today from yesterday. We hope for the same amount of progression come tomorrow morning."

Gretzky was a member of the Nagano team that lost in a shootout to the Czechs and was also a member of the 1996 World Cup team on which Brodeur got his first taste of best-of international competition turning in a 4.00 GAA in 60 minutes of play as backup to Joseph.

"That's progression. There were great goalies ahead of him that were playing and he was very young. Now he's got the opportunity since 2002 and he's run with it. I said the other day you're going to debate forever who the greatest goalies of all time were and he's one of them that would be in that debate. But the debate narrows down pretty quickly when you talk about the best Canadian goalie ever in international hockey," Gretzky said.

All of which makes the next few days, the next few hours, so interesting.

In a position to write his own chapter in Canadian hockey history, Brodeur must wrestle with conflicting, complex issues of pain and self-interest and doubt. If he cannot play, Brodeur will be replaced by Vezina Trophy finalist Roberto Luongo, the Florida Panthers netminder who has helped Canada to back-to-back gold medals at the World Championship. But given the circumstances, given the stakes, given the history, everyone from Gretzky on down expects it will be Brodeur who once again strides to the net and on whose shoulders a country's championship hopes rest.

"He kind of came in here feeling he was going to get his big chance," said New Jersey teammate Scott Niedermayer. "I think he just loves big games and great competition.

"You can see he's having a lot of fun.

"Am I amazed at what he's doing here? No. Am I surprised? No. I've seen him play like this many times."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.