|NYC Hockey's First Family Back at the Garden|
Hockey referees, if they are doing their job well, are usually anonymous. But last Saturday at the World’s Most Famous Arena the name on the back of a striped shirt sparked a story of hockey greatness three generations in the making. Mike Mullen was one of two ECAC referees policing the showdown between NCAA powers #1 Quinnipiac and #5 Harvard. It had been 22 years since Mike’s last trip to the Garden, when as a 10 year old he attended the NHL All-Star game to watch his dad Joe Mullen play, a future Hall-of-Famer.
“This was my first time ever on this ice,” said the 32-year old Mullen from a large post-game gathering near the Zamboni doors. “I told the guys back in the locker room that this was my first trip back here since my dad played in the 1994 All-Star game, so it was pretty cool being here.”
The Mullen name is legend on the west side of Manhattan: both his dad and his uncle Brian cut their teeth on the asphalt in the infamous region known as Hell’s Kitchen, playing roller hockey with electrician’s tape pucks and skating on old-fashioned 4-wheel quads. Joe and Brian Mullen graduated to starring roles in college and then the NHL, a feat that simply astounds the next generation.
“Me and my two brothers, Ryan and Patrick, we played out in the back yard,” said Mike. “We played roller hockey on roller blades, never on roller skates, really. We’ve gone down to where they grew up and it’s crazy how far they came in the sport of hockey, growing up where they did.”
The Mullen family tree has deep roots at more than one Madison Square Garden: Mike’s grandfather Tom was a rink maintenance man at the old uptown Garden (West 50th Street) who used to skate behind the water barrels that resurfaced the ice before the Zamboni era. When the Rangers moved downtown to the new Garden in 1968 Tom made the transition, and soon got his youngest son Brian a job as the Rangers’ stick boy. Brian came full circle two decades later when he was traded to the Rangers in the late 1980’s, playing four seasons for the Blue Shirts. “My dad was still working at the Garden at the time,” said Brian. “He used to sit in the penalty box. So if I got a penalty I had to sit next to my dad. It was something I’ll never forget.”
Last Saturday Brian was back at the building known as the Mecca, gathering with the rest of New York City’s first family of hockey. The Mullens treated Mike’s first game officiating at MSG like a major debut. “Joey called me and let me know that he was going to be down there and told me that he and his wife were going to come watch the game,” said Brian. “So everybody started talking, my sister, my older brother Kenny, all of us decided to go down and support Michael at the game.”
This impromptu family reunion caught young Mike off guard. “I didn’t expect all these people to come. My parents asked for about six tickets originally, and then yesterday I got down to their house and they said ‘We need six more.’ They needed 12 tickets and I only had six. It’s pretty cool everybody came out to support me, I really appreciated all the family, it’s awesome.”
Proud papa Joe Mullen had to adjust his viewing habits this night. “It was different,” said the 2-time Stanley Cup champion. “It’s hard to watch your son referee when you’re so interested in the hockey. I thought he did a good job out there, he let the guys play and battle, calls were made when they had to be made, and it was a terrific game.”
Mike Mullen’s boss, ECAC supervisor and former NHL ref Paul Stewart, knew this night was more than just a sterling hockey game that saw Quinnpiac beat Harvard in overtime. “Having another Mullen on the ice here in New York, the aspect of his grandfather, his father, his uncle all having been on the ice at Madison Square Garden, it’s a fitting opportunity to keep the cycle of life going, ” said Stewart. “I think it’s what hockey is and should always be: it’s about family, it’s about tradition.”
Like his forerunners, Mike Mullen is blessed with both ambition and skill. He too played college hockey and was working his way through the pro ranks before concussions derailed his dreams of playing in the spotlight. He may, however, have found another avenue to The Show. “The NHL is looking for guys that have played at a high level and I’ve played at a pretty high level and know the game. Knowing the players and what they’re thinking and what the coaches are thinking, it all correlates into the same thing.”
Hall-of-Fame dad liked what he saw from his progeny. “He’s very happy. He loves hockey, he’s involved with it, he likes refereeing, and he seems to be doing very well at it.”
Mike is getting useful feedback from Stewart, an Ivy Leaguer who played and then refereed for nearly two decades in the world’s best hockey league. “He cracks the whip on us pretty good,” said Mike. “He knows what he’s talking about. He’s one of the best referees that’s ever been in the game, so he’s a person to listen to.”
After a magical night of puck love within the Mullen family fortress, after all the hugs and well-wishes, young Mike exited the World’s Most Famous Arena and prepared to fly to Newfoundland, Canada. He would officiate two AHL games before returning to Stewart’s watchful eye in the ECAC Hockey conference. Based on his gene pool, his mentorship and his attitude, it appears likely that a return trip to Madison Square Garden is in Mike Mullen’s future.