It is 10:30 p.m.in New York city. The Rangers have just played a game in Madison Square Garden.Sixteen blocks uptown, on the corner of West 49th Street and Ninth Avenue, thefew people on the street are panhandling, dealing or heading elsewhere fast. Inthe shadows down the block a young woman kneels in a clump of ripped plastictrash bags, her patent-leather miniskirt hiked up to expose a fresh vein forinjection on the inside of her thigh. Her body says she's 20; her face is anawful lot older. This is Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. A cop wanders up to her."Better move along," he says.
This is an article from the March 27, 1989 issue
The block to theeast, toward Broadway's theater district, is the site of the old Garden, whichwas razed after closing in 1968. To the west, toward Tenth Avenue, is the oldneighborhood. On one side of the street is a facade of crumbling five-storytenements, some of them boarded up and some advertised as condos. The string oftenements on the other side of the street is broken by a small asphalt schoolyard ringed with concrete walls and chain link fences. Two boys in blue-and-redRangers jerseys are walking home from the game. The one with a hockey stickflips a giant pretzel up from the gutter with a hard wrist shot that shattersthe pretzel against the chain link. "You know the Mullen brothers, Joey andBrian?" I ask.
"Yeah,"says the kid with the stick. "We saw Brian tonight at the Garden." Hepoints his stick toward a boarded-up tenement across the street from the schoolyard and says, "That's where they came from—top floor on the left."
The Mullens' oldhouse didn't look like much even before the spring night in 1979 when a mainbeam rusted through and the rear wall collapsed, waking the family to a homeopened like a dollhouse. From this unlikeliest of places came two of thisseason's NHL All-Stars. Joey, 32, a right wing for the Calgary Flames, is theseventh player in league history to score 40 goals a season six years running.Brian, 27, is a solid 25-goals-a-season forward for the Rangers.
Says Flame coachTerry Crisp, "Joey's got an unbelievably quick release. He's a greatscorer, but he's not exactly a big talker." Crisp chuckles with obviousaffection. "You ever see a stone-face deadpan?"
"Briandoesn't say much," says New York general manager Phil Esposito. "But hehas a great eye and a great shot. He's at the age where his brother startedscoring 40 goals, and he will too." Esposito holds his thumb and forefingerabout an inch apart and says, "Give Brian this much of an angle and he canscore."
There's an oldsaying: If you find a turtle on a fence post, you can be pretty sure it hadhelp. If you want to find out how two shy kids without money climbed out ofHell's Kitchen to the top of the NHL, you've got to know the neighborhood: theboys' older brothers, Kenny and Tommy; their sister, Debbie; and their parents,Tom and Marion.
Marion is anample, radiant woman who can quietly fill a room with maternal warmth. She andTom now live in a cozy apartment in Bergenfield, N.J., but she grew up in thesame tenement on 49th Street where she raised her five children. Theneighborhood was safer then, says Marion. Everyone knew each other. Sheremembers sleeping on the fire escapes during the summer as a child.
Back then, shesays, street roller hockey was "really big in Manhattan." Marion'ssister's husband, John (Uncle Hoppy) Grasso, played goalie in an East Sideroller-hockey league. In those days players used newspaper for kneepads,garbage cans for goals and rolls of electric tape for pucks. They skated onsteel-wheeled clip-ons secured with many wrappings of friction tape. Throughthat street hockey league Marion met Tom, who lived on the East Side. In 1958,when Tom took a job with the maintenance crew at the old Garden, the familymoved to the fifth floor of Marion's old building on 49th Street.
Tom is a quietman who keeps to himself. He talks softly and, because of a stroke 10 yearsago, moves slowly. One can tell he is very proud of his family. For 27 years heworked long, hard hours at the Garden. On the day before Rangers games, thecrew would start at 11 p.m. and work through the night, spraying layer afterlayer of water on the rink and then painting the lines. Between periods of thegames, the crew marched four abreast—a human Zamboni—with shovels in front toclear away the shavings, and water barrels behind to renew the ice. After gamesthe crew melted the rink and went home.
