Manny and Mad Dog were drafted by the Guelph Storm in the Ontario juniors. Manny, a big, talented and poised center, went in the first round. Chris Madden snuck in like an afterthought in the fourth. The boy was so head-down "yes, sir" mumbling, the team roomed him with the outgoing Manny.
The boys became brothers, players, pranksters, two teens talking long into the night about girls and parents. They dreamed of playing in the NHL together, but Manny had the easier part. Agent Bobby Orr blessed his progress.
Meanwhile, Chris, who was amazed at how Manny could walk into a roomful of strangers and seem so at ease, hung his head at every mistake. He was snubbed and humiliated at the '97 draft. Dumped (by Team USA) at the last minute from the World Junior Championships. Skulking in the dank alleyway before each game, he would fend off imaginary shots, unable to forgive himself for any goal he gave up.
A year ago, Guelph made it all the way to the Canadian junior hockey finals. Chris had the series of a lifetime, and was named tournament MVP. Scouts reconsidered. Manny on skates. "My fault," the teenage skater calls out to the boys. The kids are Wayne Gretzky's. The teenage skater is Manny Malhotra. Storming onto the ice are his teammates, the New York Rangers. The kids take leave and Malhotra joins his teammates.
He was the Rangers' first-round pick, the seventh overall choice in the 1998 NHL draft. At training camp, Wayne Gretzky invited him to dinner and then told the press the kid was a future captain. As easily as he glided through junior hockey, Manny Malhotra became a New York Ranger. Even those who don't believe 18-year-olds should be in the NHL made an exception for Malhotra. "It doesn't take but two seconds to realize what a mature, quality person he is," says teammate Adam Graves. "Not just how he is around other players, but the way he is around the fans, the kids."
Malhotra's simple, sound game pleases the New York fans, who are tired of big-money underachievers. Sometimes the team seems old and unwilling, but a clean Malhotra check on a Fedorov will send Madison Square Garden cheering. Call it dumb coincidence, but through mid-March, the Rangers had yet to win a game in which Malhotra didn't play.
After practice at Rye, Malhotra-first one on the ice and last one off-dresses slowly, wishing they could keep playing. This is the NHL now, each player going his own way, grown men with wives and children and homes. He buddies with fellow bachelor Dan Cloutier, the Rangers' young goaltender. "I don't know what it is about goalies," says Malhotra.
No one will room with him on the road, not even Cloutier. Unlike most NHL players who sleep before a game, Malhotra is revved, fidgeting like a kid about to be let onto the playground. And when he sleeps, he snores like rolling thunder. "Ah, he just does it to get his own room," says Cloutier, within earshot. Malhotra laughs. This has been a wonderful year for him. First-class, big-city travel, the heroes he plays with and against, the improvement in his game. "Just taking it all in stride," he says with the maturity coaches admire.
But when he's asked about Chris Madden, a kid's grin lights up, holding all the inside jokes of a friendship. "Chris," he begins
Old men with maroon Guelph Storm lettering across their chests spill like blood from a bar called Van Gogh's Ear. The night's game with the Barrie Colts is sold out. In the alleyway behind the stands, Chris Madden kicks away imaginary slapshots. He was drafted by Carolina in the fourth round, then sent back to Guelph. Without Malhotra, it's not the same defensive team, and Madden has been blistered this season.
In a bad day of practice the week before, he was whacked on the head by a careless slapshot from a young hothead. Madden threw his stick across the ice in a rage. The coach waved him to the dressing room and said, "Chris, I think you've had enough." Quiet Chris Madden shot back, "I never have enough."
On this night against the powerhouse Colts, he's taking shot after shot and turning every one away. He's outplaying the hotshot goalie for Barrie that the scouts are nuts about. Guelph is down a man for most of the third period, and the shots keep coming. In the third, a frustrated Barrie player takes a run at Madden, crashing into his knees. The goalie folds over. The trainer comes out and a few minutes later, Madden rises on unsteady legs. No, says Madden, I'm staying in. When he kick-saves the next shot, his legs crumble. He drops to the ice face-first. They put Chris over their shoulders and take him off.
Some vows can humble time.
Manny is in the locker room at Rye remembering the years with Chris Madden. It seemed like a long time ago, a wonderful time ago, the kind of high school or Army memory a man takes with him when life gets complicated.
Manny came from a home of unconditional love. He now understands that his first time away from home, Chris gave Manny unconditional friendship. Chris put up with the snoring, the boundless energy, Manny's happy yak that could go on all night.
He calls Chris every week. After Madden had a lousy stint at the World Juniors, Manny called to console him. They ended up doing something only trusted friends can do about pain. "We had a laugh about it," says Manny.
After the Barrie game, Chris sits on the trainer's table holding his injured leg. He allows himself words. He hopes to be in the minors next year with the American Hockey League.
He even talks about the nightmare of the last World Juniors. He let in six goals, kicking himself for each one. His parents were there, his dad telling him to bear down. Afterward, the coach blamed the team defensive breakdown all on Madden. He shrugs. He no longer says everything is his fault: "I'm trying to stop that one questionable goal a game I know I can stop."
A father and a little girl come to the trainer's room and ask Chris for an autograph. You can see Manny in the way Chris handles himself now. He's more assured, even gracious with strangers. Opening up, saying how at the NHL All-Star break, Manny came to practice with Guelph. He took Chris and his teammates out to dinner. "He's the same great guy," Chris says. "But it hit me a little that Manny was going back to Gretzky and Richter and I'm still in Guelph."
He catches himself: "Not that there's anything wrong with Guelph. I just think maybe I've earned the next step."
That's as big a boast as Chris Madden can muster. Not a shred of envy creeps into his voice when he pictures Manny leaving Madison Square Garden. Chris is scheduled to leave the next morning on a four-hour bus trip to Windsor. The bus will roll out of the bare Ontario flatlands where there's little to see but the hangman transmission towers rising up from shrouds of snow. It's getting harder to find each other by phone, says Chris. But that's part of the game. Life travels in different directions.