Before ending up in front of the camera, Barry Melrose lived and breathed professional hockey, both on the ice and, later, behind the bench. No stranger to the penalty box, the former defenseman learned more than just the workings of the game when he played for the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, two teams that introduced him to the history and rivalry of the Original Six.
It didn’t take long for Melrose to contribute to those teams and add to his personal cache of great nights.
“My first game in Toronto as a Maple Leaf was one of my great nights that I’ll always remember,” Melrose said. “I got in a fight with seven seconds into the game and I scored a short-handed goal that game, so that was one of my great memories, my first night playing for Toronto.”
Melrose dropped the gloves with right winger Jim Hamilton in a fight prompted more by nerves than anything that had happened on the ice.
“It was against Pittsburgh and I was just so nervous,” Melrose said. “I started the game, I was just so nervous, I had to do something. And we went in the corner, and I just grabbed him and started fighting with him because I had to do something. My heart was beating about a thousand miles an hour; I had to do something to settle me down.”
Melrose’s debut wasn’t over after cooling down for five minutes in the penalty box. Later in the game, a misplayed puck on the penalty kill allowed the defenseman to score on a breakaway.
“The goaltender that night was Michel Dion who I played with in Cincinnati so I actually scored on one of my old buddies, too,” Melrose said. “Down the right side, stood up, intercepted a pass, stepped over the blue line, slapper and Michel misplayed it and it trickled in behind him. So as far as I’m concerned it was beautiful. But that was one of my great nights that I’ll always remember.”
Much of Melrose’s nervousness can be accredited to his roots. As a Saskatchewan native, his favorite team growing up had been the Leafs; playing for his childhood favorite only served to heighten the experience of playing in Toronto, which lasted for much of three seasons until he was signed as a free agent by the Wings in 1983.
“It’s always special when you play for an Original Six team,” Melrose said. “And both Toronto and Detroit have such history and such storied past. The uniforms are sacred, beautiful uniforms, they’re some of the most famous jerseys in sports. That probably meant the most to me, just the fact that you’re playing on two Original Six teams.”
It was during Melrose’s time in Toronto that he established himself as a tough defender, picking up a total of 420 penalty minutes in three partial seasons with the Leafs.
“Another thing I remember about those two teams are great guys,” Melrose said. “A lot of great guys on Toronto, still some of my best friends. On Detroit, too. Lots of really good guys on Detroit – John Barrett, Reed Larson, Danny Gare, Brad Park.”
Playing parts of two seasons with Detroit gave Melrose the opportunity to play against many of his old Leafs’ teammates. While the on-ice reunions were typically good-natured, Melrose remembers one such encounter with his old team that led to one of the most memorable bench-clearing brawls in the history of the Wings-Leafs rivalry. To make the inter-connectedness between the two teams all the more complicated, it was a collision between Melrose and his cousin, Leafs forward Wendel Clark that prompted the game’s aggression.
“One of the great brawls in Toronto-Detroit history, I was a part of,” Melrose said. “We were playing Toronto in Toronto and me and Wendel Clark met behind the net. There was a big collision, and after that all hell broke loose. And I’ll always remember that because Wendel and I started it.”
The game was played in Toronto on January 13, 1986, but the implications extended beyond the game as both Bob Probert and Park received suspensions in the days following the mayhem.
“That’s the night that Bob Probert knocked out Bob McGill,” Melrose said. “Eddie Mio pounded (Miroslav) Ihnacak. Brad Park got suspended 10 games. That was one of the great brawls of that year.”
Despite being part of such a moment, Melrose didn’t get to have many other similar moments in Motor City, as his trade to Detroit came late in his career. He played only 35 games – the last he play in the NHL – with the Wings over the course of two seasons. Just as his career was winding down, the Wings’ organization was in flux, slowly improving their status under new management and a new leader, Steve Yzerman.
“My last year, I played when Stevie came in,” Melrose said. “So I got to play with Stevie a little bit, but you could see them turning the corner. We made the playoffs my last year there.”
Because of the time he spent with the Wings’ farm club in Adirondack, Melrose was able to easily transition from sitting on the bench to standing behind it.
“Detroit gave me the opportunity to start coaching because when I was down in Adirondack, I got to be an assistant coach there,” he said.
Immediately following his playing career, Melrose coached the Medicine Hat Tigers to a Memorial Cup title. Returning to Adirondack a few years later, he continued his success by leading the team to a Calder Cup victory in 1992. After moving to the Los Angeles Kings the following season, Melrose almost continued his championship winning streak but came up short to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals.
Despite his successes elsewhere, Melrose points to Detroit as one of the most important factors in his post-playing career.
“They brought me back to coach the minor league team in the ’90s,” Melrose said. “So I owe the Detroit Red Wings quite a bit.”