To hear theMullen children tell it, childhood in Hell's Kitchen was bliss. The apartmenthad five rooms; the living room faced the street, so Marion could watch herchildren skate in the school yard. "Every once in a while I had to cover myeyes," says Marion. "The first trips to the hospital for stitches, youreally get worked up, but you get immune to it."
Directly behindthe living room were three bedrooms and a kitchen, strung like railroad cars.The elder boys, Kenny and Tommy, slept on pullouts in the living room. Brianand Joey's room was next, and next to them was Debbie, followed by Tom andMarion just off the kitchen. Uncle Hoppy and his family lived downstairs on thefourth floor, and another hockey family, the Boyds, had the first floor. SaysDebbie, "I felt safe. Our doors were never locked. Everybody looked afterthe neighborhood."
Joey and Brianare not big, as hockey players go. Joey is only 5'9", with a long face,tousled dark-brown hair and sloping shoulders. He doesn't occupy space; hedarts through it. Brian, who's 5'10", is not only larger but also much moresolid. He tilts his shoulders back and his wide face becomes almost insolent,the face you might expect of a young player with a six-figure income, anattractive blonde wife, a baby daughter and a condo in the suburbs. But then hesmiles a bashful, goofy smile and be comes the guy behind the deli counter,pouring coffee into Parthenon paper cups.
The Mullens havenever been fighters, on or off the ice. They are kind and self-deprecating. Butthey are fiercely loyal to their families, friends, neighborhood and teammates.When you talk to Joey or Brian, you occasionally see a mask drop, and yourealize that these men have skated through stuff most of us see only innightmares.
"ForCanadians, ice hockey is the national sport," says Brian. "They grow upon ice skates. Roller hockey was the national sport of our neighborhood. Wegrew up on roller skates." Brian laughs and says, "You'd be surprisedwhat you can do on them."
During theirelementary school years, the four brothers generally played roller hockey inschool yard games organized by the Police Athletic League and the CatholicYouth Organization. But they also played roller derby and football on rollerskates. They jumped curbs and skated up and down stairs. They drafted cars.They put on skates the moment they got home from school and kept them on tillsupper, and then went out again and skated until Marion's curfew.
Says Joey,"Roller skating takes a different style from ice skating. You don't glidewell. In fact, if you don't keep your legs moving, you'll fall on your face.You can do almost anything on roller skates that you can do on ice except onething: On roller skates you can't stop."
As one of theMullens' early coaches, Tom Horvath, says, "Roller skates really teach youto plan ahead."
Horvath, theRangers' clubhouse manager, who has been with the team since 1958, lived on48th Street and became a second father to many boys in the neighborhood."Once you get going on roller skates, you're going to hit something,"he says. "It's a real lesson in commitment."
As you watch Joeyon ice, you can almost see the roller skates that got him there. He still hasshort, choppy strides, and his style sometimes looks awkward, but his shortthrusts quickly get him up to speed and enable him to change direction almostinstantly. You can't follow him in traffic. Brian appears a lot smoother andmore comfortable on the ice, but if you look closely at his moves, you can tellwhere they came from.
"You've gotto remember they were skating on rough asphalt," says Horvath. "The tipof the stick would get more pointed from being dragged on the ground. The bestplayers, like Joey and Brian, would come down the rink with the puck hangingoutside at the tip of the stick. Then instead of passing outside, they wouldput the point of the stick on top of the puck and drag it inside." Thatkind of move teaches great tip control and a quick release—the kind Joey usesso well in traffic and Brian uses to score from tough angles.
Some of theMullen brothers' greatest triumphs on roller skates came at the roller rink at53rd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn, the home of the FortHamilton Roller Hockey League. On a recent Sunday afternoon Kenny, now amanager at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, rounded up a few guys fromthe old neighborhood and gave a tour of the rink. Even before you see theaction, you can hear the game above the traffic: the whir of roller skates, thecrash of bodies against boards, the grunts and obscenities. The roller rink isonly slightly smaller than a standard NHL rink. It is covered with asphalt andenclosed by regulation-height boards, which are topped with about six feet ofchain link fence. An electronic scoreboard is at one end.
