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Finding a bit of New York in Winnipeg

by Evan Weiner /
Brian Mullen saw some familiar faces when he reported to training camp with the Jets in 1982.
Walking into an NHL training camp for the first time is never easy for a rookie. No matter how talented the player, from Sidney Crosby on down to those on tryouts, it is a daunting experience.

But there are some rare occasions when the first day of camp can be fun. Just ask Brian Mullen, who showed up at the Winnipeg Jets’ training camp in 1982 and was given quite a welcome by his new teammates, who just happened to be old friends.

Before playing for “Badger” Bob Johnson at the University of Wisconsin, Mullen was the stick boy for visiting hockey teams at Madison Square Garden. In that capacity, he got to know personnel from the rangers and the visiting teamsd quite well.

At that time, John Ferguson was the Rangers’ general manager and he came to know the 16-year-old Mullen, too.

Ferguson landed in Winnipeg after being fired by the Rangers. By 1982, Ferguson had added former Rangers goaltender Doug Soetaert, defenseman Mario Marois and right winger Lucien Deblois to his Winnipeg roster. Mullen knew all of them when he showed up for his first camp.

That’s a big advantage in the room compared to 99 percent of the rookies that walk into their first NHL camp.

“I walked into the locker room, it so happened on that Winnipeg team there were a few ex-Rangers,” Mullen recalled. “Doug Soetaert, Lucien Deblois and Mario Marios were all on that team. I walked into the locker room thinking I would see my own stall and everything. I walked over to my stall and there were about three dozen sticks. A dozen of Mario’s, a dozen of Lucien’s and a dozen of Dougie Soetaert’s sticks.

“John Ferguson was the general manager at the time; they were all peaking around the corner, giggling. We had a good laugh over it. It really made me comfortable and made me feel like one of the guys right away.

“I threw them (the sticks) right back at them,” Mullen laughed. “It made me feel like I belonged there. There were good guys; I knew them, if I didn’t know them, I would never have thrown them back.”

Mullen’s Winnipeg story actually started out in the 1960s on West 49th Street in Manhattan, just blocks away from the old Madison Square Garden, which was then located on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets.

Mullen’s father worked as part of the Garden’s day-to-day crew and helped maintain the ice during the hockey season.

Brian Mullen was following in the roller-skate tracks of his older brother, Joey, by playing roller hockey in an open lot, which was then owned by New York Printing on 49th Street. Eventually, Brian Mullen was good enough on ice that he got a hockey scholarship to Wisconsin in 1980.

“That’s where I grew up playing roller hockey,” Mullen said of the notorious Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. “My apartment building was across the street from the Garden, 416 West 49th Street between 9th and 10th avenues. And there was a schoolyard right across the street where we all played roller hockey. On any given day you could find anywhere between 50 to 100 school kids playing hockey. My neighborhood was a hockey hotbed. (Watch: Brian's brother Joe returns to the old neighborhood: 300K )

“The Police Athletic League started a league on Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays was the little guys, they called them the Peanut League, and Sundays was the High School League, where the big guys played. That’s what all the Peanut leaguers wanted to play, in the high school games so we had something to look forward to.

“It’s not the usual story. When I was on some of the (Jets) teams, I brought some of the Canadian players around to the neighborhood there, you should have seen their reaction.”

But, Mullen made sure he was exposed to the NHL game, eventually landing a job as one of the visiting team’s stick boys.

“I was there when I was 16-, 17-years-old,” he remembered. “The Rangers made it to the Finals in 1979 with guys like Lucien Deblois, John Davidson, the Maloney Brothers (Don and Dave), (Ron) Duguay, all those guys were on the team. Nickie Fotiu, Pat Hickey. They had a great team. They made it to the Finals.

Brian Mullen, a native of New York City, ended his career with the Islanders in 1993.
“I was the stick boy there. They played Montreal and they had guys like Pierre Larouche, Serge Savard and all those guys. It was a great series. It was fun just being down on ice level with all those guys.”

But Mullen wasn’t watching the 1979 Stanley Cup Final as a fan. He was a hockey employee and that job helped him understand what he needed to do to get to the NHL level. It also showed him how to work a stick.

“I worked with the sticks,” he said. “So anytime they break a stick, I would grab one of their sticks and reach over the board, so I actually worked with the sticks and took care of the locker room a little bit there and learned a lot from both teams, both sides. I learned a lot from the Rangers and learned a lot from the teams that came into the Garden.”

The fact that Mullen got a college scholarship is maybe even more amazing than the fact that he ended up playing in the NHL.

Mullen started skating late and the youth league competition in the New York area, while improving, was not up to Canadian standards. Mullen learned how to play hockey using box roller skates and a roll of black electrical tape that served as the puck. The black electrical tape seemed to never wear out.

Still Mullen and his brother Joe (who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000) somehow made it to the NHL despite not having a traditional ice hockey background.

“The big difference is the surface, ice versus concrete,” Mullen said of his formative days as a player. “I think the hardest thing I had to learn when I made the transition to ice was how to stop on the ice. It took me a little while, all the other things I learned in roller hockey, all the fundamentals translated over to the ice, just like a normal hockey player would.”

Mullen started playing ice hockey at around 8, but he was about 6 when he got on ice for the first time at the old Garden.

“My father brought me down before it closed. He got me a Vic Hadfield stick; Vic was one of my favorite Rangers,” Mullen recalled. “He brought me on the ice, we shot the puck around, and that was basically the first time I stepped on ice.”

It would not be the last time Mullen would step on Garden ice. About 14 years later, he became a Winnipeg Jets rookie. Winnipeg drafted Mullen in the seventh round of the 1980 draft. After two years in college, Mullen turned pro.

As a rookie, Mullen scored 24 goals and assisted in 26 others for 50 points.

He played in Winnipeg for five years and during the summer of 1987 got a call from Rangers GM Phil Esposito, which ended his Winnipeg career and started perhaps the happiest four years of Mullen’s NHL career.

“I got the call from Phil and he said; ‘You are coming home and this time you won’t have to work the sticks.’” Mullen said of the trade that took him home. “He brought me back. I got to play before all my family and friends. My dad was still working at the Garden. It was really a nice time when I played there.”

The Rangers traded Mullen to San Jose for Tim Kerr on May 30, 1991. He played one year in Daly City at the Cow Palace with the Sharks. In August 1992, he was traded to the Rangers bitter suburban rival, the Islanders.

On Sept. 8, 1993 Mullen suffered a career-ending stroke. Mullen has been involved with various aspects of hockey since then including being a Rangers radio announcer and an NHL ambassador.

During his playing career, Mullen always had a special place for the stick boys he encountered in his days with the Jets, Rangers, Sharks and Islanders. After all, he was once one of them.

“I got treated well in New York. Pat Hickey, Nickie Fotiu (a fellow New York City resident, although Fotiu was from the outer borough of Staten Island), the three guys, Lucien, Dougie and Mario, all treated me with respect. They talked to me all the time and it was a good feeling when I was the stick boy and I never forgot it and I always treated the stick boys good.”

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