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Mullen brothers followed unlikely road to NHL

Saturday, 11.03.2012 / 10:00 AM
Tal Pinchevsky  - NHL.com Staff Writer

Hockey's greatest folk tales generally involve a frozen pond or suburban rink. They don't usually take place in the mean streets of New York City.

But a remarkable family work ethic and a chance meeting in 1965 with a coaching legend helped Joe and Brian Mullen write one of sport's great and least likely success stories.

"We were playing the Montreal Canadiens on a Sunday. It was about 4 o'clock. We were rebuilding and Montreal had a real powerhouse. I was going for a walk," said Emile Francis, who then served as the general manager and coach of the New York Rangers. "All of a sudden I saw these heads going by. I looked and here were these guys on roller skates. I had never seen anybody play hockey on roller skates in my life."

Among the kids playing roller hockey under the shadow of the old Madison Square Garden were the Mullens, a family of four brothers and a sister who grew up in a nearby apartment in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.

Francis was already familiar with their father, Tom, a member of Madison Square Garden's ice crew. But when Francis met the Mullen boys -- Ken, Tom Jr., Joe and Brian -- the history of hockey in the United States changed forever.

"He walked right up to the school yard and was watching from above," said Joe, who is an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Years after founding one of the United States' first hockey schools, Francis saw an opportunity to help develop talent locally.

With the help of the Rangers, he founded the Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association, immediately inserting the Mullens into the six-team league.

"[The NHL] was just a dream for us until Emile Francis saw us play one day and started an ice hockey league," said Brian Mullen, who coaches a pair of youth teams in New Jersey. "Everybody translated all their skills onto the ice."

For the working-class Mullen family, ice hockey wasn't just a game. It was an opportunity to pursue a college education away from a neighborhood known for almost two centuries as a haven for mobsters, speakeasies, gangs and crime.

Ken played at Northeastern University and Tom Jr. later went to American International. Joe turned a partial scholarship offer from Boston College into an all-star berth at the 1978 NCAA tournament. A former stickboy at Madison Square Garden, Brian was still a few years away from playing at Wisconsin when Joe was overlooked in the NHL Draft.

That's when a familiar face from New York came calling.

"Nobody drafted him. I couldn't believe it," said Francis, who was fired by the Rangers in 1976 before resurfacing with the St. Louis Blues. "I watched him play at Boston College. I knew he was going to be a hockey player. So I signed him as a free agent."

After scoring 40 goals with St. Louis' farm team in Salt Lake City, Joe was named the Central Hockey League rookie of the year. But 99 goals in his first two CHL seasons didn't earn him a roster spot in St. Louis. Brian, who was picked by Winnipeg Jets in the seventh round of the 1980 NHL Draft, couldn't believe it.

"I was at Wisconsin at the time and thought 'What do you have to do to play in the NHL?'" Brian said. "This guy has done it all. Once he made it as a pro, I figured I had a chance."

In his first extended run with the Blues, Joe Mullen notched 59 points in 45 games. The following season, younger brother Brian scored 24 goals with the Jets as a 19-year-old.

From there, the Mullens' remarkable NHL journey came full circle when Joe and Brian faced off at the 1989 All-Star Game, becoming the first U.S.-born brothers to accomplish that feat.

Sure enough, Emile Francis was there holding back tears.

"It was the proudest moment I've ever had in hockey to see those two kids from Hell's Kitchen make the National Hockey League," said Francis.

Though Joe won the Stanley Cup three times, it was Brian who got the opportunity to come back home when he was traded to the Rangers in 1987.

Once again there was a familiar face waiting, this time in the most unusual of places.

"My dad was still working at the Garden at the time. He used to sit in the penalty box," Brian said. "So if I got a penalty I had to sit next to my dad. It was something I'll never forget."

By the time Joe was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000, he had inspired players across the United States -- including his younger brother, who followed Joe's lead to help establish a vital, if unlikely, piece of hockey folklore.

"I saw what [Joe] was going through and what everyone was saying about him. 'He's too small, he can't skate,'" Brian said. "Now the guy's in the Hall of Fame. So I guess he showed them."

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