Tough upbringing helped Wild's Madden gain edge

ST. PAUL — He's been asked to tell the story so many times that at first you get a little roll of the eyes.

But it's there, a movie-of-the-week tale that begins in Toronto's poverty-stricken Parma Court housing projects 37 years ago.

John Madden, who has joined the Wild — coming to Minnesota with three Stanley Cup championships in his past — will tell you that a difficult childhood and a life spent proving that a 5-11, 190-pounder has a place in the NHL will give you an edge. It's just that he doesn't want to make too big a deal of it.

"It's true," said Madden, whose parents had divorced by the time he was 10, when asked about learning hockey on a flooded basketball court, about looking out for himself while his mom worked two jobs, about how he had to carry his bag onto the bus, and then the Toronto subway, just to get to games when he was 12.

"The bag was the hardest thing," the veteran center allowed. "I wish they had wheels on the bags then like they do now."


He never played major junior hockey, joined a star-studded University of Michigan hockey team that would win a national title, and he set an NCAA record with 23 short-handed goals — and went undrafted. His college coach, Red Berenson, basically told him an NHL career wasn't in the cards.

Put that all together and you have a rather large-sized chip that Madden has carried through his 11-year NHL career. You also have a now-legendary edge that Madden used to carry with him off the ice, one that he just recently has learned to leave at the dressing room door.

"I wouldn't change a thing about the way I grew up," Madden said. "The way you grow up makes you who you are. I grew up always thinking there was nobody there to help you. I always had my guard up. Maybe that's where (the edge) came from. I've started letting some people in a little bit as I've gotten older. When you have kids, you realize not everybody is against you."

Madden comes to the Wild for his 12th NHL season after being part of Chicago's Stanley Cup run last season. That came after 10 years in the intense New Jersey organization, where he was part of two other NHL championships.

His calling card? Nonstop, drape-himself-all-over-you defense. His job from his first full season was to take on the other team's top line and to kill penalties. Three rings and 17 career short-handed goals tell you he took that job seriously.

"He'd drive the (opponent's) centerman crazy," said Jay Pandolfo, Madden's linemate for years in New Jersey. "He'd do anything to annoy them. I just remember him being so intense; he took the game so seriously. He just competes like crazy. That's what makes him so good."

In college, playing on a team with the likes of Brendan Morrison, Mike Knuble and Marty Turco, Madden competed like crazy but was not drafted. It's no wonder he felt he always had something to prove.

Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello noticed. He remembers watching those Michigan teams to watch Morrison, who rights were held by the Devils. Madden always left an impression.


"We always came back liking John," Lamoriello said. "We went back to watch the Frozen Four (in 1996), and John still stuck out there."

Madden signed with the Devils in 1997 and was in the NHL to stay two years later.

"It's not a bad thing to prove other people wrong," Madden said. "Everybody draws motivation from different areas of their lives. I think pretty much my whole life the odds were against me. I loved defying them."

As a kid, he fell in with a good bunch, one focused on hockey and not trouble. In junior hockey he had a coach who helped him rein in his temper and focus his emotions.

While playing in the American Hockey League he was told the key to success with the Devils meant focusing on defense.

"If you're willing to outwork somebody, you'll beat him every time," Madden said. "And that's what I kind of did."

Pandolfo remembers Madden studying opponents on film, making sure his linemates knew their job.

"With that mentality, he just got better and better every year," Pandolfo said. "Each year there was a little more offense to go with the defense. He had a couple 20-goal seasons. And this when, every night for years, he was matching up against the other team's top line."


Madden won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward in 2001 and was second in voting in 2003, 2004 and 2008.

But in Chicago last season, Madden learned to maintain his edge while learning how to have more fun with the young and talented Blackhawks. With his experience and playoff pedigree, Madden was an instant leader. But he also learned.

Dustin Byfuglien played on a line with Madden for much of the season.

"When things aren't going the right way, let's just say he's not afraid to tell you," Byfuglien said. But Byfuglien said the Hawks also mellowed the veteran.

Madden agrees. "Maybe, sometimes in New Jersey, we were a little too serious," he said. "Chicago was a lot looser, and maybe that hurt us, at times, in the postseason. The high and low of it is I learned not to take things so seriously but at the same time never lose the edge."

And now? Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher needs two hands to describe the number of times he came away from watching Madden and wondering why the Wild couldn't have somebody like him.

Now the team does. Madden brings a lot to a team that, with the additional signing of Matt Cullen, should be stronger up the middle.

"I've never played on a team that didn't make the playoffs the year before," Madden said. "I'm here, and I want to make sure that doesn't happen this year. I'll do whatever it takes, on the ice, in the dressing room, away from the rink, to do that."


But he'll smile more. The kid who grew up in the projects now resides in Edina. He is thrilled his son will get to experience pond hockey for the first time. In person, he seems downright relaxed.

But just wait for the season to start.

"He is going to help that team, you just watch," Pandolfo said. "Fans there will learn quickly that you get the same player every night, every shift. He will never give up."

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