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Lightning coaching job fills void for Melrose

Officially, the exile ended at 10:40 a.m.

For Barry Melrose, the exhilaration returned immediately.

Finally, he was back in the game. Finally, he had another team to coach. After all of these years of waiting for another chance, after all of the games he watched from the outside, Melrose was whole again.

He walked into the arena — his arena — and all of the old emotions began to tug at him once again. Yeah, this was what he had missed over the past 13 years and two months and three days. This is the way a hockey building is supposed to look, the way it is supposed to smell, the way it is supposed to feel.

It was 20 minutes before the Lightning was scheduled to name Melrose as its new coach, but for now, he moved through the bowels of the building like a lost man who had found his way home at last. He walked through the locker room, through the equipment areas, into the training room. There had been times he wondered if this return would ever happen, and yet, here he was.

"It's the happiest I have felt in 10 years," Melrose said. "I love the dressing room. I love the smell of the arena. I love the colors. I love the ice."

This is the first thing you need to learn about Melrose. The guy missed coaching every day he was away from it. Before you decide what you think about him as the Lightning coach, before you debate whether he is the right man to replace John Tortorella, before you discuss how the game might have changed while he was away, at least acknowledge how important the job is to him.

Some men are banished to Elba and some to ESPN. Likewise, there are some broadcasters who used to be coaches and some coaches who broadcast while they are waiting for another turn. That was Melrose, who seemed doomed to a life of comfort and celebrity. Never, he says, did he consider himself an analyst. Always, he says, he was a coach.

To truly understand, perhaps you have to have been a coach. Broadcasting is a cushy job, Melrose admits. It's fun and it's low-pressure, and, as Melrose says, "you get smarter every day." There are those, he admits, who think he is nuts to give it up, to return to a life where success is judged by a scoreboard.

"It's a crazy job," Melrose said, laughing softly. "Sometimes, it's the worst job in the world. It's like hitting yourself on the finger with a hammer; it feels good when you stop. There are dirty things. Not sleeping. Being a (jerk) to your wife. Losing hard. I know there will be times this year when we've lost three in a row that I'll say, 'What did I get myself into? I should never have left ESPN.' Then, the next morning, I'll be fired up again."

Melrose pauses. Then he smiles.

"That's what makes the winning so sweet, though. It's the price you pay for it."

Melrose is 51 now, and the Billy Ray Cyrus look has been replaced by a Paulie Walnuts look, complete with the slick white sidewalls at the temple. If it seems as if it has been a long time since he coached the Kings to the Stanley Cup final, well, it has been.

The biggest question about Melrose seems to be how long it has been since he stood behind a bench. And, yes, it has been a while. Still, it isn't as if they came up with a new recipe for ice while he was gone.

Still, it isn't as if he coached hockey before they had ice.

"If anything, the game has reverted to the way I like to play," Melrose said. "Speed matters again. You can't hook and hold and scratch and grab the way you could five years ago."

So why return now? For one thing, now is when the job was offered.

Oh, in the first few years after Melrose left the profession, he had his chances to return. To Chicago. To the New York Rangers. To the Lightning (where he would have replaced Terry Crisp). After that, there would be feelers — five or six in all, he said — where someone would ask him about coaching but nothing would develop. Yes, there were times when Melrose wondered if another job was ever going to happen.

"I think it took a certain type of owner to hire a guy like me," he said. "Because of my personality, I think a guy had to think outside the box."

On the inside, however, Melrose will tell you that he always was a coach. He would watch a playoff series and imagine how he would match one team against another. He would think about what he might try on a power play.

"Coaches watch the game differently than other people," Melrose said.

It is a strange thing, the way this profession latches onto a man. It burrows deep into the bone, it flows through the blood and, for men such as Melrose, it doesn't go away. Melrose starts talking about it, and you cannot help but note that it sounds like a man talking about an addiction.

"If Joyce Brothers were to talk to coaches, she'd probably think of it as something like an addiction," Melrose says, laughing again. "We definitely aren't right."

Oh, Dick Vitale understands. For seven or eight years into his broadcast career, Vitale felt the same burning. Eventually, however, he began to identify himself as a broadcaster, not as a basketball coach.

"It depends on the individual," Vitale said. "In my case, if I had gotten back into coaching, I don't think I would have made it past 50. I took the losses so personal, I was so emotionally involved, it tore me apart.

"I understand the way Barry's feeling. There is that incredible high when you win and that unbelievable low when you don't. And really, there aren't that many chances that come along. Barry can always come back to TV. He was undefeated in television. I tell people: I've coached more than 1,000 games on TV, and I've never lost."

Oh, there are some losses waiting on Melrose. Some tough times, too.

But for all of his polish, for all of his charisma, there is something else you should know about Melrose. He expects to succeed.

"I'm very confident," he says. "I know what works. I know what kind of people I want on the team. I know what it takes to win, and we'll get it done."

No doubts?

"No doubts."

Lightning coaching job fills void for Melrose 06/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 6:50pm]

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