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Past helps Mullens relate to Sandy aftermath

by Tal Pinchevsky

Three days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast, Hockey Hall of Famer and Philadelphia Flyers assistant coach Joe Mullen was happy to confirm that his family, which grew up in New York City and now lives in New Jersey, was safe.

Mullen felt fortunate that his family was OK, but expressed concern for the hardships being felt by so many in this region -- most notably in New Jersey and New York.

During Sandy, Mullen's younger brother Brian, who also played in the NHL, lost power in northern New Jersey, as did their mother. Brian's generator helped them both in the short term while another brother-in-law experienced firsthand the endless lines waiting to buy gasoline. But they're all safe and healthy, which is all Joe Mullen could hope for.


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"We just wish everybody luck and hopefully they get through this," Mullen said while reflecting on the tragic events surrounding Sandy. "Just take it day-by-day."

Growing up in the rough-and-tumble streets of New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, the Mullen family never encountered anything quite like this storm.

But they do know the emotions that come with having to flee from a destroyed home. The circumstances are different, but it's part of the reason they empathize and hope for the best for many families in the Northeast this week.

In 1980, a support beam snapped on the ground floor of the Mullen family's apartment building on West 49th Street in New York City. With the beam broken, the entire back wall of the building gave way, sending hundreds of bricks plummeting into the back yard. Just like that, a whole segment of the old, tired building was completely exposed.

"It was like looking into a doll house," Mullen said. "My mom was still living there with my brothers and my sister. I think they got to go into the building once or twice just to grab what they could, and then they weren't allowed in the building anymore. We lost our furniture. All our trophies were stolen after that. Everything was gone."

Mullen was starring for the St. Louis Blues' farm team in Salt Lake City when he heard about the building collapse. Barely into his first pro season, he had already encountered difficult news from back home once before.

A year earlier, Mullen was selected to play for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team by legendary coach Herb Brooks. He was looking forward to representing his country in Lake Placid when he was told that his father, a former ice crew staffer at Madison Square Garden, had suffered a stroke.

To help supplement his family during a difficult period, Mullen signed with the Blues and provided a sudden infusion of income. But Mullen was also forced to quit a 1980 Olympic team that would make history by winning a gold medal in an amazing run capped with the Miracle on Ice.

More than 30 years later, Mullen still considers the decision a no-brainer.

"You do it for the right reasons and it's not a difficult decision," he said. "I knew most of the guys that played on that team. I thought it was great that they won. It never even entered my mind that I should have been there. I knew where I should have been and what I should have done."

A year later, with his family again forced to encounter a life-altering scenario, Mullen helped where he could. But his family was fortunate.

After much of the Mullen clan was taken in by neighbors, they eventually found another home in a nearby apartment building owned by a family friend.

Recalling the incident years later, Mullen couldn't help but remember a story from his uncle, who lived on the building's fourth floor.

"The bathroom toilet was right against that [back] wall. My uncle had just gone in with the newspaper to relieve himself. He got up two minutes later, and as soon as he walked out the door, that's when it happened," Mullen said. "The toilet was hanging out the back. Luckily he wasn't sitting there."

Despite the looting that followed the building collapse, Mullen never forgot the grace and kindness demonstrated by friends and neighbors.

"We were very fortunate that there was somewhere to go," Mullen said. "Everybody was willing to help. New York people are like that."

It's that kind of resilience that will help the people of New York, New Jersey and the rest of the East Coast recover from Hurricane Sandy.

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