Snow is falling,which makes traction nil on the asphalt. One quickly comes to appreciateHorvath's comment about commitment. Roller hockey is a game of collisions, andhesitation means disaster. As we arrive, a man leaps to block a slap shot,grabs his belly in agony and collapses on his back with a loud thud. Histeammates gather round, prodding him none too gently with their skates, urginghim to "get the——up!"
Kenny assures methat the games have actually gotten tamer since he played. Back in the early'70s a player once hopped the fence, grabbed a knife from a hot dog cart,jumped back into the rink and went after an opponent. Order was restored withno harm done. Then there was the day the riot police arrived—by helicopter. TheNHL is not exactly a tea party, but compared with the Fort Hamilton League, howtough can it be?
Around the timethe Mullen boys first went out to Brooklyn, ice hockey was beginning to makeinroads in Manhattan. In 1966, as a goodwill gesture to the community. Rangersgeneral manager Emile Francis started the Metropolitan Junior HockeyAssociation. A major enticement was the chance for a kid to play in the Gardenbefore Rangers games.
Horvath and UncleHoppy signed on to coach the neighborhood Met League team. Horvath dreamed ofsending kids from Hell's Kitchen to college. Uncle Hoppy dreamed higher. He gothis neighborhood nickname from an untreated childhood leg injury that forcedhim to hop, but he was a fine roller-hockey goalie. The nearest usableice-hockey rink to Hell's Kitchen was across the Hudson River in West New York,N.J. Their team, which went by a variety of names over the years, had no moneyto pay for ice time, and the neighborhood kids didn't even know how to iceskate. Nevertheless, Uncle Hoppy figured that at least one kid from Hell'sKitchen was going to make it to the NHL. When Uncle Hoppy died in the early'80s, Joey was making a name for himself in the minors. "He knew Joey wasgoing to make it," says Marion.
"Everythingis a lot quicker, a lot better, on ice," says Joey, thinking back to thebeginning of the Met League. "You don't feel friction underneath your feet,and when you fall," he pauses and his eyes light up, "you slide."he says, drawing out the word.
Even as a kidJoey was known for his unbelievable goals, his "fourth efforts," asCrisp calls them. "The first shot gets blocked in heavy traffic," saysCrisp. "The second shot puts Joey flat on his butt; the third, he's on hisback with his stick around his head so you can't figure out how he makes thefourth shot, which somehow winds up in the net." Joey started doing thatstuff in sweatpants on cracked asphalt.
The ice timesavailable for hockey practice in New Jersey were from 11 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Itwas brutal for the kids to get up and go to practice and then come back forschool in Manhattan. It was also expensive, but the neighborhood fell in behindthem. There were fund-raising dances in the auditorium in Sacred Heart Churchon West 51st Street and food stands at the annual Ninth Avenue Street Fair. Asthe four boys and their friends progressed in the league, people from theneighborhood rented buses or drove in a caravan of cars to watch them play. Atthe end of the season the Mullens always threw a big party. Says Marion,"Even when we didn't know what game the season would end on, we had a partyready."
When the MetLeague began, Kenny was 13, and he had only a summer to learn to ice skate. Asit turned out, he set some of the league's first scoring records. Six yearslater he won a scholarship to Northeastern. It was a giant step for theneighborhood, but it proved to be too big for Kenny. He played only two juniorvarsity games before dropping out and returning home to get a job and helpcoach Joey in the Met League.
Tommy, now 33,eclipsed Kenny's Met League records and earned a full ride at Division IIAmerican International College in Springfield, Mass. He stayed there for fouryears; broke the records set by Dave Forbes, who would later play for theBoston Bruins; and twice made All-America. After college Tommy got a shot withthe St. Louis Blues, but he twisted his knee and missed the tryout camp. Hebounced around the minors for a couple of years before settling down to raisetwo boys in Roanoke, Va., where he does mining and construction work.
