The Interview: John Madden (NHL)

As a new feature for Perfectionist Wannabe, I present The Interview. Here, I am sharing the stories of the people I’ve met over the years. These stories go back to the start of my professional writing career, when I was a beat reporter covering the New Jersey Devils (NHL) for Inside Hockey. Over the decade following my hockey writing career, I interviewed authors and filmmakers. Now? The Interview season begins and you will find a whole new crop of interviews from the people who made their dreams come true. These are the interviews that will help inspire you and maybe learn something new.

The Rookie Interview

The first one I am going to share is a story I needed today. As crazy as my universe is and the opportunities that arise, I came across this as I was going through my writing samples. It helped me to understand what I am going through right now. It had the words I needed during a time when I feel blocked and like everything isn’t working out right. But at the same time, I know my life is starting down a new path.

A hockey fan once told me that there were two articles in hockey journalism that he could never forget. He told me what both of them were, and I stood there going, “Wait. I wrote both of those.” He was shocked. Hell, I was shocked. I went to school for law. I didn’t go for journalism. One professor even wrote on my midterm paper, “Is English even your first language?” So to hear this diehard hockey fan tell me that his two all-time favorite hockey articles he had ever read were both articles I authored? I think he validated that what I was doing was the right thing. I was telling the stories of the people I meet.

“Madden’s Timeout” is one of the articles that I’ve heard hockey fans list as one of their favorite hockey stories. The other one was an interview I did with David Clarkson (NHL) who was playing for the New Jersey Devils at the time. A NY Rangers fan that adamantly hated Clarkson messaged me and said that the interview I did with Clarky helped him to change his mind about the guy. He, actually, became a fan of his. That’s the power of a good interview.

I wrote this piece during my rookie season. Yes, I heard the players tease Madden about me calling him a Cinderella Man in this piece, but they did so with respect to both the man and the author. This is the story that won NHL players all over the league to become regular readers of mine. It was stories like this that would have the most coveted player in the NHL tell me where he was going to sign before anyone else knew.

Sometimes people see who you are before you can even see it in yourself. They believe in you before you can learn how to believe in yourself…that you are good enough. This story is the story I needed to remind me of who I am and where I am going.

I’m thankful that Madden was stuck in his locker the entire season. He heard what was said to me. He saw how I reacted. When the moment came when people would accuse me of some misogynistic crap, he’s the one that stood up for me and allowed me to continue for years to come. For him, I am thankful. He gave me the best interview to date.

Madden’s Timeout

Published: March 14, 2009
Inside Hockey
Edited: October 4, 2023

All season, I’ve watched John “Mad Dog” Madden sitting in his stall seething game after game. I always watched him, sitting there quietly awaiting any member of the press to come by and ask him a few questions. But that aura he gives off is that of a ‘mad dog’ ready to bite off anyone’s head that asks the wrong question.

Most of us have been too scared to walk up to him and ask our questions about the game. Regardless of whether we stop at his stall to talk to him or not, he sits there and waits for his ten minutes of press time to be over, like a kid sitting in timeout.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve overheard him ask the Devils communications team if his ten minutes were up and if he could leave. Those times he asked, no one from the press had stopped by to talk to him during those ten minutes. If those ten minutes weren’t over, he’d sit there and wait a little longer until someone said he could go.

After the Calgary game, as I was walking from one side of the locker room, past Madden, toward Martin Brodeur sitting a few stalls down from him, my Blackberry caught Madden’s “Are my ten minutes up, yet?” It was a little humorous to hear it on the feed, so I decided to make sure his next ten minutes in his locker room stall were more productive than his ten minute timeouts over the past few weeks.

Interestingly enough, Madden had a lot to say in those ten minutes while I sat next to him in David Clarkson’s neighboring stall. His story is not the common story we hear from most NHLers. His story is indeed a Cinderella story. Not since the legendary boxer Jim “Cinderella Man” Braddock have we seen this kind of story.

In The Beginning

Any blue collar worker or kid growing up in tough times can’t help but have a lot of admiration for Madden. He grew up in the projects of Toronto, but luckily he had a guardian angel on his side making sure that this streetwise kid grew up to become something better.

But all of that hard work during hard times gave Madden the backbone he would later need when he joined Lou Lamoriello’s team. That hard work is what gave him his work ethic that would define him as a New Jersey Devil. But it was that guardian angel that provided him with a lot of luck and opportunities.

“I was fortunate in a lot of different ways,” Madden said as he began his tale. “I was a good hockey player. So a lot of teams wanted me to play for them. A lot of teams kind of waived their fees to play. Well, I shouldn’t say kind of…they did. So that really helped out a lot.”

“I was really young,” he said about his youthful hockey start. “I can’t remember, maybe four or five years old.

“As soon as I could walk, I think my Dad threw me in skates, if I can remember correctly.” His Dad was a big part of his hockey development years. The reason why Madden is one of the best guys at the face-off circle for the Devils has to do with the fact his father forced him to practice the face-offs again and again.

