NHL analyst Melrose reminisces in new book
Thursday, 11.08.2012 / 11:28 AM / News
By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
He's been part of the National Hockey League as a player, a coach and a broadcaster. Now, Barry Melrose is an author as well.
Melrose, a defenseman during his playing days, was the first coach to get the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup Final.
He parlayed those credentials into a role as ESPN's lead hockey analyst for most of the past 16 years, a perfect vehicle for his love of telling stories. Melrose is also a contributor to NHL Network and NHL.com.
Melrose recounts a number of his favorite stories in "Dropping the Gloves," his first adventure as an author.
For Melrose, the book was an extension of his work as a broadcaster, merely a different venue.
"A lot of people ask me how I wrote the book, and I say I did it exactly how I do my broadcasts: I tell stories," Melrose told NHL.com. "Usually I'm telling stories to my audience. In this situation, I told them to the guy who helped me write it [Roger Vaughan]. I'd tell him story after story after story, and he'd ask questions and I'd tell him a few more stories -- and after a few weeks, we had a book. It was a fun, easy experience for me."
Melrose had a classic Canadian upbringing. He was born in a small town (Kelvington, Saskatchewan) and played on an outdoor rink as a youngster before working his way up through local leagues into major junior hockey with Kelowna.
As with many Canadian families, hockey was a way of coming together, especially with the weekly telecasts of "Hockey Night in Canada."
"I don't think people [in the United States] can understand how much of a social thing it was for a Canadian boy growing up," he said. "That was must-see TV; everybody had to watch. The whole family got in front of the TV, you got the popcorn made in time. Your mother and father were there, your grandparents were there, brothers and sisters. It was a place where we all showed up at the exact same time.
"I wanted to convey just how important that was to our lives and how much of a social imprint that put on me as a child growing up."
A few years later, Melrose's family could watch him on "Hockey Night in Canada." After beginning his pro career with the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association, he wound up with the Winnipeg Jets after the merger in 1979 and was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs the next year.
More than three decades later, the excitement in Melrose's voice is still apparent when he describes his debut in Toronto.
"The move to Toronto was a dream come true," he said. "I was a Canadian boy from the prairies who grew up rooting for the Toronto Maple Leafs, idolizing the Toronto Maple Leafs. I wanted to be a Toronto Maple Leaf.
"That first night, the first game I played for the Maple Leafs in Toronto was probably the most excited I've ever been in my life. Going out there -- and I got to start that night -- and having 'O Canada' sung with that Maple Leaf jersey on was pretty neat."
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Melrose finished his career with the Detroit Red Wings during their down years in the 1980s, ending as a player/coach with Detroit's American Hockey League farm team in Glens Falls, N.Y., where he still has a house.
He stepped off the ice and behind the bench with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League, leading the team to its second straight Memorial Cup in 1988. After a year coaching Seattle, he moved up to the AHL with the Adirondack Red Wings, winning a Calder Cup during his three seasons.
That led to his first NHL coaching job: The Los Angeles Kings hired him in the summer of 1992. Melrose admits in the book that he was nervous at the thought of coaching Wayne Gretzky, but said he soon found out he had no reason to worry.
"The best thing about Gretz was that he turned out to be exactly how I hoped he would be," Melrose said. "He was the epitome of what a hockey player should be: He was humble, he loved the sport, he was student of the sport and a great guy who loved his teammates. His favorite place in the world was the rink.
"The guys loved him on the ice and off. He wanted to be one of the guys -- he loved being out with the guys. The guys loved it when they could make him part of the joke."
The Gretzky-led Kings made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time the following spring, winning Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens before dropping four in a row. By 1996, Melrose found himself on the outside looking in after new ownership made a coaching change -- and he wound up making a quick move from the bench to the broadcast booth.
ESPN hired him as an analyst, a role he's held ever since with the exception of a few months in 2008.
"You learn quickly in our sport that you're going to be fired sooner or later," he said. "It comes with the territory. You've got to have a thick skin.
"I was surprised that ESPN approached me so quickly. I had never thought of [broadcasting] as a career. I realized I was good on TV. The bosses at ESPN said, 'We want him just the way he is. That's what makes him special. People think it's like having a beer with Barry on TV. We don't want to lose that type of personality.'
"I learned very quickly that the best way to keep a job in broadcasting was to be yourself."
Melrose looked like he'd spend the rest of his career on TV until the Tampa Bay Lightning, coming off a last-place finish, hired him as coach in the summer of 2008. It was an opportunity he hadn't expected.
"I had become OK with the fact that I wasn't going to coach again, and I enjoyed what I was doing with ESPN," he said. "I had a great job with a great company and enjoyed what I was doing. I was completely at peace with the idea that I would never coach again and that I could do this for the rest of my life. I was a little surprised that Tampa Bay came and offered me the job."
His second NHL coaching stint lasted less than two months -- he was back at ESPN well before Christmas and said that while the episode cured any desire he might have had to coach again, it did have some benefits.
"It made me realize what a great job I had at ESPN," Melrose, 56, said. "It also probably made me a better broadcaster, because it fired me up again and energized me. It was good for me to coach and get behind the scenes with today's athletes. I think that gave me a better perspective -- it was good for me to get back into the trenches and back into the dressing room with today's athletes."
He said the brief stint behind the bench showed him how different the game was from the one he'd left.
"The game had changed drastically," he said. "The new rules have made the game so much better. But money has changed the game. I said [in the book] that in L.A. I had one guy making a million dollars -- that was Gretzky. In Tampa Bay, I think I had one guy not making a million dollars. The game has gotten so much bigger financially."
His last on-ice legacy was as the first NHL coach for Steven Stamkos, who has blossomed into one of the NHL's best scorers.
"I knew he was going to be good," Melrose said, "but I don't think anyone envisioned that he would score 50 goals in two of his next three seasons. To see him play the way he is -- the complete player he is -- has surprised a lot of people."