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How a pro skateboarder’s hockey dream sparked an unlikely, powerful friendship

If you search for Mike Vallely’s hockey statistics, you’ll find one of the more unique careers available for study. Vallely played three games of professional hockey, spread out over two seasons, with the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League when he was 40-plus years old. Those games resulted in zero points, five penalty minutes and a broken arm.

But the story of Vallely’s involvement in the FHL (now the Federal Prospects Hockey League) can’t be quantified in career stats. It barely even involves what he did on the ice.

In fact, to hear him tell it, his biggest impact on the game was the role he played in the life and career of Corey Fulton, who arrived with the Whalers at the same time as Vallely following an incident that nearly chased him away from hockey entirely.
 


 
If Vallely’s name is familiar to you, it certainly isn’t because you remember him as a pro hockey player. Vallely is most well-known from his time as a professional skateboarder, and particularly his appearances in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game series.

Before getting into skateboarding, though, Vallely was a hockey fan. Born in 1970 in New Jersey, Vallely grew up supporting the New York Rangers, with a particular affinity for tough guys like Nick Fotiu.

“He left a pretty big impression on me,” said Vallely. “When you see him on TV, you think he’s crazy, a maniac. And yet before the game started, he was skating around the ice handing pucks to kids in the audience. ‘That guy with no teeth, (who’s) so [expletive] crazy?’ ‘But he’s so nice!’”

Vallely’s hockey fixation waned as he got into skateboarding and eventually turned pro in 1987. However, following a move to California in 1989, he reconnected with the sport after stumbling upon a Los Angeles Kings game on TV.

Vallely had grown up appreciating the Kings’ famous “Triple Crown” line featuring Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor, but was stunned to see the team’s transformation. “I heard Gretzky’s name and I had no idea this had transpired,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wayne Gretzky is on the Kings?!’”

Vallely was launched back into hockey fandom, which included becoming a Kings season-ticket holder, celebrating the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup victory alongside his father, and bringing hockey fashion to skateboarding. He also started playing the game and developing relationships with pros, which earned him invites to practices and informal skates – and even the 2002 NHL All-Star celebrity game.


Mike Vallely at the 2002 NHL All-Star celebrity game. (Photo via Mike Vallely)
 
As Vallely increased his time on the ice, he began dreaming a seemingly impossible dream. “As great as skateboarding was, and as much as it was my life, hockey had become an equal passion, and something I wanted to pursue,” Vallely says. “Somehow, someway, (I wanted to) play in a pro game at some point. I knew it would never be in the NHL, but at some level. If I could ever find an in-road, I was gonna take it.”


 
If the name Corey Fulton is familiar to you, it’s most likely because its linked to a story that resonates in one of hockey’s darkest corners.

In late 2008, Fulton was playing in a senior men’s AAA game in Brantford, Ont., when tragedy struck. He got into a fight with Don Sanderson and as the altercation drew to an end, Sanderson fell and hit the back of his head on the ice. He was knocked unconscious and transported to hospital, where he slipped into a coma and was on life support for three weeks before eventually succumbing to his injuries on Jan. 2, 2009.

Sanderson’s death left Fulton in a very dark place.

“I just tried to put my head down and go on with normal life,” Fulton says. “It probably hurt me more than trying to get back into it or try to face the demons. I was just trying to live, but I was living in a dark hole.”

Fulton took some time away from the game, admitting that he “gave up on hockey pretty much.” But after encouragement from those close to him, and even members of the Sanderson family, the Mississauga, Ont., native began his attempt to reconnect with hockey.

In the fall of 2010, the then-23-year-old set out to rejoin the hockey community, and eventually was pointed by several acquaintances to the town of Danbury, home of the FPHL’s Whalers, who were set to begin their inaugural season.

By that point, Vallely was coming to the end of his pro skateboarding career. Approaching 40, he set out on his last large-scale tour, with one of the final stops coming in the Danbury area, where Whalers managing partner Herm Sorcher had been exploring various publicity venues for his new team. “As a first-year team with no history, we gotta get on the map,” Sorcher remembers. “It’s gotta be something unique — we’re gonna have to do something really out of the box.” When he was told about Vallely and what he was trying to accomplish, he set up a meeting.
 
