Looking back, Sean Muldowney admits he wasn’t at all happy last summer when his son, Joey, decided to transfer to Nichols for his senior year rather than accept a spot with Des Moines in the USHL.
“No,” Sean recalled with a laugh. “I wasn’t ready to pay that bill.”
It was understandable. As any hockey parent could tell you, the sport can be an expensive proposition. He and his wife, Kelly, who are both teachers, had been paying for their son’s hockey since he was 5 or 6 years old.
Sean was thrilled when Joey got an offer from the Des Moines Buccaneers in the top junior league in the United States — essentially with all expenses paid. He remembers how relieved he felt on the plane ride home last summer. He thought Joey was sold on Iowa, too.
But Joey had been agonizing over the decision. His best friend, Brock Jones, played at Nichols. Muldowney had turned down Nichols a year earlier, at the height of the pandemic. He and Brock had played together since they were little boys and been linemates almost every year.
“It was killing him to make that choice,” Brock Jones said. “It took a good month and a half to finally decide he was coming to Nichols. Literally, we would have conversations every day.
“I gave him my perspective, that coming to Nichols would be the best thing for his development. Play one more year with all his buddies and actually graduate from a high school where in 10 years we’ll all have a reunion, go back and talk about our memories.”
Muldowney was torn. The 2021-22 season was his NHL draft year, the most important of his life. But deep down, he wanted a chance to be a real high school kid, to be with his friends, to spend one last year as a Buffalo guy.
Glenn Kaifas, his long-time trainer and someone his father describes as “a life coach,” agreed that staying home for one more year, rather than rushing off to the USHL, would be the best thing for his development.
So, he decided to turn down the Des Moines offer and play at Nichols last season. The hard part would be breaking the news to his parents.
“It was definitely tough to talk to my parents about,” Muldowney said. “They weren’t too happy. But I knew I wanted to give myself another year to develop and build up my confidence. I knew that I would be able to succeed if I stayed home.”
Sean walked into the kitchen in Lake View one day, while Joey was telling his mom he wanted to stay home. Sean couldn’t believe it. He’d been playing hockey since kindergarten. Now he had a chance to go away and play the game at a high level, for free, and he wasn’t going?
Joey, who had gone to high school at Frontier and played the previous year for the Junior Sabres — his coaches included Tim Kennedy and Craig Rivet — told his dad he wanted the full high school experience as a senior. Prom, graduation ceremony, the works. He had built a relationship with many of the Nichols players and liked the coach. He wanted to play there.
“I said, ‘All right, but you’re going to call the GM and tell him,’” Sean said.
“It was not a good day in the Muldowney household when (Sean) found out,” said Jones, who was there at the time.
Brock and Joey went into the bedroom, where Muldowney called Des Moines general manager Scott Owens. Joey told Owens he hoped he was OK with his decision to wait a year.
“The GM was great,” Sean said. “They really were fine with it. They said, ‘We’ll get you out here at the end of the season for a couple of games and get you used to it, so it’ll be easier when you come back next year.’”
At first, Sean was “freaking out” about the move. One parent said Joey had killed his career. But most of the hockey people who mattered were impressed. Nine out of 10 college coaches who had been recruiting Joey thought the decision showed uncommon maturity for a teenager.
“I knew I didn’t need to rush it into junior hockey,” Joey Muldowney said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people that you don’t need to rush. I’ve seen a lot of situations where kids go in early and they don’t play that much.”
Kaifas, who trains about 130 young hockey players at Kaifas Athlete Development on Niagara Street in Buffalo, was convinced waiting a year would be best for Muldowney, who is 5-10, 155 pounds. He has been training Joey since he was 12 and felt it was best for him as a person.
“Knowing him and how important friendships are to him, I felt on a personal level that’s where he would have the most success,” Kaifas said. “Playing on a line with Brock and playing for a state title was good for him. “On a developmental level, it gave us another year to work together to establish his durability.
“I’ve talked to a couple of NHL teams that were interested in him. Their concern was his durability in the development.”
In the end, it turned out to be a wise decision on all ends. Muldowney became the team MVP at Nichols in 2021-22, scoring 57 goals and 40 assists in 56 games as the USHS-Prep Vikings reached the state final, where they lost in overtime. Jones, his center, had 41 assists.
Early last month, Muldowney was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the NHL draft. He was the 172nd player chosen, and part of the first class for Sharks GM Mike Grier, a former Sabre who recently became the first Black general manager in NHL history.
Muldowney was in Columbia, S.C., during the draft. His girlfriend, Shae O’Rourke, is an incoming freshman soccer player at South Carolina. O’Rourke left St. Mary’s of Lancaster with most of the school scoring records and as the New York State female athlete of the year.
“I was ecstatic,” Muldowney said of being drafted. “It’s … indescribable. Since I started playing hockey as a young kid, it’s been a dream of mine. To have that come true was crazy.”
Things were pretty wild in the Muldowney household, too. Sean said he went to the men’s room during a commercial in the TV broadcast. When he came back, he saw his son’s name already on the screen. He’d gone three picks before.
“I was like, ‘There’s Joey’s name!’” Sean recalled. “My wife turns around and looks up at the TV screen and jumped up in the air. She started crying. My daughters (Maura and MacKenzie) were both there. I have a 22-year-old and a 13-year-old. The 13-year-old starts screaming.
