Once upon a time for Brodeur…

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 19: Goaltender Martin Brodeur #30 of the New Jersey Devils guards the net during the preseason game against the New York Rangers on September 19, 2006 at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

by Patrick Williams, for SLAM! Sports

HERSHEY, Pa. … Hockey lore has it that no less than Gordie Howe once remarked, “Everybody who is anybody in hockey has played in Hershey.”

Howe’s words certainly apply to Martin Brodeur. Long before he would go on to become one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history, Brodeur spent a year plugging away in classic AHL barns like the old Hersheypark Arena in this quaint central Pennsylvania town.

Back in the 1992-93 season when he was a rookie pro fresh out of the QMJHL, Brodeur made regular trips to Chocolatetown as a 20-year-old with the American Hockey League’s Utica Devils.

Now 34, Brodeur finally returned to the AHL’s oldest city on Sunday evening for the first time since the 1992-93 season, albeit in the shiny four-year-old Giant Center and not within the walls of the venerable Hersheypark Arena, which is on the other side of a complex that houses the two arenas, a stadium and an amusement park complex.

In the New Jersey Devils’ 3-1 preseason win over the Washington Capitals on Sunday night, Brodeur started in net and stopped all of the 13 Washington shots that he faced in 30:53 of work. Scott Clemmensen handled the Devils’ goaltending duties the rest of the way.

Built in 1936, Hersheypark Arena, which still stands, gave way to Giant Center after the 2001-02 season. Its small ice, steep seating, tough Hershey teams and an ultra-passionate fan base made for an extremely intense hockey environment, especially for visiting rookie goaltenders.

“I wish we could have played (on Sunday) in the old arena,” Brodeur said with a laugh afterward as he made his way to the New Jersey bus. “I had a good time playing over there.

“It was nice to come back. The thing that I remember the most is that I watched a Metallica concert (in Hersheypark Arena). It was the night before a game. That’s what I remember the most about this place.”

Since that one season with Utica, Brodeur has gone on to play 809 regular-season NHL games, but as a first-year pro, Brodeur split net time with Corey Schwab and endured an AHL-style baptism by fire. Among his teammates that season with Utica were center Jim Dowd, who is in camp with the Devils, and current New Jersey radio color commentator Tom Chorske.

Utica went 33-36-11 during the 1992-93 season under head coach Robbie Ftorek. Jaroslav Modry, Doug Brown, Scott Pellerin (currently an assistant with the Manchester Monarchs) and current Lowell Devils assistant Kevin Dean also spent time on the Utica roster that season, as did Bobby Holik.

The Devils’ first-round pick in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, Brodeur went 14-13-5 during the 1992-93 regular season in 32 regular-season games. His 4.03 goals-against average that season proved to be a poor indicator of the Hall of Fame career that he would assemble after his AHL graduation.

Brodeur then went 1-3 during the 1993 Calder Cup playoffs with a 4.19 GAA as Utica was first-round fodder for the Rochester Americans that spring.

Brodeur believes that his tribulations that season served him well.

“I think that you definitely learn about the game (in the AHL), that hockey doesn’t come easily. You have to work hard in tough situations, traveling and everything.”

“I think that I learned a lot as far as what kind of player (I became) just because I paid some of the dues.”