While Tommy wasin college. Joey was obliterating Tommy's Met records. In 40 games with theneighborhood team in 1974-75, Joey had 110 goals—52 more than thesecond-highest scorer—and 79 assists, for 189 points. The team was a true NewYork melting pot. Joey's linemates, Julio Quinones and Jose (Pepe) Garcia, wereof Puerto Rican descent. They called Joey "Mono," Spanish for monkey,partly because of his contortions around the goal, but mostly, says Debbie,"because his ears stuck out."
Joey's chancesfor a college scholarship were greatly aided by the Met League finals of 1975,a seven-game series between the neighborhood team and a team from Suffolk, LongIsland. The Suffolk goalie, a private-school kid named Paul Skidmore, was beingscouted by Boston College, so the BC coach came down to watch him play. Heended up watching six games. In the final game, says Horvath, "Joey tookunbelievable stick checks, and he still scored four goals. He could have scoredthe winning goal, but at the last second he made a beautiful pass for theassist. Two hours after that game Skidmore had a roommate at BC."
"They flew meup to BC—my first airplane trip—and I fell in love with the place," saysJoey. "All that beautiful country out there...." He catches himself."Back then Boston seemed like country to me." He still regrets his poorgrades. He says the only good thing about his scholastic record was that itkept him in summer school, where he fell in love with Boston and his futurewife, Linda.
As a freshmanJoey scored 16 goals in 24 games. But when he became eligible for the draft inhis sophomore year, he was overlooked. "Joey was just an average skater,average size," says Flame general manager Cliff Fletcher. "The onething no one could accurately measure was his competitiveness, his totalcommitment."
By the end of hissenior season, in 1979, Joey had put on 20 pounds and was BC's leading careerscorer. That was when his father was summoned from the floor of the Garden tothe Rangers' executive suite. The late William Jennings, who was president ofthe Rangers at the time, wanted to know whether Joey would try out for theOlympics or sign a pro contract immediately. Tom replied that it was Joey'sbusiness. No one was surprised when Joey went for the money.
But the Blues,not the Rangers, signed Joey as a free agent. Francis, the man who started theMet League, was now the general manager in St. Louis. Joey spent his firstseason, 1979-80, with the Blues' minor league club in Salt Lake City, where hebecame the Central Hockey League's Rookie of the Year. He was called up to St.Louis for a playoff game, but the Blues lost it and were eliminated, so Joeywent back to Salt Lake City to help win the CHL championship.
The next season,Joey was the CHL's Most Valuable Player, but the Blues still had no room forhim. Finally, in the middle of his third season, 1981-82, St. Louis brought himup again. Joey needed three games to score his first NHL goal, against theMinnesota North Stars, but only eight more seconds to get his second. Rangersgeneral manager Craig Patrick was in St. Louis for the game, hoping to completea trade for Joey. Afterward, Joey saw Craig in a restaurant. "You had to goscore those two goals," said Craig. "Before that, I had you!"
Joey spent nearlyfour more seasons in St. Louis. His quiet, relentless approach gradually madehim a favorite with the fans. People began to use the phrase "Mullengoal" to describe seemingly impossible scores. Francis flew Joey's dad toSt. Louis so that Tom could see the crowd's appreciation of his son.
Recognition forJoey's talents began to spread beyond St. Louis in 1985-86 with the rumors thathe was on the trading block. "There were contract problems with theownership,'" says Joey. "They lied to me." In February 1986 he wassent to Calgary in a six-player deal, which many observers thought shortchangedthe Blues. "We needed a Mullen in Calgary," says Fletcher. "So manygames, we were tied in the third period. We needed a game breaker. We gotone."
Joey and Lindahave a house in Calgary with a basement in which their three boys play sockhockey when they can't get on the ice. They have another house on Cape Cod,where they spend the off-season. They are wealthy—and not just by Hell'sKitchen standards—but they are not flashy. "We have money," says Joey,"but I learned the value of a dollar."
