The Parma Court boys had one set of leather goalie pads for ball hockey. To make pads for ice hockey, they would go to an affluent neighborhood on trash day, look for a discarded couch, rip the foam out of the cushions and thread it with skate laces. Warner and Madden were lefthanded shots, so Madden always got Warner's hand-me-down sticks, which were a little too long for Madden because he was the smallest and peskiest of the friends. "Even though I was the youngest," Madden says, "I was usually the first pick in ball hockey because they couldn't be bothered putting up with me if I was on the other team. I was that persistent."
Madden may have had little money, but he had a fabulous support system, most notably his mother, Lily, who often worked two jobs. She offered unqualified love and practical advice, like the time she advised him—only after her futile attempts to get the teacher and principal to intervene—to slug the biggest of the kids who had been calling him Welfare Case. His friends, too, were like family. Burke, five years older, kept telling Madden that he was the best hockey player in the world. "You could see it," says Warner, 33, a manager for a mechanical contractor. "Ten years old, playing ball hockey on the Black Square, he's making all of us look like nobs."
Soon enough hockey people began to see what the kids in Parma Court saw. A youth coach picked up all of Madden's expenses one year because Madden couldn't afford to play and the coach couldn't afford to have him not play. In high school Madden was recruited by U.S. colleges, and after two disastrous 690 efforts on the SAT, he cobbled together a score of 950 that earned him a scholarship to Michigan. Madden stayed in Ann Arbor for four seasons, set an NCAA career record with 23 shorthanded goals, played second-line center behind 1993 Devils third-round draft pick Brendan Morrison (now with the Vancouver Canucks), won one national championship ('96) and left school 15 credits short of a degree in sports management and communications.
After his final college game, Wolverines coach Red Berenson delivered the same lecture to Madden that he had given to scores of players—get your B.A. and prepare for life after hockey—but all Madden heard was Berenson's seeming lack of faith in him. "At the time Johnny was upset that no NHL teams were calling about him," Berenson says. "Look, he wasn't drafted in the NHL. He was a blue-collar kid, a hardworking kid, but no one could have predicted he would make it in the NHL. I told him, 'You don't want to be a minor leaguer at 32 when you could have gone into management training and done something substantial.' I felt I owed him that."
New Jersey president Lou Lamoriello kept coming to Ann Arbor to scout Morrison and kept leaving with a warm feeling about the fireball on the Wolverines' second line. He signed Madden as a free agent in June 1997. Three years later Madden scored the winning goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Madden didn't miss the swell shin pads, the new sticks or anything else in the minivan life of a young hockey player. Looking back on his days in Parma Court, he says the thing he wanted most and didn't have was family dinners. In his new world, gilded by designer suits and well-appointed homes and a four-year, $7 million contract, Madden is going to take care of the most important things. There definitely will be family dinners. There probably will be summer school to earn his degree, and he vows that years from now, when his one-year-old son, Tyler, takes his first trip to a hockey tournament, Madden will be behind the wheel. On that day, he says, he'll find whichever of Tyler's teammates might not have the newest or the nicest of everything, whose family's budget might be a little tight, and he will treat that kid like a god.