The weak November sun barely camouflages the Toronto winter lurking around the corner. The Black Square—a basketball court that earned its nickname years ago when a city worker would flood it with a fire hose and John Madden and his friends would play hockey from four till frostbite—will soon be ready for Canada's game once more, assuming the Rottweiler is unleashed from one basket and the garbage strewn under the other hoop is picked up. Not much has changed here at the Parma Court housing projects since Madden was a boy. Laundry is drying over balcony railings, and a volleyball game is winding down in the community center next door. The projects, built as Ontario public housing in the 1960s, remain a study in brown: chocolate-colored bricks, autumn grass the color of coffee-stained teeth, the pock-marks of thousands of hockey pucks on the door of the maintenance building. "The only difference," says Madden's best friend, Sheldon Burke, who grew up in Parma Court, "is that 15 years ago that Rottweiler would have been a pit bull."
Since he was a baby, Madden lived in the Parma Court projects, a complex of houses off busy Victoria Park Avenue, in which the smell of marijuana would perfume the stairwells at night. When he was 14 or 15, Madden would look out his bedroom window and see men selling narcotics on the street, wearing ski masks to hide their identity. "This was literally a drive-by drugstore," Madden says. "They kept the drugs in their jackets. Cars would pull up. They'd run up to the cars and make the exchange. My mom and I were like, Wow, this isn't good."
These days life for Madden is deliriously good. The boy who had next to nothing now has everything—or at least he will once the New Jersey Devils finally hand out their Stanley Cup rings. Maybe there is a moral to Madden's story, something TV-movie-of-the-weekish about a combination of persistence and talent overcoming humble circumstances. The boy who had to settle for a bowl of cereal for dinner because cereal was the only thing in the cupboard now dines out with his wife, Lauren, whenever they like. The boy who was called Welfare Case by classmates owns a town house in New Jersey and a house on a lake in Connecticut. The boy who sometimes rode to the rink in a bus for handicapped people that was driven by his mother now tools to Devils practices in an Audi TT convertible or his Ford F-150 SuperCrew truck.
Madden is 25. He lived in the projects until he was 16, when he moved an hour away to Barrie to reside with his father, also named John (his parents divorced before he was 10), and to play Tier II junior hockey. The only clues that an NHL player grew up at Parma Court are three newspaper clippings displayed under Plexiglas on a weathered bulletin board on the lawn, photos and stories about Madden's returning with the Cup last summer for his Mad Dog Invitational charity golf tournament. Other than the articles, nothing is left of Little Johnny Madden in Parma Court. There is, however, a lot of Parma Court left in Madden.
On a sleepy Saturday afternoon before 13,000 quiet fans at the Meadowlands, Madden is the only New Jersey player with a detectable pulse. He had started as slowly as his teammates, battling the stubborn Los Angeles Kings and a biological clock thrown out of whack by the rare one-o'clock start, but now, in the third period, he hounds the L.A. defense and out-muscles center Bryan Smolinski for the puck, flicking it into the slot. On the next shift Madden takes a stick to the face from rookie defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, flinging his arms skyward and crumpling to the ice as if struck by sniper fire. Madden stays down for 10 seconds before clambering to his feet and exchanging a word with a grinning Mathieu Schneider, all the while checking his face for the drop of blood that might earn New Jersey a five-minute power play. "I told him, 'You're a phony,' " Schneider would say.
Madden was in no mood for a lengthy rebuttal after a 2-1 loss. He merely curled his upper lip to reveal a front tooth with a chip to match the one on his shoulder. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and it isn't a small one," Devils center Bobby Holik says. "It's what makes him successful. He has to play with attitude. When you don't have size"—Madden is 5'11" and 195 pounds—"you have to make up for it another way. Some people in this league might not like it, or him. Some of them don't have to play that way. He does."
Madden has taken his defiant attitude—he was told by his college coach to prepare a r�sum� because he wouldn't go far in the pros, and he was never drafted—and has constructed a blossoming career, proving himself a master architect at working not with mortar or bricks but with slights, real and perceived. Madden is the NHL's most dangerous penalty killer, if not the best, having led the league with six shorthanded goals as a rookie last season. His quickness and positioning could turn him into the premier defensive forward in the game once he curbs his tendency to gamble on loose pucks in hopes of a counterattack. Considering that at week's end Madden had only two penalty minutes in 22 games this season, a pittance for such an effective checker, he deserves consideration for the Lady Byng Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player, a thought that would turn the award on its head and knock his Parma Court friends to the floor. He scored 16 goals last season without the benefit of power-play time, and through Sunday he already had 10 this year, including four against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 28. Madden lacks the conspicuous offensive talent of his teammate Scott Gomez, last season's rookie of the year, but a 25-goal season coupled with his compelling defense would usher him out of Gomez's shadow.
"I do take a lot of Parma Court with me into my game," says Madden, who remains close to his boyhood friends. "I'm not ashamed of the way I was raised. I hold no grudges against kids who had everything, but when I go on the ice, I think of moments when I really wanted to do something and couldn't—like going to tournaments with other families because mine couldn't afford to take me. Nothing comes easy on the ice, and the same is true in life. You have to work for everything."
In another sport or in another era, Madden's journey from projects to pro would be unremarkable. But modern hockey, especially youth hockey, is a mini-van sport, a money pit of equipment, fees and ice time. Madden's childhood pal Burke, who is a sales manager for a supply company, figures it costs $1,000 a year to have his seven-year-old son, Josh, play goal in a league. Burke says that if his son makes a travel team down the line, expenses could approach $5,000. Madden's family (he has two sisters) didn't have that kind of money.
There were five friends—Madden, Sheldon and his brother Shawn, Mike Bella and Jimmy Warner—and they had maybe two full bags of equipment among them. They saved money on tape by using old skate laces to attach their shin pads. "We'd see kids in the dressing room with straps on their shin pads," Madden says, "and we'd go, 'Whoa, that kid has straps!' "