“He never played professionally,” he said of his father. “But he played a lot of hockey. I remember watching him play a lot of hockey when I was young kid and going to his games all of the time, even though they were late at night. He allowed me to go and it was great.

“It was just a normal childhood growing up in a broken home. My mom did everything she could to give me the best of what I needed, and working two jobs, etcetera. She found a way and I found a way to get to the rinks, whether it was hitching a ride with a friend on a team.”

“Or taking, when I was a little bit older (maybe 13),” he said with a smile of remembrance. “I was able to take the Toronto transit system by myself if I’m allowed. I thought that was great until it got real cold out.” He then paused to laugh, “Then I didn’t think it was so great.”

“I just found a way and I was very lucky to have a lot of people help out along the way in terms of coaches. I had a coach up in Ontario named Jim Burke who really helped out a lot when I was 15/16. He really helped out with a few things and putting me up in his house and giving me guidance along the way, not only hockey but with other things.”

The College Years

After Madden graduated from high school, he headed to the University of Michigan to play for the Maize and Blue. “I was kind of surprised, to be quite honest with you,” he said about getting into college. “I was always a decent student. I never studied, but I was able to get C’s and the odd B in there. The reason why I never studied, I just never really thought about it. As long as I was getting by, I was doing alright. I spent most of my time playing hockey outside.

“I was 17/18 years old in my senior year in high school. There were, I don’t know, 15 teams that came in to watch me play. They all offered me scholarships of some sort. I was lucky to meet a guy, Assistant Coach at Michigan, Mel Pearson, who I liked a lot, and he made me feel comfortable around him. And I think that was the biggest key to going to that school. It was kind of close to home.”

University of Michigan has had a lot of great hockey players coming out of their school.

“You know what’s funny,” Madden said about Michigan. “I didn’t look at those teams back then. I was thinking ‘how far away is this from home?’ I wasn’t thinking NHL. I was thinking, ‘what if this doesn’t work out?”‘

“What was your backup plan?” I asked him.

“I didn’t have one,” he responded.

“You were taking it as it goes?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, it was really weird. I kind of fell into a lot of things, obviously by hard work and being in the right place at the right time. It was just one of those things that came about. I was kind of surprised when they said scholarship. I was like, ‘what do you mean? I get to go four years there?’

“I was kind of new to that area, too. None of the guys on our team had ever gotten a scholarship or an offer. I was kind of the first guy there. Mike Bales went to Notre Dame and Jeremy Brown (from our team) went to Western Michigan. So there were a few good hockey players on our team…so there were a lot of guys that year that went to some good schools. It was all new to us. Obviously, others had good game plans. I was just going with it. I had nothing else.” (He laughs.) “I had nothing else left to do, so I was like, ‘well, let’s go with it.’ And then by sophomore year, I realized I had a really good opportunity.

“Freshman year I was kind of going through the motions. I probably wanted to go home more than anything.”

Even with those freshman jitters, during his college days, he posted some of the most amazing numbers playing for the the Wolverines.

“My freshman year was a blur, it seems like. It seems like so many things were happening, so many new things between friends, school and opening my eyes to different parts of life I never saw before. I remember wanting to go home at Michigan, but at the same time, when I got home that summer, all I wanted to do was to go back. I couldn’t wait to go back. I was like, ‘Wow! What an opportunity!’ I kind of didn’t do my best my freshman year, so I went back and had a great sophomore, junior and senior year.

“Again, I got lucky again, because I wasn’t drafted and Brendan Morrison was [drafted] for the Devils and they came to see Brendan a lot. He was the second round pick for the Devils. I just got real lucky because they really liked my game and Lou Lamoriello really liked my game. They offered me a contract right out of college, a two-way contract. The rest is just kind of history. I just kept working and I got a chance in the NHL.”

The Present (Now) is a Present (a Gift)

Madden has been a part of two of the last Stanley Cups for the New Jersey Devils. Going into the final stretch, I wanted to know if the feeling was there now, like it was the last two times the Devils won the Cup.

“It’s the same,” he replied, getting a little quieter (just in case the hockey gods were listening). “The reason why it’s the same is we know we’ve got something special going here. We’ve got a lot of things working in our favor. To win the Stanley Cup, you need a little bit of luck…a lot of luck.”

“It seems like that’s what we have here,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he continued. “We’ve got some guys that are working really hard, and a lot of key role players, and depth. I mean, depth is the key. So many guys get banged up in the playoffs and you need four or five guys to chip in and score goals. You need everybody to be accountable, you know…a lot of intangibles to hockey. It’s not just having great pitchers pitch in and give up one run and all you’ve got to get is two. There’s a lot of different things going on. We seem to be working towards that. The one thing I like about this group is that we’re tight. We’re as tight as any team that I’ve played on. They compare this tightness to the ’03 team, when Jim McKenzie and Turner Stevens were here. We were a real tight group then. We had a lot of fun and that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re having a lot of fun.”

