Monday, January 11, 2016

Mullen plays Broadway...Again!

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.
Brian and Joe Mullen, Heroes of Hells Kitchen
“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.”
Mike Mullen's Broadway Debut
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.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Humble Hall of Famer

Chris Drury (Center) Inducted into U.S. HOF

If you are privileged enough to have the right magnetic strip, you can enter the west entrance to Agganis Arena, and take the steps down into BU hockey’s inner sanctum. For all the delights of the Terriers sparkling hockey mecca, Agganis’s greatest feature is the photo history on display throughout. And as you step down to the gleaming white corridor you pass under a stunner: six sweaty seniors in living color, surrounding the precious Beanpot, having done what no Terrier had ever done before, swept all four Beanpots, a perfect 8-0, capturing their Beanpots at both Boston Gardens, old and new.
BU's class of 1998 "Gang of Six"
The BU hockey class of 1998: Chris Drury (Trumbull, Conn.), Mike Sylvia (Newton, Mass.), Chris Kelleher (Belmont, Mass.), Jeff Kealty (Newton, Mass.), Peter Donatelli (North Providence, Rhode Island) and Tom Noble (Hanover, Mass.). Six of New England’s finest, caught at their very moment of Boston hockey immortality. Anyone who knows Drury, the latest inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, knows that he disdains talking about his own accomplishments. He remained true to form at the H.O.F. banquet last month, with one exception: he could not contain his pride in what his senior class accomplished.

“I could never rank any of the championship teams I was fortunate enough to be on,” said Drury. But I like to identify with my class at BU. We had about 100 wins and 30 losses over those four years, which was lots of fun. We had six kids in our class and we were all from New England. We all grew up dreaming of winning a Beanpo, and to go to BU and go 8-0 and be the first class in history to win the Beanpot all four years was a huge thrill.”

Jack Parker was at the Renaissance Boston for the H.O.F. pomp and circumstance, and the former BU coach and player insisted on dropping a little cold water on Drury’s happy flashback. “I told Chris ‘Hey, I won all three of my Beanpots because you couldn’t play as a freshman, so you weren’t the first guy to sweep it Chris, okay?’” Parker is not ready to concede Beanpot player dominance to any class, because if you scour the record book, Parker’s class was a perfect 23-0 against Beanpot schools in his three years of play, an uncanny record of Boston college hockey dominance.

But once Parker flipped his cap from that of proud player to grateful coach, he began to gush, something Parker rarely does. He paused to consider all the implications, then handed out this rare superlative. “I think Chris Drury was as valuable a player as BU has ever had. He single-handedly lifted teams with his will to win.” Parker then threw out three disclaimers: Jack Eichel (single season greatness); Jack O’Callahan (comparable competitiveness); and John Cullen (scoring). He then painted a hypothetical as to why Drury was BU hockey’s top dog.
“If you woke Chris Drury up at three o’clock in the morning and said ‘Hey, we got a pickup game over at the Boston Skating Club, c’mon over!’ He’d come over, and once the game started, he would HAVE to beat you to the puck in the corner. It’s in his DNA.”

Drury was the ultimate observer 18 years ago. On the ice in his final Beanpot championship, overtime versus Harvard, he vividly recalled his favorite hockey memory, one in which he never touched the puck. “Nick Gillis scoring the overtime goal to beat Harvard to win our fourth Beanpot as a class, to win the Beanpot that year. Seeing Tom Poti make the play, seeing Gillis put it in the net. I had such a perfect angle to see the whole play develop, seeing it all take place and then the joy and the jubilation of winning another Beanpot, that definitely sticks out in my mind to this day.”

BU hockey’s intrepid historian Bernie Corbett also has a fondness for the Terrier class of 1998, the guys who won it all as freshmen. “I like to call it the “No School Announcement” class said Bernie with a laugh. “You had Newton, Hanover, Framingham, Belmont, you had all those Boston area schools.” Only two of the six were from outside Route 128: Donatelli technically being from Rhode Island, but he prepped at St. Sebsastian’s and had an older brother who captained BU. “Really, the only one without a previous connection to BU was Drury,” said Corbett. But Drury ‘s older brother Ted was a Beanpot champion for Harvard, games that Chris drunk up as kid. He adored his Terrier hockey experience, postponing his pro career for one last run at college hockey’s major titles.

Drury, whose hockey resume makes War and Peace seem like a short story, chose one and only one team to shine light on when he was anointed to the Hall. It was not the Silver Olympic squads, nor the Stanley cup winner nor the two NHL squads he captained. It was his beloved Terriers that he singled out, and that moment in time at Boston Garden in 1998, a moment in which he, the king of overtime thrillers, was relegated to spectator and chief cheerleader, the first man in on the red and white dogpile, a celebration of historic proportions.

