Neal Broten will be known as many things in his hockey career. He was a member of the 1979 University of Minnesota team that won the NCAA national championship (he would score the goal that clinched the title for the Golden Gophers). He was a member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” US men’s hockey team that won the gold medal in Lake Placid, New York. He was also a member of the 1995 New Jersey Devils – the final piece of a puzzle that would result in the Devils winning the Stanley Cup.
Although he is arguably best known as a Minnesota North Star, Broten had a career in hockey that most players could only dream of. Born in Roseau, Minnesota on November 29, 1959, he played his high school hockey for the Roseau Rams, leading the team to the Minnesota state tournament for three straight years from 1977 to 1979. In 1978, he set a Roseau High School record that still stands when he scored four assists in one period.
Playing at the University of Minnesota under head coach Herb Brooks (who also coached the Devils for a single season in 1992-93 and was the coach of Team USA at the 1980 Olympics), Broten had a freshman year that saw him score 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) and be named WCHA Rookie of the Year. He also won the NCAA Championship that season as the Golden Gophers beat the University of North Dakota 4-3 in the final. In his junior season, 1980-81, Broten won the inaugural Hobey Baker Award – given to the best US college player each season. This win makes him the only player in hockey history to have won an NCAA Championship, the Hobey Baker Award, an Olympic gold medal and the Stanley Cup. Broten and Ed Belfour are the only players to have won an NCAA Championship, an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup.
Ask the average American hockey fan what Neal Broten is best known for and they would probably tell you “the Miracle on Ice.” Although he also represented Team USA at the 1981 and 1984 Canada Cups and the 1990 World Championships, it is that one tournament in Lake Placid that best defined his international career. Although he only scored three points (two goals and one assist) in seven games, Broten was a key part of Team USA’s emotional win over the Soviet Union in the semifinals and over Finland in the gold medal game.
He was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars in the 2nd round (42nd overall) in 1979 – the North Stars gained the pick through a draft day trade that saw Dave Semenko head to the Oilers (Semenko would fill the role of Wayne Gretzky’s “bodyguard” in Edmonton pre-Marty McSorley – which is ironic since one of Gretzky’s only NHL fights came against Neal Broten in 1982-83). He would suit up for Minnesota in 1980-81 and would stay with the team through relocation to Dallas until 1995. Along the way, he would become the first American born and trained NHL player to score more than 100 points in a single season (netting 105 in 1985-86).
Meanwhile, the Devils were coming off a rough loss in the 1994 Eastern Conference Final to the Rangers and were looking for a way to get over the hump in the lockout shortened 1995 season. The team was struggling early on (starting the season hovering just around .500) when, on February 27, 1995, general manager Lou Lamoriello sent Corey Millen to the Dallas Stars for their captain at the time, Neal Broten (whose brother, Aaron, had been a mainstay from the late days of the Colorado Rockies through the Devils first decade or so in New Jersey). Broten would go on to play 30 games for the Devils that regular season; scoring 8 goals and 20 assists for 28 points. Though he was a scoring threat, he was also responsible defensively, as evidenced by his plus-9 rating.
But it was the playoffs where the acquisition of Broten really showed its true greatness. He played 20 games for the Devils that postseason, scoring 19 points (7 goals and 12 helpers) and, again, was a plus-13 (which tied him for the team lead with defenseman Bruce Driver – also a plus-13). He scored one of the biggest goals of his NHL career in game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit when he beat goalie Mike Vernon on a pass from Scott Niedermayer for what would go on to be the Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Devils. The goal, which was Broten’s second of that game, would mark the first time that an American had scored a Cup clincher for an NHL team. It would go on to be repeated by the likes of Brett Hull, Patrick Kane, Alec Martinez and Mike Rupp (who also performed the feat for the Devils in 2003).
The Devils and Broten would eventually part ways when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on November 22, 1996 for future considerations. The following year he would be claimed on waivers by Dallas from the Kings to get him back to where it all started. He retired following the 1996-97 season after finishing with an NHL total of 1,099 games played, 289 goals, 634 assists, 923 points and career plus/minus of plus-18, and 569 penalty minutes. He was also voted to two All-Star games (1983 and 1986). His number 7 is retired by the Dallas Stars and he is also a member of the US Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2009, fans of the Minnesota Wild voted him the greatest hockey player from the state of Minnesota.
As stated in a recent profile on a Devils MSG+ broadcast, Neal Broten was a key for New Jersey in 1995. To paraphrase Ken Daneyko on that piece: “Without Neal Broten, we probably don’t make the playoffs or win the Stanley Cup.” Neal Broten was the missing piece of the puzzle that put the Devils over the top as Stanley Cup champions and someone who will forever be known as a great in the annals of Devils history.