Last season Joeyfelt that he wasn't getting enough ice time, though he still scored 40 goals.This season Crisp has given him more time, and at week's end Joey had a careerhigh of 99 points, including 44 goals.
In one senseBrian had all the advantages. His brothers had built a ladder from Hell'sKitchen to the NHL. All he had to do was climb it. Brian never wore clip-onroller skates, and laughs at the thought. He remembers steel wheels, but onlyvaguely. He was seven when he first put on ice skates, in 1969. By age 13 hewas on the neighborhood team's "taxi squad" and got to play in five orsix games with Joey. Brian even scored one of his first Met League goals in theGarden, although he confesses that it was a weak shot that limped in from theblue line.
By then Skyrink,an almost-regulation-size sheet of ice 16 stories above Manhattan wherecelebrities like Michael J. Fox now play pickup hockey, had been built on 33rdStreet, west of the Garden. Met League practices were still held at ungodlytimes, but at least the ice was local. Brian's high school, Power Memorial, hadfinally decided to have a hockey team. More important, Horvath got Brian thecoveted job of visiting-team stick boy at Rangers games when he was in highschool. On game days Brian would get to the Garden at 3:30 in the afternoon andhave a couple of hours to skate alone.
While Brian'shockey skills were growing strong, the neighborhood was dying. Roller hockey inthe school yard was already dead. Drugs had stoked the fires of Hell's Kitchento inferno proportions. Brian's best friend from the neighborhood was RyanBoyd, who lived on the first floor of their building. "Ryan had the mosttalent of any kid I've ever seen," says Brian. "He was a big, strong,mean kid. Any pro team would have loved to have had a shot at him."
As a schoolboyBrian was a solid scorer and superb penalty killer, and nobody was better atintercepting passes. Ryan was a great offensive playmaker. Together they ledtheir team to five straight Met League championships. In 1978, when the teamran out of kids and rink money, the New Jersey Rockets were more than happy totake all five remaining players and provide them with a car to get topractices.
"Ryan wastougher than anybody," says Horvath. "He really knew how to fight onskates."
But no one hadbuilt a ladder for Ryan. His father died of liver failure when Ryan was in hisearly teens, and his mother worked in a bar to support Ryan and the family.Ryan came home from junior high school one day and tried to wake an olderbrother, only to discover that he was dead from a drug overdose. Anotherbrother also came to an untimely end, shot to death for debts outstanding.Uncle Hoppy and Horvath worked hard to keep Ryan in high school, hoping that adiploma combined with his hockey talent would turn into a scholarship. It neverhappened.
In the spring of1979, Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson came to New York to watch Brian play againsta team from Minnesota in the finals of the junior national championships."I went for a home visit," says Johnson. "I could hardly find theplace, and when I did, the building had just collapsed. Unbelievable!" Noone was hurt when the wall fell, but the Mullens lost most of their possessionsto looters.
"The night ofthe final game, both Brian and Ryan were dead tired," recalls Met Leaguecommissioner Ken Gesner. "They had been up several nights, sifting throughthe bricks of their old home, trying to find their possessions. By the thirdperiod the Minnesota team led the Rockets 4-2. Then Brian and Ryan rallied,scoring five goals between them to give New Jersey a 7-4 win."
One might imaginethat when the NHL draft came around the following year, in June 1980, theRangers would have looked into their own locker room and grabbed their stickboy for the big club. Tom still worked in the Garden. It would have been apublic relations coup. But no. Six rounds went by before the first NHL playerin history to be drafted directly from a local New York City team was selectedby former Rangers coach John Ferguson, who was general manager of the WinnipegJets.
Before turningprofessional, Brian played at Wisconsin to bring his skating up to the level ofhis other skills. In the first of his two seasons in Madison, Brian was theBadgers' rookie of the year and was instrumental in leading them to the NCAAchampionship. The following season, 1981-82, Wisconsin made it to the titlegame again but lost to North Dakota.
After that seasonWinnipeg called, and Brian decided his apprenticeship was over. He joined DaleHawerchuk's line and played all 80 games, scoring 24 goals. In his five seasonsin Winnipeg, he averaged 25 goals.
