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500-goal scorer got his start on roller skates

by Evan Grossman /
Joe Mullen got his first taste of hockey playing in a schoolyard in New York City's Hell's Kitchen area.
Joe Mullen is right up there with Mike Modano among American hockey royalty. He’s the player who used to hold the record for goals scored by an American-born player before Modano passed him late last season.

And he owes it all to a roll of electrical tape.

Mullen grew up on the tough streets of Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan (300K ). It was there, in the shadow of the old Madison Square Garden, on the pavement of a schoolyard across the street from the apartment he lived in with his family, where Mullen learned to play hockey. He got his first taste of the game at that schoolyard where he and his brothers and all the neighborhood kids would strap on metal roller skates and play until it either got too dark or their sticks were ground down to splinters on the concrete. Mom, sticking her head out the window and yelling to the boys to come in for dinner was also how many of those games ended.

For a puck, though, they always used a roll of electrical tape.

“It gave me a source or a way to play hockey all the time, to practice the skills,” Mullen told “The shooting, stickhandling, everything.”

Slapping around an electrical-tape puck was a New York thing, a staple of the city’s street games, just like stickball and stoop ball. A stoop, of course, is the set of stairs in front of the brownstones like the ones that line Mullen’s old street. Again, it’s a New York thing -- and no hockey player has New York written all over him quite like Mullen, who scored 502 goals in 1,062 NHL games.

“We had leagues in the neighborhood with kids kind of around your own age, maybe two or three years’ difference,” Mullen says of those legendary street hockey games where he learned his craft. “Once I turned 16, we started playing in the men’s league out in Brooklyn. I was 16 playing against some guys that were 30 and anywhere in between.”

Mullen went on to star at Boston College and ended up playing 16 NHL seasons. But before he set the record for American-born goal scores, a mark Modano passed in March, Mullen was a New York kid who fell in love with the game in a place that didn’t have outdoor ponds like they have in Minnesota and Massachusetts.

But in New York, there were buses.

“I started out in West New York, N.J., so we used to go down to the Port Authority, drag our bags down, about 10 or 11-year olds, we’d hop on the bus, the Port Authority bus, and go over to New Jersey,” Mullen says. “We were just little kids. We had no parents supervising us. So we’d be throwing our stuff up on the (luggage) racks and the sticks would fall and hit people in the head. All these people who were going to work or coming home from work, they were tired and you know, we’d go play hockey.”

The real lessons were learned during the rough cross-town games that pitted Mullen’s West Side guys against the rival East Side teams. Funny how those heated games played on concrete produced one of the great American scorers of all time.

“I never knew the record existed until I had it,” Mullen said. “I was playing for St. Louis and I scored a goal one night and Bernie Federko goes; ‘Hey, you tied the record!’ and he says; ‘Let’s get the next one and go ahead!’ and I said; ‘What record?’ And then he told me about it. It must have been in the press releases or something before the game.”

There was no surprise when Modano broke Mullen’s record in March.

“I felt great for Mike,” Mullen said. “Records are meant to be broken, and I always knew it would be. It was nice to have it for a while, but I don’t look at it like a big deal or a disappointment to myself. I think it’s great for American players and Mike is coming along and setting new goals for American players. And that’s great. It gives the kids that are coming up a new standard to shoot for.”

Especially the ones shooting around with a puck made of electrical tape.

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