“They’re all running over and taking pictures of the TV with their phones. It was exciting. Then my phone starts blowing up. People were texting us. Jeff Jones (Brock’s father) might have been the first. He called me within seconds. Yeah, it was nuts.”
Jeff Jones believes Joey wouldn’t have been drafted if he hadn’t made the decision to play a year at Nichols. Sean Muldowney says that was likely the case. Both dads say Kaifas has been instrumental in the development of their boys — both mentally and physically.
Sean said Kaifas was especially effective during the pandemic, when he insisted his players maintain their daily routines through Zoom calls. Kaifas told them it was a chance to gain an edge over kids who allowed the COVID-19 restrictions to stunt their progress.
“When Joey was struggling, without seeing his buddies or being out socializing, Glen was there to kind of talk him off the ledge a little bit,” Sean said. “He talks about his sleep pattern, his nutrition, his mental health, his physical health, and how he has to gain some muscle mass and weight.”
“It really has been incredible.”
Kaifas has been training athletes for 20 years. Over the years, he began specializing in hockey players. Muldowney and Jones were among his first clients. The word spread. He now has about 130 hockey players, male and female, training in the old Mentholatum building on Niagara Street.
At some point, Kaifas realized it wasn’t enough to keep up with the modern training techniques. To bring out the best in a young athlete, he needed a multi-dimensional approach that optimizes an athlete’s behavior and overall health.
Kaifas will talk your ear off about “mechanical efficiencies” as it pertains to hips and ankles and backs. His main objective is to make his athletes “anti-fragile,” a philosophy he credits with giving Muldowney tremendous power and confidence on and off the ice.
“It’s funny to see a guy who’s 155 pounds have a swagger — a physical swagger,” Kaifas said. ”Joey feels he’s one of the strongest people on the ice. It’s not gym strength, it’s hockey strength. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a monster in the gym. He squats 375 for five reps and he weighs 155 pounds. But that’s years of training core, and ankle mobility, and knee stability. I need your strength to be more apparent on the ice. Joey is using it on the ice.
“He’s got unbelievable leverage. He knows how to use his body as one complete machine, through all the functional stuff we’ve been doing since he was 12 years old. He’s unbelievably explosive, and fast. He gets to spaces other kids can’t. The trajectory of his development is just hitting its stride. He’s really exploding.”
Muldowney says the confidence he’s gained from training helps him with his most basic hockey skill: Putting the puck in the net.
“I do have a knack for scoring,” he said. “I love scoring. I like making plays out there. I think I have a good hockey IQ. I’ve been working with (Kaifas) for six years. So, it’s definitely made me build some confidence and not shy away from the physical play, too.”
He knows he’ll have to put on weight and get even stronger on the ice. Muldowney went to the Sharks’ development camp after being drafted last month. He was struck by the sheer size of some of the players.
“That’s for sure,” he said. “Some people have asked me about the speed. The speed wasn’t really a problem for me, because I think I’ve always been able to think and see the game a fast way. I like to think I’m a faster player, so that wasn’t necessarily a tough transition for me.
“But definitely the size of the guys, being able to protect pucks with how long their sticks were, stuff like that. That was the hardest part for me. I’ve always been one of the smaller kids.”
Muldowney has been a Sabres fan as long as he can remember. His mother’s stepfather used to get season tickets and distribute them to family and friends.
“He would have a pool of guys,” Sean recalled. “They would all go to his house and do like a draft, where they would pick the games they wanted to go to. All the guys would get their schedules and cross out games they couldn’t go to and highlight games they wanted.
“Me and my dad would try to get the Washington and Toronto games — one, (Alex) Ovechkin for Washington, and Toronto was always a good rivalry.”
Sean’s favorite Sabre was Patrick Kaleta, who is now president of the Junior Sabres. Kaleta was a local kid and wore No. 36, which had been the police badge number of Muldowney’s late grandfather, Joe. Joey was named after Papa Joe. He later switched to No. 88, which was Patrick Kane’s number. He could relate more to Kane’s offensive game, and he was also on the smaller side.
“The fact that he was a Buffalo guy, and he was smaller,” he said. “Yeah, I thought it was pretty cool.”
Imagine having an NHL career remotely like Kane’s. Joey knows he has a lot of work ahead of him. He’ll be playing in Des Moines next season (Brock Jones will play for the Philadelphia Rebels of the NAHL). As promised, Des Moines kept the spot open for him. Muldowney played three games there at the end of last season and scored a goal in his first game.
Muldowney is also committed to play college hockey at UConn after a year in the USHL. The family plans to make a visit to Storrs later this month. Joey didn’t plan on playing college hockey when he was drafted into the OHL. But then the pandemic hit and he began getting a lot of interest from college coaches and changed his mind.
“At first, I was not going to go to college for hockey,” he said. “I’m pretty happy I changed my mind.”
College has become a great development level for American hockey players. Joe knows he needs to get stronger and more durable to thrive at the higher levels. But as Kaifas said, he’s been gaining confidence all along. He believes he can make it in the NHL.
“I hope so. I think so,” Muldowney said. “The only problem right now is putting on some size and weight, and I think that will come with myself maturing and growing up. The game keeps evolving. It’s definitely evolving into a league where you need speed to be able to keep up with the play.”
Muldowney has the skill and the speed. But he knew enough to slow down, not to rush his hockey career. In the end, the decision to stay home was the right one. As his parents discovered, he was more mature and grown up than they could have imagined.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.