Kingston’s Kirk Muller, whose Kingston major junior franchise scoring record for a 15-year-old was broken last Sunday by Shane Wright, said in an interview that the Frontenacs rookie is a talented player whose hockey sense and on-ice skills are outstanding.
Long before the days of players having to be deemed “exceptional status” to be able to enter the Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection a year early, such as John Tavares, Connor McDavid and Wright, among others, talented 15-year-olds like Muller, in 1981-82, and Jason Spezza, in 1998-99, could play for their hometown team before going into the draft.
Muller, following a solid season with the Kingston Canadians, was drafted first overall in 1982 by the expansion Guelph Platers. Spezza played a season with the Brampton Battalion before moving east and joining the Mississauga IceDogs, also an expansion team, in 1999.
Muller scored 12 goals and added 39 assists for 51 points in his underage season. According to Whig-Standard archives, he scored most of his points in the season’s second half.
Wright broke Muller’s age-15 season record on Sunday with an assist on Zayde Wisdom’s tying goal late in a 5-4 loss to the Mississauga Steelheads, giving him 52 points (31 goals, 21 assists). Wright earlier scored a goal and picked up an assist for a three-point afternoon.
Wright headed into this weekend with 55 points (32G, 23A) after a second consecutive three-point game on Wednesday night against the Oshawa Generals. He has 13 points (7G, 6A) in his past six games.
When contacted by the Whig-Standard this week, Muller, now an associate coach with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, said he didn’t know he held the 15-year-old player scoring record for the local junior franchise.
Muller also said he hasn’t seen Wright play live in the OHL but has watched video of him and has heard raves about the rookie’s skill set and hockey IQ from friends in Kingston.
“He’s obviously a very talented kid and fun to watch,” Muller said. “With good players, the puck always seems to follow them, and when you watch him play, it’s the ability with his hockey sense and how he can get to the areas where the good players want the puck on their stick.
“That’s what he does. He has that great hockey IQ. And he has the skill to make things happen. You can’t teach that, and that’s the one thing I see when I see the clips is his ability to find areas to get open and have the puck a lot.”
Even if opponents key on Wright, he should be able to withstand the scrutiny, Muller said.
“He’s going to get attention even more so as he moves along at such a young age,” Muller said.
Muller has also heard of Wright’s maturity on and off the ice.
“The hockey part of it is great, but what I really like is from talking to friends back home in Kingston they were saying how well he carries himself and conducts himself, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about how he is as a person how he is with everyone around him,” Muller said.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders, which is great to hear, and because of that you put that type of formula together and he’s going to continue to have lots of success.
“Guys like that are the kind of teammates you want to have.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Wright thought it was good that he’s starting to get noticed but said he doesn’t think of records. Improving his own game and putting the team first are more important.
“I try not to focus on records or who I’m going against,” Wright said. “That’s pretty cool having guys like (Muller) talk about me and watch me play. It’s pretty special with what he was able to do in his career, so it’s nice.”
Frontenacs head coach Kurtis Foster is not surprised Wright is gaining attention at hockey’s highest level.
“Everybody is pretty excited for him,” Foster said on Tuesday after practice at the Invista Centre. “He’s excelling at the right time of the year for us and he’s getting a lot of accolades, but it’s well earned. He plays big minutes for us and plays against good players in the league already.”
Wright scored his first OHL goal in his third game, against the Oshawa Generals on Sept. 29, and hasn’t slowed down since.
“It just goes to show how he was brought up. He’s got a high work ethic, high intensity and he’s fun to be around because he brings out the best in everybody,” Foster said.
Muller first got on the Canadians’ radar when he played for the Metro Junior B Hockey League’s Kingston Voyageurs in his age-14 season in 1980-81. He collected 54 points (17 goals, 37 assists) in 42 games. After the Voyageurs missed the playoffs, Muller joined the Canadians for the last two regular-season games and stayed with the team during the playoffs, playing in a couple of first-round games and collecting an assist.
Kingston Canadians general manager-coach Jim Morrison suggested the team bring him up to the OHL team, along with draft pick Mike Linseman, for the playoff experience.
“No one owns you, Kirk, so why don’t you come up for some experience,” Muller remembers Morrison telling him.
Morrison also warned Muller and his parents that if he played one game in the OHL, he would lose the chance to play in the NCAA and earn a scholarship.
“Don’t worry about that,” Muller recalls telling Morrison. “That was the only thing presented to my dad, my mom and me.”
Muller came back that fall and made the team out of training camp.
“My parents said it was up to me and, “Yes, I said. I want to play,’” Muller said.
Early that season, Muller needed to make a statement that he was tough enough to play in the league.
“To prove that I can play at that age, I have to do something, so I went and fought Marty McSorley in Belleville,” he said while laughing over the phone.
McSorley, of the expansion Belleville Bulls, was a tough and rugged defencemen and three years Muller’s senior. He went on to a long NHL career.
“I could handle it, but Marty broke my nose,” Muller said.
The OHL was tough back then, with lots of fighting and penalty-filled games, but Muller, then only five-foot-11 and 170 pounds, had some protectors on his wings.
“I had Babber (Shawn Babcock) and Cuttsy (Glen Cutting) and they called it the Mafia line (in a Whig-Standard story on Jan. 23, 1982, by Tim Gordanier). They were my hitmen.”
That season, Babcock, now a platoon chief at Kingston Fire and Rescue, had 268 penalty minutes while Cutting, an overage forward acquired early that season from the Kitchener Rangers, had 75 penalty minutes with the Canadians.
“I had two physical tough guys that played on my wings,” he said. “The game was certainly different back then.”
Things were different off the ice, too.
“I ended up in one of the establishments with all the guys trying to be a team guy and I woke up the next day and my dad kind of gave me a little lecture saying, ‘Hey, start acting your age.’”
His father, Ed, was a popular mail carrier with a route in downtown Kingston.
“Everybody knew my dad, so I couldn’t really do anything,” Muller said.
After the season, Muller had to go into the OHL draft pool and Kingston couldn’t keep him.
The Ontario Hockey Association, starting in 1973, allowed major junior teams to protect up to eight local midgets, but that rule was discarded two years later, and the 1976 draft was the first with all midget players eligible.
“The articles starting coming about how to keep Kirk in Kingston because he’s a local boy,” Muller said.
Muller’s parents and Gus Badali, his agent at the time, weighed in on the controversy in the media but eventually decided to follow the rules, and Muller was picked first overall by the expansion Guelph Platers in the 1982 OHL draft.
“Of course it would have been fun to play local, but my dad said, ‘You’re no different than anyone else so you have to go into the draft.’”
In his first year with Guelph, Muller scored 52 goals and 112 points. The next year he split his time between Guelph and the Canadian national team and played in the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.
Muller went on to be drafted second overall by the New Jersey Devils, one pick behind Mario Lemieux, in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.
He would go on to play 19 seasons in the National Hockey League, scoring 357 goals and 959 points in 1,349 games and winning the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993. In all, he played with six NHL teams, including parts of two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After retiring as a player in 2003, he coached the Queen’s Gaels men’s hockey team for one season, then spent five seasons in Montreal as an assistant coach with the Canadiens. He was a head coach for three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes (2011-12 to 2013-14) before a two-season stop in St. Louis and a current four-year stint back in Montreal.