Former Washington Capital Paul Mulvey says that, like many Canadian kids, he dreamed about getting to the NHL. But Mulvey never fought other players in his dreams. Instead, Mulvey’s fantasies always ended with his scoring a goal to win the Stanley Cup. In the real world, Mulvey never played in a single playoff game. But he did drop his gloves a lot.
Mulvey, 41, is now general manager of the Ashburn Ice House, a rink not far from Redskin Park. He’s in charge of the youth hockey programs there, too. So Mulvey winced a little more than the average TV viewer while watching all those replays of Marty McSorley’s dirty deed last week.
“As soon as I saw that tape, I could hear all the hockey parents saying, ‘What am I allowing my child to get into here?’” says Mulvey. “I understand what a parent is thinking, because what Marty McSorley did was ugly and inexcusable. But it wasn’t hockey. McSorley might as well have been swinging a baseball bat.”
When Mulvey talks, parents listen. Around Ashburn, he’s earned a reputation for promoting sportsmanship above all else—including winning—to his young players. But two decades ago, Mulvey had a less temperate rep.
The Caps took Mulvey with the 20th overall pick in the NHL’s amateur draft of 1978. Wayne Gretzky went pro the same year. The similarities end there. Gretzky would go on to change the way hockey was played, making finesse as significant a part of the game as grit. Mulvey, however, was a man of the moment. He was a goon.
Throughout the ’70s, the Philadelphia Flyers were the most successful team in the league, along with being the dirtiest bunch the NHL had ever produced. The expansion Caps were the whupping boys of the entire league, but nobody pounded them the way the Flyers did. Mulvey was a decent scorer in the junior leagues, but that’s not why the Caps took him. Red Sullivan, the Caps’ chief scout, admitted to reporters that Mulvey’s skating was “a little rough” for NHL standards. But he had the size—6-foot-4, 219 pounds—and an attitude the Caps could work with. As Sullivan said, “He wants to play badly.” In other words, warm up the big right hand. (The Caps’ strategy also led them later in the same draft to take Richard Sirois, who in the previous season in the minors had recorded 80 penalty minutes—as a goalie.)
Mulvey worked his way up to the Caps’ top line, alongside Mike Gartner and Ryan Walter. Gartner and Walter were fleet skaters and scorers. Mulvey provided the muscle.
“I knew my role, and it was a very physical role,” Mulvey says.
The Caps didn’t come close to making the playoffs during Mulvey’s three-year tenure. There was at least one highlight, however. During his last season wearing the old red-white-and-blue sweater, the Caps beat the Flyers in Philadelphia for the first time in franchise history, ending Philly’s seven-year home winning streak. And they did it playing the Broad Street Bullies’ own game. The streak-breaking contest at the Spectrum featured several all-hands brawls and a laughable 344 minutes in penalties. That’s still a record for a Caps game and will probably never be broken.
But by the end of the ’80-’81 season, Gretzky and Edmonton were clearly finessing their way to the top of the league while playing a different game from everybody else. The Caps decided Mulvey wasn’t part of their future. He left here with 29 goals and 487 penalty minutes, first as the player-to-be-named-later in a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, then on to the Los Angeles Kings off the waiver wire.
While in L.A., Mulvey was involved in an incident that both ended his career and shaped his post-hockey life. The Kings were taking on the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 24, 1982, when a big brouhaha broke out on the ice. Mulvey was on the bench when the first punches were thrown, but as the action heated up, he saw Don Perry, the Kings coach, walking his way.
Perry hadn’t yet gotten the memo that goon hockey was on its way out. Before getting into coaching, he’d been a defenseman with the Long Island Ducks, a fracas-friendly minor-league club in the Eastern Hockey League. The Ducks served as the model for the Chiefs, the beloved brawlers from the most famous hockey film ever made, 1977’s Slap Shot. Perry had apparently seen the movie too many times. He ordered Mulvey to jump into the donnybrook.
“And I don’t want you to dance,” Perry told Mulvey.
Mulvey was appalled by the coach’s command, but not only because leaving the bench to join a fight was an offense that carried an automatic suspension. Mulvey had never been ordered to fight before. He’d always made the decision to drop or not to drop for himself. But at that moment, Mulvey decided he wasn’t a goon. He told his coach he wasn’t going over the boards. Perry repeated the fight order a second time, then a third, then a fourth. But each time Perry said go, Mulvey said no.
Perry suspended Mulvey for insubordination after the game. But when word got out about what had led to Mulvey’s demotion, the incident went from an internal team matter to a national story. A league investigation ended up with Perry’s being suspended by the NHL for 15 days and fined $5,000. By that time, Mulvey had been waived by the Kings and was already wondering if the conscientious-objector tag being foisted on him would stick.
“I’m not going to be a designated assassin who just comes off the bench to fight,” he told the New York Times at the time. “If that’s the only thing I can do in the NHL, go out and fight, then maybe my career is over.”
It was over. Mulvey, though just 23, never played in the NHL again.
He toiled another year in the minors, then started up a hockey school in British Columbia. Soon enough, he was back in the D.C. area, where his wife had grown up. Mulvey quickly got into coaching youth hockey and managed several local rinks over the years. He took on Ashburn when the state-of-the-art facility opened in the fall of 1998. He has never complained about the way his NHL career ended or whined about being blackballed.
“I had a wonderful career, playing the most wonderful game on the planet,” Mulvey tells me.
Mulvey considers himself a Caps fan for life. Of the current crop of players, he’s especially fond of forward Chris Simon. Simon, something of a latter-day goon when he arrived here from Colorado three years ago, has transformed himself into a scorer and now leads the team in goals. Simon’s success, Mulvey says, shows that there will always be a place for toughness in hockey.
“I know Chris Simon’s role,” Mulvey says. “That was my role. Only I was never able to add to it, like Chris has.”
Mulvey still plays some, either in pickup games at Ashburn or in charity events as a member of the Caps alumni team. Opponents occasionally come at him with a high stick or sharp elbow. But no matter how dirty they get, Mulvey says, he can’t imagine himself ever dropping the gloves again. He still dreams, however, about scoring that Stanley Cup goal.—Dave McKenna