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New Lightning coach brings tempered toughness

TAMPA — It's been a long time since new Lightning owner Len Barrie played against a Barry Melrose-coached team; about 16 years to be exact in the AHL.

But that doesn't mean the memory has faded.

"Barry's teams were not fun to play against," Barrie recalled. "He knocked my teeth out once at Adirondack, his team did."

"Because you were probably yapping too much," Melrose said.

The exchange Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum between Barrie and the Lightning's new coach was good for a laugh. But it also was instructive as an illustration of how he expects his teams to play.

"We're going to win by wanting it more and paying a bigger price," he said. "That's what we're going to focus on, getting guys who play hard every night. No one is going to like walking into this building and playing the Lightning."

Melrose, 51, who led the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup final but for the past 12 years has been an ESPN analyst, was pulled in several directions during his introduction, and perhaps even jumped the gun by naming Rick Tocchet and Wes Walz as assistants.

Melrose joked getting back into coaching was easier because the job was in the South.

"I'd have a lot harder time talking my wife into going to Edmonton than Tampa," Melrose said.

He said he had three other coaching offers since the Kings fired him in April 1995 — the Blackhawks, Rangers and Lightning when Phil Esposito was in charge, but only six or so feelers since. He admitted part of the reason for coming back is "to show people they should have hired me as a coach."

More to the point, though, "I'm not a bystander," Melrose said. "I hate being on the outside looking in. I wanted to be on the inside again."

There was the story of how a mutual friend about two months ago brought Melrose, Barrie and owner Oren Koules together and how Barrie said he was sold after a 30-minute phone call.

Melrose brushed off concerns the game has passed him by, reminding, "Nobody has watched more hockey than me in the last five years. … It's the personnel" that wins games. "There's not many players in the NHL I don't have a read on."

And there was an immediate separation from former coach John Tortorella when Melrose described how, "I treat (players) with respect.

"I'll never embarrass a player of mine, but I tell them don't embarrass me by not playing hard. Once we get those facts straightened out and we're on the same page, guys will enjoy playing for me. You don't have to be hated to be a good coach."

"I like that," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "That's a great philosophy. I know he'll hold people accountable, but he'll do it his way."

The blip? A miscommunication between Koules and Melrose that resulted in Melrose naming Tocchet, who played for Melrose in Los Angeles and is a Coyotes assistant, and Walz, the former Wild center, though Koules apparently wasn't ready to make the announcement.

Koules, later, didn't want to talk about it. Melrose shrugged.

"I'm not a good cloak-and-dagger guy," he said. "When you deal with me, you'll know how I feel."

There was no doubt about Melrose's vision for the Lightning.

He said he generally doesn't like the trap, but there are times you just have to clog the neutral zone.

He said, "We're going to attack when we can," and he believes in letting skill players "be creative and use their imaginations. I give them a lot of freedom. All I ask in return is that they compete defensively."

And underlying it all, "We're going to be physical."

Melrose said he wasn't talking about fighting: "You can intimidate by speed. You can intimidate by good defense. You intimidate by goaltending. That's what I want out of this team. The fast guys intimidate fast, the tough guys intimidate tough."

He painted a picture of Red Wings defenseman Nick Lidstrom chasing a puck in his own end.

"One of our guys is going to ram him hard into the boards. The first guy is going to finish his check, and the second guy is going to be right on top of him looking for the loose puck."

"Teams need to be more afraid and respectful playing in our rink," Koules said. "I think we lost a little of that last year, and anyone knows whether it be the juniors, the American League or the NHL, with Barry Melrose teams, you know you've been in a hockey game."

Just ask Barrie about his teeth.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

>>FAST FACTS

Meet Barry Melrose

Hometown: Kelvington, Saskatchewan

Age: 51 (July 15, 1956)

Family: Wife Cindy; sons Tyrell, 25, and Adrien, 23

Player: Second-round pick (36th overall) in 1976 by the Canadiens. … The defenseman played six NHL seasons with the Jets, Maple Leafs and Red Wings (10 goals, 23 assists and 728 penalty minutes in 300 games). … Played 178 games for Cincinnati of the WHA.

Coach: Led Medicine Hat in 1988 to the Canadian junior league Memorial Cup championship. … Coached three years in the AHL, then jumped to the NHL as coach of the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings in 1992 and took them to the Stanley Cup final in his first season, losing to the Canadiens. Fired in 1995 (82-103, 31 ties).

Notable: ESPN analyst from 1996 to 2008. … Became a United States citizen in 1998.

New Lightning coach brings tempered toughness 06/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 5:16pm]
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