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 pockmarks 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
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 outmuscles
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
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 resume 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 minivan 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!'"
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.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RAFAEL FUCHS REGULAR GUY Madden is at home in the Devils dressing room or his town house in Jersey.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA FAST STUDY As a rookie last season the fleet-footed Madden led the league in shorthanded goals, with six.
"He plays with a chip on his shoulder," Holik says of his
teammate Madden, "and it's not a small one."