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Joe Mullen: Raised on roller hockey

March 27, 2011 Interviews 2 Comments

By Stan Fischler
Oct 29, 2001, 19:32



Everything—that is everything —was against Joe Mullen becoming an NHL star.

He was born in New York, when nobody from Manhattan had ever made it to the NHL. They said he was too small.

Another rap was that roller hockey players, which Mullen was, don’t have ice instincts.

On and on went the critics, and on and on climbed Mullen, proving them wrong every step of the way.

From the sidewalks—literally—of New York to Boston College, then to Salt Lake City of the Central Hockey League. Up, up and away he went, like a micro-Superman-on-skates, outpacing the knockers and making well-respected hockey men look stupid in the process.

By all rights Joey should have spent his career starring with the Rangers. His father ran the Zamboni machine in Madison Square Garden. His father would have given anything for his son to play for the Broadway Blueshirts.

But like so many others who underestimated Joe Mullen, the Rangers said “thanks-but-no-thanks,” and Joey signed with the St. Louis Blues. He played his first NHL game during the 1980 playoffs.

The rest, as they say in Montreal, is histoire. At age 35, Mullen’s stride, savvy and scoring ability is as strong as it ever was. What’s more, he has just become the first US-born 1,000-point scorer in NHL history, and taken home (along with brother Brian) the Lester Patrick Trophy for service to hockey in the United States.

In the following interview, Mullen discusses everything from his roller hockey roots to his future as a youth-hockey coach.

Do you remember your first pair of hockey skates?

You have to bear in mind that where I came from—in the middle of Manhattan, near the old Madison Square Garden—the first skates were roller skates. The clamp-on kind. There were two basic brands. Union Hardware was the cheaper kind and Chicagos were the better ones. If you were real serious about roller hockey, eventually you graduated to shoe skates.

Diagonally across from the old Garden, on Eighth Avenue, there was a little store called the Princeton Skate Shop. That’s where the guys got their shoe skates, and you also could get ice skates as well. Later on it was where we had our ice skates sharpened.

What kind of sticks did you use on the streets of Manhattan?

The most popular stick when I was a kid was the Northland, because most of the NHL players used it. Then there was the Vic. We used just about anything we could get our hands on as long as it wasn’t completely broken.

Describe the difference between roller hockey in the late 1960s and today.

The puck wasn’t very sophisticated. It was just a hunk of electrician’s tape with a hole in the middle. If the playing surface was relatively smooth, the tape-puck moved pretty well. There was no such thing as in-line skates then. We used the four-wheeled kind and when the wheels wore down you could replace each one.

How different was it from ice hockey?

It took longer to stop, and if you went down to block shots a lot, you’d rip your dungarees or whatever. The puck was lighter, but you couldn’t shoot it quite as fast and, of course, you couldn’t move as fast on the macadam (the broken stone surface) as you could on ice.

What kind of carry-over value did roller hockey have for ice hockey when you moved on to Sky Rink?

There was quite a bit, because the stickhandling on the dry surface was tough. So if you could handle the puck in roller hockey, you could do it on ice, for sure. Same with shooting; if you could shoot a puck from macadam, you certainly could on ice. Funny, but the skating stride was different and when I went from roller to ice, my ice hockey stride was choppy. It wasn’t until I got to college where I smoothed it out a bit. In roller hockey, it was more like running. The big difference was that on ice, the puck slid better and moved quicker.

What aspect of roller hockey did the most for your ice hockey career?

Let me say right off the bat that if it wasn’t for roller hockey, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The thing that was so important about the roller side was that it was so easily available for me. I’d walk out of the house, go across the street and I would be playing. It didn’t matter if it was hot or cold, raining or snowing. The availability gave me a chance to play every day, and since I played every day I was learning how to shoot, pass and stickhandle—all the assets I would need for ice hockey. I’ve said it before: roller hockey can’t do anything but help kids who want to become ice hockey players.

Who, specifically, helped you?

Besides my younger brother, Brian, I had two older brothers who were excellent roller hockey players. Kenny was a center and Tommy a right wing. Kenny has a lot of hockey sense and his style reminded me of Bryan Trottier. Tommy was a terrific shooter who had a knack of scoring from bad angles. He always found a way of putting it in the net. Kenny moved up to ice hockey and did well in the (New York) Metropolitan League and then played a year at Northeastern. He might have gone farther, but those were the times when Americans were just making some inroads into the game and he was a little before his time.

What did you learn from them?

Just by watching them play, I was able to see things about the game that I didn’t know before. Then, I would watch the Ranger games on TV and learn from the pros. I put two-and-two together and became a smarter player.

Who did you play for at the start?

I was lucky. The Sacred Heart Church in the neighborhood had a lot of teams. We were in the Police Athletic League, YMCA League and the Catholic Youth Organization League. By the time I was sixteen, I was playing in a men’s league out of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

It’s amazing, considering your father’s job in the Garden and the fact you lived across the street from the arena that you were never picked up by the Rangers.

Actually, I almost was. This was after I had signed with St. Louis and was playing in their minor league system. Craig Patrick was running the Rangers at the time and the Blues had called me up for a game. I didn’t know it at the time but Patrick was watching me in the hopes of swinging a deal with the Blues. As a matter of fact, he came very close to making the trade—and then I loused things up. In the game he was watching, I scored a goal and must have looked good enough for the Blues to figure that they shouldn’t let me go. After the game, I was in the hotel and Craig happened to follow me into the elevator. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “You had to go and score a goal tonight, didn’t you?” I said, “Whaddya mean?” Then, he said, “If you hadn’t scored, I had ya!” And that was that. One less goal and I would have been a Ranger.

You got some good advice about making the transition from roller to ice hockey. What advice do you give to youngsters nowadays?

I tell them to play as much as they can, whether it’s on roller skates or on the ice. Shoot the puck, listen to the coach and, most of all, work hard.

You sound like you’ve been coaching already.

I have. During the lockout, I was coaching my kids. Ryan is 13, Michael is 11 and Patrick is eight. I try not to push them, but I want them to have fun. I coached three different teams and it was very rewarding, particularly when you see them following through on something you taught and they do it right.

This first appeared in the 05/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2011 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®


Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Bernard (Bernie) Tunney says:

    I used to teach and coach and referee roller hockey in chelsea manhattan (co-op) park in the 60’s. I was watching an interview with Joe Mullen between periods,and he mentioned someone teaching him named “Bernie”. I have always wondered if he wasn’t one of of those kids? Thank you.

  2. leonard Gioeni says:

    I hope you remeber me Joe I coached the sharks at 53rd st. First I wantto say how happy Iam for your success in the NHL. You certainly kept me up many a night trying to figure what defense would work best to stop not only you but your brothers too. There was another guy who gave me fits too Doc. I just wanted to say hello and hope all the yelling I did is forgotten The best to you and your brothers Lenny

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