Out of the frying pan, onto the ice

As a kid, Blues rookie Joe Mullen cooked on wheels in Hell's Kitchen
March 29, 1982

Hell won't have any ice rinks until it Mm freezes over. If it ever does, Hell's Kitchen, a section of midtown Manhattan's West Side, will be the last place to take on a glaze. The devil does his cooking where Joe Mullen grew up, on a block that will never be confused with a flooded wheat field in Saskatchewan. "Like any other kid in the city," says Mullen, "if you looked for trouble, you could find it. As far as hanging out on corners, I didn't do any of that. But growing up where I did makes me appreciate what I have now."

Specifically, that's an NHL career as promising as it is unlikely. Since Dec. 30, when he was recalled from Salt Lake City for the second time this season, Mullen, a 25-year-old right wing, has been a grace note in a very blue season for St. Louis. At week's end, he had 47 points in 39 games and his line had become the most productive on the team. Last Thursday, with a wrist shot in the first period of a 7-4 victory over Detroit, Mullen became the first player ever to score 20 goals in the majors and the minors in the same season; he had 21 goals in 29 games at Salt Lake City. That's heady stuff for someone who once scavenged sticks from Madison Square Garden and learned to handle them while roller skating.

"I practically lived on roller skates, so it was easy to learn roller hockey," says Mullen, who played in a sunken concrete schoolyard on West 49th Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues, opposite his family's walk-up apartment building and less than a block from the old Garden. "We'd sand down the sides of a roll of electrical tape and use it as a puck. You had to watch yourself going too fast because of the cement walls."

When not playing roller hockey, Mullen and his three brothers were often at the Garden, where their father, Tom, has worked on the ice and maintenance staffs for 22 years. "Those kids were real rink rats," says Ranger Business Manager and Public Relations Director John Halligan. "They were always around the old Garden, and you knew they rarely had tickets. They just learned how to get in the place." When the boys snuck in, it was against the strict orders of their father, who seldom could afford tickets. Once inside, they'd play "foot hockey" before and after games, kicking a crushed paper cup into a stairwell that served as a goal.

Mostly, though, they played roller hockey in after-school pickup games or in a program sponsored by the Police Athletic League. The boys' parents gave the sport their ambivalent blessing. "Sometimes I'd just cover my eyes," says Marion Mullen, their mother, who could watch the games from the family's fifth-floor apartment. "I've seen Joe jump over a player's back and land on his feet and go in and score." In street parlance, an in-your-face disgrace.

Mullen has a knack for the net and is willing to dig the puck out of the corners. But his greatest strength may be his balance, an imperative in roller hockey. Cutting and stopping are more difficult on roller skates than on ice skates, and there's always the threat of a concrete kiss. "He's the type of player who'll still score while being knocked down," says St. Louis linemate Blake Dunlop. "He has very good balance and coordination. Maybe roller hockey's the reason."

It also may explain his fearlessness. "When I look at a forward, I don't care whether he's big, small or medium," says Emile (The Cat) Francis, the Blues' president and general manager who replaced Red Berenson as coach on March 9. "I just want to know: Will he take a check to make a play? Joe will."

Mullen, who's 5'9" and 180 pounds, didn't skate on ice until he was 10, but four years later he was one of the youngest players in New York's Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association, a youth program Francis founded in 1966 while he was G.M. of the Rangers. Francis began the Met League as a goodwill gesture, lining up local sponsors and scheduling doubleheaders in the Garden as under-cards to Ranger games. Nick Fotiu of the Rangers and Chris Ahrens, formerly of Minnesota, have come up through the Met League.

"Joe was like a vagabond," says Tom Horvath, the Rangers' clubhouse attendant and the coach of the Westsiders, the Mullen boys' team. "I'm not surprised he's made the NHL. He had such determination. If Joe knew he could get ice time somewhere on his own, he'd go as far as he had to go. The Westsiders couldn't afford ice, so we'd practice on roller skates."

