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It is 10:30 p.m. in New York city. The Rangers have just played a game in Madison Square Garden. Sixteen blocks uptown, on the corner of West 49th Street and Ninth Avenue, the few people on the street are panhandling, dealing or heading elsewhere fast. In the shadows down the block a young woman kneels in a clump of ripped plastic trash bags, her patent-leather miniskirt hiked up to expose a fresh vein for injection on the inside of her thigh. Her body says she's 20; her face is an awful lot older. This is Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. A cop wanders up to her. "Better move along," he says.
The block to the east, toward Broadway's theater district, is the site of the old Garden, which was razed after closing in 1968. To the west, toward Tenth Avenue, is the old neighborhood. On one side of the street is a facade of crumbling five-story tenements, some of them boarded up and some advertised as condos. The string of tenements on the other side of the street is broken by a small asphalt school yard ringed with concrete walls and chain link fences. Two boys in blue-and-red Rangers jerseys are walking home from the game. The one with a hockey stick flips a giant pretzel up from the gutter with a hard wrist shot that shatters the pretzel against the chain link. "You know the Mullen brothers, Joey and Brian?" I ask.
"Yeah," says the kid with the stick. "We saw Brian tonight at the Garden." He points his stick toward a boarded-up tenement across the street from the school yard and says, "That's where they came from—top floor on the left."
The Mullens' old house didn't look like much even before the spring night in 1979 when a main beam rusted through and the rear wall collapsed, waking the family to a home opened like a dollhouse. From this unlikeliest of places came two of this season's NHL All-Stars. Joey, 32, a right wing for the Calgary Flames, is the seventh player in league history to score 40 goals a season six years running. Brian, 27, is a solid 25-goals-a-season forward for the Rangers.
Says Flame coach Terry Crisp, "Joey's got an unbelievably quick release. He's a great scorer, but he's not exactly a big talker." Crisp chuckles with obvious affection. "You ever see a stone-face deadpan?"
"Brian doesn't say much," says New York general manager Phil Esposito. "But he has a great eye and a great shot. He's at the age where his brother started scoring 40 goals, and he will too." Esposito holds his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart and says, "Give Brian this much of an angle and he can score."
There's an old saying: If you find a turtle on a fence post, you can be pretty sure it had help. If you want to find out how two shy kids without money climbed out of Hell's Kitchen to the top of the NHL, you've got to know the neighborhood: the boys' older brothers, Kenny and Tommy; their sister, Debbie; and their parents, Tom and Marion.
Marion is an ample, radiant woman who can quietly fill a room with maternal warmth. She and Tom now live in a cozy apartment in Bergenfield, N.J., but she grew up in the same tenement on 49th Street where she raised her five children. The neighborhood was safer then, says Marion. Everyone knew each other. She remembers sleeping on the fire escapes during the summer as a child.
Back then, she says, street roller hockey was "really big in Manhattan." Marion's sister's husband, John (Uncle Hoppy) Grasso, played goalie in an East Side roller-hockey league. In those days players used newspaper for kneepads, garbage cans for goals and rolls of electric tape for pucks. They skated on steel-wheeled clip-ons secured with many wrappings of friction tape. Through that street hockey league Marion met Tom, who lived on the East Side. In 1958, when Tom took a job with the maintenance crew at the old Garden, the family moved to the fifth floor of Marion's old building on 49th Street.
Tom is a quiet man who keeps to himself. He talks softly and, because of a stroke 10 years ago, moves slowly. One can tell he is very proud of his family. For 27 years he worked long, hard hours at the Garden. On the day before Rangers games, the crew would start at 11 p.m. and work through the night, spraying layer after layer of water on the rink and then painting the lines. Between periods of the games, the crew marched four abreast—a human Zamboni—with shovels in front to clear away the shavings, and water barrels behind to renew the ice. After games the crew melted the rink and went home.