July 27, 2011

From NEHJ: Dutch treat for Mass. teammates Mullally, Aucoin

Brian Mullally (Maynard, Mass.) celebrates his team's title in the Dutch Eredivisie. (photo: Courtesy photo)

They’ve shared just about everything over the past two decades, from ice growing up in Massachusetts to a dorm room at Norwich University.

So when the final horn sounded on their hockey season, some 3,500 miles from home in the Netherlands, and Brian Mullally (Maynard, Mass.) and Phil Aucoin (Chelmsford, Mass.) found themselves part of a celebration at the Uithof in The Hague, they instinctively sought each other out.

“He was the first guy I looked for on the ice,” Mullally said. “We definitely shared a special moment together.”

An entire region is giddy this summer, celebrating the first Stanley Cup championship by the Boston Bruins in 39 years. But only a handful of New England players can say they helped win titles at the professional level, either in North America or overseas.

And no championship teammates have a back story like Mullally and Aucoin, who can trace their friendship back to the age of 8, when they were playing youth hockey for the Assabet Valley Patriots and Minuteman Flames, respectively.

Their first year as teammates on HYS The Hague, one of nine teams in the Dutch Eredivisie, was one they’ll never forget. Their team established itself as one of the best in the league, going 23-5 and advancing to the best-of-seven championship series against rival Tilburg.

In the fifth and final game of that series, on home ice, they rallied from a 3-0 deficit — with Aucoin scoring the game-tying goal — and went on to win, 5-4

“Playing with him this year, it was just unbelievable to win it,” Aucoin said, “since I’m going to be friends with him my whole life.”

This was the third season in Holland for the duo, who spent three years as teammates at Norwich — helping the Cadets win the Division 3 national championship in 2003 — but their first playing together in Europe. The 5-foot-10 Aucoin, who spent the previous two years with Nijmegen, racked up 92 assists and 116 points, while Mullally led the league in penalty minutes for the third consecutive season.

“The refereeing is a lot different,” Mullally said. “I like to play the body, be a defensive defenseman type. I like to go in the corners, crunch guys and get the puck. I got a few penalties just for hitting too hard.”

Both players, who will turn 30 later this year, did stints in the American pro leagues after wrapping up their careers at Norwich. Aucoin, the younger brother of AHL standout Keith Aucoin, played three full seasons in the ECHL and CHL. Mullally put in two years.

After wrapping up the 2007-08 season with the CHL’s Mississippi RiverKings, Mullally was contacted by an old buddy from Norwich, Lou DiMasi (Burlington, Vt.), who’d played in Europe and recommended it.

“He said, ‘It’s a good opportunity. You get to see the rest of the world,’” Mullally said. “I thought about it. I’d always been a New England guy. I’d always been around family. I decided to do it. But it was probably something I never could have done without hockey.”

One of the first things he noticed? In the faster, smaller, more spread-out European pro game, he immediately became tougher.

“Because you’re not fighting these killers from Canada,” he laughed. “I can hold my own, but I’m not an animal out there.”

He quickly gained a reputation that first year, becoming public enemy No. 1 at visiting rinks for his physical play. It came to a head after his team won the championship series at Tilburg. While he was in the arena lobby calling his father back home, to tell him the good news, an inebriated Tilburg fan approached him — and took a swing at him.

“Out of the blue, two other Tilburg fans who had seen the whole thing go down ran over and tackled the guy who swung at me and proceeded to beat him up pretty good,” Mullally said. “I called my dad back and said, ‘You are never going to believe what just happened!’”

There were three Americans and five Canadians on HYS The Hague this winter, with the rest of the roster filled out with natives.

“We had great imports, and our Dutch guys were better than the other Dutch guys,” Aucoin said.

Aucoin said the camaraderie made playing in Europe special. All the players had studio apartments in the same complex on the North Sea.

“If you’re in the East Coast league, you’re with people, but guys have girlfriends and stuff,” he said. “Here, you’re with the guys all day. It’s more of a family atmosphere.

“We lived on the beach. Or you could jump on a train and go to Amsterdam. You go out more. It’s guys closer to the end of their careers than the beginning so you’re not afraid to go out. We went out a good amount. I think it brings you together as a team.”

Aucoin’s 92 assists and 116 points were both career highs.

“He’s got a great set of eyes on the ice and the best set of hands I’ve ever played with,” Mullally said.

It’s unlikely the two will get a chance to defend their title together. Mullally, who signed a two-year deal with HYS The Hague before last season, will be back for another year. But Aucoin, through his brother, has an invitation to Hershey’s AHL camp and expects to play for its ECHL affiliate in Reading, Pa., though not without some regret.

“I’ve been to seven countries since I’ve been over there,” Aucoin said. “The people are great. It’s a shorter season and the money’s good.”

However their careers play out from here, they can claim an improbable daily double: winning championships together on both sides of the pond. If the friendship had any cracks before, it’s rock-solid now.

“Before Norwich,” Mullally said, “I kind of hated him. He’s a little chirpy on the ice. But he said to these guys in Holland, the hardest I ever got hit in 28 years was when Mullally hit me with Minuteman when I was 8 years old. I guess I’ll take credit for that.”

These days, they can take credit for a whole lot more.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com.