Grain dust. Barry Melrose hates the stuff.
Whether you're behind the combine, shoveling newly threshed wheat or moving the harvest into the stagnant air of the granary, it is everywhere and it is nasty.
"Itchy, itchy, itchy," Melrose said. "There's no way to hide. You're in it. You're there. You just dread it."
So he got out, left the two family farms in Kelvington, Saskatchewan, and a life that helped mold his convictions of self-sufficiency and hard work; not because of the dust, but because with a wife and two boys, he had to make sure his income was steady after a career as a pro hockey player.
It all is so long ago for the Lightning's new coach, who in the early '90s parlayed his knowledge of the game into a bench job with the Kings and turned a gift of gab into 12 years as one of ESPN's most recognizable analysts.
"It made me what I am today," said Melrose, who turns 52 on July 15 and recently signed a three-year deal with Tampa Bay. "If I wouldn't have been raised with the work ethic and the values that my parents and grandparents gave me, with the attitude you can do anything and not be scared of anything … "
He might not have left home at 15 to play for the junior Weyburn Red Wings. And he might not have left a cushy, sleep-at-night job as a television personality to face the pressure and second-guessing of the NHL and questions about whether the game passed him by since leading Wayne Gretzky's Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup final.
It helps to have a safety net.
"I think he'll have a job at ESPN any time he wants," SportsCenter anchor and friend Steve Levy said.
But like Melrose said, "Hopefully, I never see it again."
It starts at home
Melrose said he loved the family farms that totaled about 1,500 acres outside Kelvington's downtown, the center of a community so small (2001 population: 1,007), he said there wasn't even a traffic light.
One farm was owned by the parents of Melrose's father, James; the other, about 10 miles away, by the parents of mom Norrie.
Melrose, the second of four kids, including Cindy, Warren and the oldest, Vicki, said three generations living and working together was a life tutorial.
"It was very special to me," he said.
"The self-reliance, having your own land. How good a farmer you'll be determined by how hard you worked. It's a great way to raise a family."
Brother Warren said his parents, both of whom have died, were "stern but very big-hearted." Discipline wasn't handed out by a paddle, but by guilt:
"And if we did something right, we got maybe not a big pat on the back, but we knew we did something good."
Family gatherings were raucous with rolling debates about sports, politics, anything. There was loud laughter, especially from James and the grandparents, all of whom, Warren said, "could sit down and talk to you for hours. … It didn't matter if they knew you or not."
It is from them, Warren said, his big brother likely got the gift of gab that served so well at ESPN.
At 13, Melrose said, he sold three pigs for $67, which bought his first pair of skates — Tacks, like the pros wore. At 15 he left for Weyburn, 190 miles south, which is where he met coach Dwight McMillan, whose imprint Melrose said he still carries.
"Best coach I ever had," he said. "Dwight was hard on me, but I never once thought he didn't like me.
"What I learned is you don't have to be a bad guy to have good guys play for you. I realized that is how I wanted to coach."
After six seasons as a rugged NHL defenseman — 10 goals, 728 penalty minutes in 300 games for the Jets, Maple Leafs and Red Wings — Melrose moved behind the bench.
He had long thought about coaching during offseasons working the farms, when, married to Cindy and with young sons Tyrell and Adrien, he realized he could make better money staying in the game after retiring as a player.
A year after retiring, he coached junior team Medicine Hat to the 1988 Memorial Cup. He led AHL Adirondack to the 1992 Calder Cup. The next season, he led the Kings to the Stanley Cup final before losing to Montreal in five games.
He also gained Gretzky as an ally.
"He treats his players like men," Gretzky said, adding, "But he's a big teddy bear. You're not going to run into a nicer person. He's good to all his players, and that really goes a long way. He'll get on guys, but he realizes he needs those guys to produce."
In Medicine Hat, forward Rob DiMaio, who played three seasons for Tampa Bay, said Melrose "brought a level of accountability and determination to the locker room," but also gave time off if the team played well.
In Los Angeles, Gretzky said, Melrose formed a committee of veterans with which he met every couple of weeks or so to "take the pulse of the team."
And goalie Kelly Hrudey said Melrose's patience got him through a bad slump he believes almost ended his career during the 1992-93 season. Melrose even brought in self-help guru Tony Robbins for a one-on-one with Hrudey, whose play late in the season was key in the Kings' push to the final.
"If it would have been old-school thinking and coaching, I would have been left to twist in the wind," Hrudey told Canada's CBC. "I owe a lot to Barry. I'm forever indebted to him for saving me."
Melrose had less success saving himself in L.A., in part, to sometimes contentious dealings with general managers Nick Beverley and Sam McMaster.
"Barry had issues with some of the staff," former Kings owner Bruce McNall said. "There's always going to be with an oversized personality like Barry. He's a big guy. He's going to be very definitive. He's not just going to sit back and coach. He's going to give his opinion, and he's going to be definitive about it."
"I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread," Melrose said. "I thought you could get whatever you wanted."
The clashes, generally over personnel, and a poor season led to his firing in April 1995 with a record of 82-103 (with 31 ties) in two-plus seasons.
Melrose said he still will give opinions but added, "I'm a lot smarter now and a lot better with people."
As for sentiments Melrose wasn't strong with Xs and Os or matching lines: "I've heard that before, and I always chuckle at it," he said. "That's nonsense as far as I'm concerned."
And even more of a nonstarter today, Melrose said, considering what he believes is a sharpened coaching sense after dissecting and critiquing thousands of games for ESPN.
"I don't remember him being any better or worse than any of the other coaches in the league," said Pierre McGuire, who faced Melrose as coach of the Whalers. "He wasn't Pat Burns or Scotty Bowman, but he was good enough. He got to the Stanley Cup final."
Which apparently is nothing compared to battling grain dust.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.