Francis learned of Mullen's ability while watching the Westsiders outclass the rest of the Met League. In 40 games in 1974-75 Mullen had 110 goals, outdistancing the No. 2 scorer by 52. Still, when Mullen became eligible for the draft in his sophomore season at Boston College in 1977, he wasn't yet The Cat's pajamas. No NHL club selected Mullen. "That was the best thing to ever happen to him," says Denis Ball, Francis' administrative assistant. "It gave him a chance to build up his body. And if he'd been drafted then, he would have had to sign with that club. Not getting drafted increased his bargaining power."

Mullen gained 20 pounds and scored at least a goal a game his last two seasons at B.C. By the end of his senior year, several NHL teams were wooing him as a free agent, including the Rangers. So it was that Tom Mullen, at work in the Garden one spring day in 1979, heard himself paged over the loudspeaker and summoned to the executive suite. He assumed he was going to be chewed out or let go. In fact, the Rangers' president, the late William Jennings, wanted to know what his son's plans were—whether he would accept an invitation to Herb Brooks' Olympic camp or sign a pro contract immediately. To no one's surprise, Joe took the money, but signed with the Blues instead of the Rangers.

In a sense, the devil made him do it—and not a devil with a Blues' dress on. Hell's Kitchen got its name from the lime kilns, glue factories and abattoirs that flourished there during the 19th century, and from vice of the most insidious kind. Kids grew up alcoholics without realizing it, having been weaned on the milk of cows that drank from distilleries' effluents. Parking lots and motels have sprung up since the 1950s, giving the precinct a tamer cast; it may be only Heck's Kitchen now. "But there was dope around, and everything else," says Marion Mullen. "Fortunately my kids were involved enough in sports not to want that stuff."

Tom Mullen was one of the crewmen who smoothed out the ice between periods at the old Garden. They marched four and five abreast carrying shovels and pushing water barrels. (Zamboni sono buoni.) Tom, 58, had a stroke three years ago and now wields a broom instead of a shovel. Two other sons are also in hockey: Tom Jr., 26, plays for Salem (Va.) in the Atlantic Coast League, and Brian, a sophomore at Wisconsin, has already been drafted by Winnipeg. Last week he helped lead the Badgers into the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Ken, 30, is a stagehand on the set of As the World Turns. A daughter, Debbie, 22, works in a Manhattan car dealership. And Marion is an usherette at the Broadhurst Theatre, seating audiences for the Broadway hit Amadeus.

"One night in March 1980 my mother was at home in bed and the back wall went boom," says Joe. "It just fell into the yard. Looking at the back was like looking into a dollhouse." The Mullens moved a few blocks away. But because of the state of their old building, they salvaged only necessities. Vandals claimed what remained—much of their furniture and about 200 of the boys' trophies.

Joe was in Salt Lake City at the time, busy winning the Rookie of the Year award in the Central Hockey League. Last season he led the CHL in scoring and was named Player of the Year, yet he never got a chance to play with the parent club. The 1980-81 Blues were such a delicately balanced bunch that management didn't dare bring him up. St. Louis confounded the league, finishing second in the overall standings, thanks to Mike Liut's goaltending and top-of-the-charts penalty killing and shorthanded scoring. But this year defensive liabilities have left the Blues with a 29-38-7 record and taken some of the luster from Mullen's rookie season. Still, he has had five two-goal games, two of which are particularly memorable. Against Minnesota on Jan. 5, he set a club record for the fastest two scores in a game by getting his first and second NHL goals within eight seconds. Seven weeks later, Mullen's wife, Linda, was rushed from Joe's fourth two-goal performance to have the couple's first child, a son, Ryan Patrick. "He could have called the baby Ryan Hattrick if he'd scored one more," says Francis.

Mullen himself is Mugsy to his St. Louis teammates, but Mono—Spanish for monkey—to Julio Quinones and Pepe Garcia, his linemates on the Westsiders. If you're wondering whether the NHL's first Puerto Rican superstar is brewing on a back burner in Mullen's old neighborhood, you may not have to wait for a cold day in hell to find out.

PHOTOJoe's first 'rink': a New York schoolyard. PHOTOMullen got a lift as his goal and assist helped St. Louis gain a 3-3 tie with the Islanders.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)