"From thebeginning I let Winnipeg know we wanted Brian," says Esposito. "He wasstick boy here when I was playing. I used to bug him. I drove him nuts, but hetook it really well, and I figured he would fit in well here. In the 1986-87season Brian fell into disfavor in Winnipeg and wasn't getting much ice time. Igot him for draft picks."
In June 1987 TheNew York Times ran a small headline: MULLEN COMES HOME. The acquisition hasbeen a positive one for the Rangers. Brian had 25 goals in 1987-88 and alreadyhas 29 this season; he also has 33 assists. "I've always thought he'd makea great center man," says Esposito. "Maybe he will. These Mullens lasta long time."
"How did Ifeel being on the Rangers for the first time?" says Brian. "When I puton the jersey and skated onto the ice, I felt like a little kid again."
Ryan, however,was not faring so well. Says Gesner, "We sent Ryan to the minors inMinnesota on several occasions, but he was always back within a week. It wasn'this ability. He had a lot of problems being away from the streets of NewYork." Later, crack would become one of them.
Horvath helpedget Ryan a tryout with the Rangers, but it never worked out. "After that heseemed to give up on himself," says Horvath. A couple of years ago, Ryanlost his spleen in a knife fight. Three months ago, while carrying money from adrug deal, he was stabbed repeatedly on West 52nd Street and left for dead. Hewas brought back to life in the emergency room and spent four weeks inintensive care. The old neighborhood pitched in to move him to the country toput his life back together.
Last month MarionMullen received a telephone call from Brian's wife, who is, like Joey's wife,named Linda. "Are you sitting down?" Linda asked.
"Please,don't tell me Brian got traded again," replied Marion.
"No, he madethe All-Stars."
"The nextday," says Marion, "a fellow from The New York Times called to get myreaction. I thought he was asking about Brian, but he was asking about Joey. Ihadn't even heard about Joey yet."
As word spreadthat both Mullens would play in the All-Star Game in Edmonton, Tom and Marionstarted getting calls from people from the old neighborhood whom they hadn'theard from in years. Tom and Marion flew out and saw Brian get an assist andJoey get two goals and an assist. Afterward they all went to an amusement parkto celebrate—a place called Fantasyland.
On March 13, withthe Flames playing the Rangers in the Garden, Marion, Kenny and Debbie came upwith 46 tickets so that the old neighborhood could gather to watch Joey andBrian. The old gang rooted mostly for Brian, because they were Rangers fans.After the game everyone packed a bar across the street, called The Good OleDays. Marion sat in the back, flanked by her sister and sister-in-law. Horvathwas at one corner of the bar, surrounded by old players. Kenny and Debbie wereall over. The Flames were playing in New Jersey the next day, so Joey was onthe Calgary team bus, but his picture and his stick were there, hanging abovethe bar. Brian, with Linda on his arm, came in wearing a long black leatherjacket. He seemed glamorous and a bit reserved as he signed photos, sticks andshirtsleeves. Then he saw Ryan.
Ryan had justcome back to the city and looked frail and drawn. He had lost 50 pounds fromthe "accident," and said he was having trouble gaining back the weight.But Ryan's eyes were steady, and when Brian put his arm around his shoulders,his face came alive. It was almost impossible to hear the two friends'conversation, but it seemed to be about the best ingredients for milkshakes.
Back in Hell'sKitchen, the two boys in front of the school yard begin to walk off towardTenth Avenue. One calls back, "Joey Mullen should have won MVP at theAll-Stars. Two goals, one assist—he got shafted. Got that?"
I call afterthem: "You think a kid from here can still make the NHL?"
The kid pauses.He glances around at the tenements, the dealers and the empty school yard andlooks down at his stick. It might appear as if the Mullens' ladder has beenpulled up behind them, but the kid straightens up and says proudly. "We gota new roller league at Hell's Kitchen Park."
"Hey!"his buddy adds. "It's been done!"