After speaking for a couple hours, Sorcher followed Vallely to an autograph event where approximately 1,000 skateboarding fans were in attendance. “I was like, ‘Holy [expletive], this is unbelievable, we gotta get this guy,’”says Sorcher.

The Whalers set out to ink Vallely to a contract and, by June 2010, it was announced that “action sports star Mike Vallely” would be suiting up for the Whalers in their inaugural season.


Mike Vallely on the bench with the Danbury Whalers. (Photo via Mike Vallely)

Vallely arrived at camp and was set up in a hotel close to the rink. Within a couple days the head coach of the Whalers, Chris Firriolo, approached Vallely to tell him that one of the other players was a big fan of his. That player was Fulton, who had just signed on with the team.

“I got to Danbury, didn’t know anybody, and everyone knew who I was,” says Fulton, referencing how far news about the Sanderson fight had travelled. “But everyone was scared to talk to me or didn’t want to talk to me. Nobody was talking to me until Mike came in — until he actually sat down and talked to me one day.”

After hearing that Fulton was feeling ostracized, Vallely went one step further — he requested that they room together. “We would talk every night in the hotel room,” Vallely says of their instant bond. “He would talk about how he needs this redemption, he can’t imagine this chapter of his life being closed, or this being the last part of his career.

“When we showed up at the rink together, the team started to look at him differently. I took him under my wing and it was like, ‘OK, maybe we don’t need to be so weird about this.’”

However, as training camp went on, Fulton and his teammates were weary of any sort of physicality. Vallely took notice of what was happening on the ice – that his new friend was struggling to find comfort in his return to hockey – and decided he could help Fulton shed that unease with the season opener looming. In the last Whalers practice in late October, Vallely finally asked an important question: Have you been in a fight since that fight? “(Fulton) said no, and I said, ‘Well, let’s [expletive] go, man.’”

“In my head I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know,’” says Fulton of the friendly practice scrap, where no real punches were thrown. “But Mike said, ‘Don’t think about it.’ After we tussled around, he said there was a smile on (my) face. It did feel like kind of relief, ‘OK, I’m not going break down now.’”
 
There was a triumphant feel to Fulton’s first game back — his first game in professional hockey. Meanwhile, Vallely was also taking part in his first professional hockey game.

The 40-year-old rookie was stapled to the bench for the first and second periods, but was sent out for the opening faceoff of the final frame. Off the draw, Vallely dropped the gloves with Joe Pelle, the two engaging in a short and seemingly innocuous fight. What Vallely didn’t realize was that he had broken his arm sometime during the fight. The injury put an end to his season, prematurely halting what was supposed to be a two- to three-week agreement, according to Sorcher.

But the broken arm wasn’t all bad. “The beautiful part of the injury was the way Corey cared for me,” says Vallely. “He cut my shirt off for me, helped me get my equipment off. Corey was just so attentive and so helpful. He helped me through that whole thing.”

After leaving the hospital with his arm in a sling, Vallely made his way to the team afterparty, where the Whalers were celebrating a victory. “I’m hanging out at the bar with a broken arm and Corey’s mother was there and she started crying and telling me what an impact I had had on her son,” recalls Vallely. “That’s when it really dawned on me, on what had been transpiring — that’s when I realized the impact of it.”

Vallely returned the next season to dress for two more games, receiving far more ice time than in his first appearance with the Whalers. “The second year was all about paying him back for hooking us up,” says Sorcher. “When we had nothing, (Vallely) took a chance on us, believed in us, and put our team on the map.”

Vallely’s impact on the Whalers – now known as the Danbury Hat Tricks – lives on through to present day. Sorcher noted to Sportsnet that no player in the history of the Danbury franchise has ever sold more merchandise than Vallely. From jersey sales to meet-and-greets and more, the pro skateboarder left an indelible mark on the franchise.

Fulton, meanwhile, played two full seasons with the Whalers before moving on to play four seasons in the Southern Professional Hockey League. In March 2020, he became the first and, so far, only member of the franchise to have his jersey retired.

Fulton admits that none of this would have happened had it not been for a pro skateboarder who wanted to live out the dream of playing a game in professional hockey. “It really was (fate),” says Fulton. “Never heard of Danbury before in my life, probably never would have gone there. It’s weird how it all happened and then Mike was there, he helped me so much from everything going on with my past and just making me love the game again.

“Almost like a guardian angel showing me the right way – making me take that leap and helping me do what I did.”

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