Agganis security guard Timmy Smith cautiously let in the interloper into the special entrance to BU hockey. There was Matt Grzelcyk below toweling off after some rigorous therapy. Perched above the 12 steps down to BU’s inner circle was the 1998 Glorious Gang of Six photo, dripping sweat and exuding triumph. From right to left are Sylvia, Kealty, Donatelli, Kelleher, Noble and finally Drury, posing with a rare smile. His face is flushed with victory, nose and lips rouge with pumping blood. America’s hockey champion, an athlete defined both by clutch wins and his humble demeanor. Of all the championships he has been part of, this is the moment he cherishes above all, at the Garden, with his mates, clutching the ‘Pot.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Forgotten Skater

The Forgotten 19 Year Old Mason Appleton
Michigan State opened the college hockey season versus Maine up in Portland at the Ice Breaker tourney. With the Spartans season barely an hour old, an NHL scout and a TV producer huddled in the corner of the Cross Insurance Arena, pointing at the MSU line chart. #27, a 6’2” freshman forward, was running the power play for the Spartans like a game of shinny, keeping the puck on his blade for swaths of several seconds as he skated loops across the top of the zone, head up before firing passes onto teammates' tape. A teenager in his first NCAA game, playing against amped up undergrads several years older, had found a way to slow down the game and masterfully distribute the disc. The two men circled their sheets, and the producer waited for the post game to ask MSU mentor Tom Anastos if he had the kid running his power play since Day 1. “Sure,” said Anastos with a laugh. “All four days we’ve been able to work on it.”

And thus began the Mason Appleton era at Michigan State. It has not been a winning era to date, but one in which he has played in every zone and in every situation. He came into the annual Great Lakes Invitational as the Spartans leading scorer with three goals and 12 helpers, and was also leading in shots on goal, despite being a pass-first quarterback on the power play. The Green Bay native has played all three forward positions, kills penalties and takes big faceoffs. With the World Juniors going on simultaneously, it begs the question, how has this NCAA power play stud been ignored by USA Hockey? “I think he’s an awfully talented player, but he’s still emerging,” said Anastos from the Joe Louis Arena podium. “Some kids emerge earlier and some kids emerge later.”

It seems counterintuitive that a 6’2” guy who skates that well, who is a natural playmaker, all ideal elements for the international game, could be off the World Junior radar. But back on November 8, USA Hockey’s personnel man Ben Smith was queried about Appleton while up in the stands scouting a Boston College-Maine game at Conte Forum. Smith claimed to have never heard of Appleton. Five days later Appleton had the best game of his young career in that same building. The Spartans battled back from a three-goal deficit in the third period to tie the highly ranked Eagles before falling 6-4; Appleton had a goal and an assist in the comeback. “We found ourselves down,” said Appleton. "But there was no give up in our team and we came back and battled back.” Smith, who scouted 35 games this fall, was in another rink that night and missed Appleton’s gutty performance. Smith is a kind of safety net for Team USA, having advocated and found roster spots for WJC longshots Miles Wood (2015) and Ryan Donato (2016). But he is based in New England, and he missed seeing Michigan State by five days, Appleton's last best chance at an audition. Having a supremely skilled 19-year-old asset go unnoticed by our national governing body is incomprehensible in this era of instant information. Appleton has a theory.

“I started high school at five foot three," said Appleton, minutes after the Spartans fell out of the GLI with yet another frustrating loss. “I grew almost a foot in high school. I still had the skill and the brain and that stuff when I was 14, 15, 16, but I guess I wasn’t physically there. Growing up I didn’t make those development camps the first three years and I remember being in tears on my porch, talking to my high school coach ‘Look, what do I gotta do?’ And then I just bit the bullet and said ‘Whatever, I’m going to outwork all these kids.’” Being ignored by USA Hockey did not keep him from reaching his potential as a player.  He transferred to Green Bay’s Notre Dame Prep for his sophomore year and that same season scored the Wisconsin State Championship goal in double overtime. He gained weight, moved to center and became a dominant prep player. And then in 2014-15 Appleton had the kind of whirlwind year you read about in hockey star biographies: being drafted third overall by USHL’s Tri-City Storm and scoring 40 points; earning a scholarship to Michigan State; and then heading down to Florida with his family and coach to the NHL draft, where he was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the 6th round.
Appleton's Sweet Consolation
“I didn’t know when my name was going to get called,” Appleton told the Green Bay Press-Gazette on that magic day. “Now that if finally did, it’s almost breathtaking, you really can’t even put it into words how awesome it feels.”

This teenager now just goes about the manly business of Big 10 hockey, playing through injuries while sharing the burden of righting a Spartan ship that is taking on water. He has embraced the challenge of mastering Division I hockey as he tries to ignore the emotional slights from USA Hockey. Sometimes, however, the pain is unavoidable. In mid-December his Spartans were playing at Northeastern while USA's final World Junior camp was being staged two miles away at Agganis Arena. They played games simultaneously that Saturday night: Team USA out at UMass and Michigan State at Northeastern. While the USA game was on an Internet stream, Appleton dazzled nationally on NBC Sports Network, making plays every time he touched the puck with his wheels, hands and head. He has finally accepted that he will never play in the World Junior Championship, a tournament he is ideally suited for. “I watch them on TV and think maybe I could be there, and maybe I couldn’t, but I don’t let it get to me. I can’t call USA Hockey and say ‘I should be on that team,’ you know what I mean?”

He is now back in East Lansing, watching fellow 19-year-old Zach Werenski of the dreaded Wolverines run the Team USA power play. He will get his shot at Werenski and Michigan back at Joe Louis Arena on February 5. Until then, he soldiers on for a struggling Spartan squad. “I’m just going to stay focused, finish this season strong, turn it around and have the best year I can.”