Going forward for the remainder of the season and into the post-season, Madden said, “I hope we just continue to win hockey games and keep building. Every year, we’ve been eliminated first, second or third rounds. It’s because of the way we entered the playoffs. You know, sputtering or injury plagued…something’s always gone wrong. It’s been real difficult getting there, and we thought that once we got there, we could turn it up. But that’s not the way it works. We’ve got to turn it up and start playing some really good hockey down the stretch here. I think that’s what I’m really looking forward to is seeing the guys pick their games up as we move closer towards the playoffs.

“In the playoffs, we have high expectations. I’m sure other teams have the same high expectations. We’ve had them all year, since day one. We’re going to continue to have those, especially when we’re playing hockey.”

Tuesday’s game against the Calgary Flames is being talked about as the preview to the Stanley Cup Finals. When I spoke to Madden about it, he responded, “So they had the Devils versus Calgary? I like that!” He laughed. “If they would have said that we weren’t in the Finals, I would have told them that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Of course, the Devils beat Calgary on Tuesday if that’s any quiet prediction of things to come.

Earlier in the season, hockey pundits said that the Devils would not be in the Finals. When Martin Brodeur went out, everyone had pitted that the Devils were going to go out and not even make it to the post-season. But instead that happened to the New York Islanders when they lost Rick DiPietro right around the same time.

“Sure. That could be expected,” Madden said of the talks of the Devils going out earlier in the season. “I mean, you know what? Winning and losing in the NHL is a thin line. A lot of it has to do with your attitude, what you expect of yourself, and what you accept. If you accept losing, you’ll lose. You’ll lose by one goal. You’ll find a way to lose when you make excuses.

“We could have made an excuse. And that’s one of the other things I really like about this team. We could have made excuses, ‘now that Marty’s not here, we’re going to lose.’ But you know what? There’s a lot of guys in this room. It was an opportunity for a lot of guys to step up and say, ‘You know what? Marty’s a great goalie. He’s going to the Hall of Fame. He’s going to beat Patrick Roy’s record. But we’re still a good hockey team.’ And I think that’s what we said.”

With Brodeur getting ready to make history, Madden said about being part of this historical moment, “It feels good. It feels great. I’ve been fortunate to play my whole career here, and Marty’s been in the net for a lot of those games. I’ve got to tell ya, it’s really reassuring. It makes you sleep well at night knowing he’s back there covering you up when you make mistakes.”

The Moral To Madden’s Story

This is where I need to explain why I am calling this a Cinderella story.

We all know Cinderella’s story of how she went from hard work, hard labor, being destitute and growing up in a broken home to being blessed by a fairy godmother that went on to help her to live happily ever after. Even before the finale of her happily ever after, she still had some feats to conquer and people wanting to harm her right as she was touching the tips of her path in life…freedom and a better life. In the end, she made her wish come true – success.

That is what a true Cinderella story is about. For us girls, we were taught the story a little differently…it was about meeting Prince Charming and finding true love. But that’s not what the story is really about. It’s about overcoming the odds of a hard childhood and reaching a dream that is bigger than yourself. It’s about working through the trials and tribulations in life and succeeding in life when the moment arrives for you to follow your destiny. It reminds us that even the impossible is possible.

With Madden’s Cinderella story, he grew up without the privileged life. He worked hard, without ever knowing why. His effort paid off when youth hockey clubs helped him out. People put out a helping hand without asking for anything in return. He followed his path, never knowing where it was leading or what that path was. He followed his path in life without ever asking questions…he just lived it.

By some chance, luck was on his side. A guardian angel (fairy godmother) made sure to provide him with more opportunities as he walked along his path. He headed off to college (an opportunity that he didn’t think was possible) and worked hard. Someone noticed…and he gave Madden a contract to play in the NHL.

That path then led to a bigger purpose where he, along with his team, won two Stanley Cups. This has been his journey so far. He’ll have more feats to add to his Cinderella story as time moves on.

This goes to show that no matter how horrible you think your conditions are, those moments are there for a reason. They are there to help prepare you for the future so that when that moment arrives, we can change those conditions for the better. If you are ill-prepared for when that time comes, your path will not change. You will stay in those conditions until you learn the lessons you were supposed to learn before you can climb to the next rung. That is the secret to changing your circumstances.

When our moment arrives when we must follow our path in life, we will know how to handle the obstacles as they appear along the horizon. Life is about taking chances and learning from our past. Madden would not be the New Jersey Devil that he is without that hard work ethic he learned in his youth. He would not appreciate what he was doing, if he hadn’t gone home that summer and realized the amazing opportunity he had in his life. That realization later led to a hockey contract and the rest is history from there. Fairy tales do come true. That’s what Walt Disney has taught us (there’s always a deeper moral to those cartoons).

Also, as a side note to this story, those individuals that were part of his story that helped him along on his journey, it goes to show that good tidings in life towards others helps everyone in the longer run. Stepping up and helping others can go a long way. He was fortunate that people invested some of their time to him. He grew up to do the same for others.

It takes one moment to change another person’s life. Just make sure that one moment is a good moment.