When Barry came back

A chat with former Lightning head coach and current ESPN hockey pundit Barry Melrose.

click to enlarge HAIR TODAY: The Master of the Mullet enjoys his current gig as ESPN commentator. - ESPN
HAIR TODAY: The Master of the Mullet enjoys his current gig as ESPN commentator.

ESPN’s Barry Melrose is the most respected hockey analyst in the world, despite the fact that some Tampa Bay Lightning fans may disagree (grow up, kids). He was in town over the weekend for the 2012 Men’s NCAA Frozen Four, and I caught up with the Master of the Mullet to talk hockey, break down the basement-dwelling Bolts and find out what it tastes like to eat Crow à la Stamkos.

CL: What’s it like to be back in Tampa?

Barry Melrose: Oh, it’s great… I think the Frozen Four should be held in Tampa every year.

Do you think hockey gets a fair shake here?

You look at cities throughout the United States; hockey is sort of a regional sport, I guess you’d say. In some cities we’re no. 1, in some cities we’re no. 2. Obviously, probably here in Tampa, hockey would probably be no. 3. But when they’re winning and when they went to the finals [in 2004] and won the Stanley Cup, that place was packed; it was an unbelievable building. So if you put a good product on the ice and you win games, the people will come. But obviously football, in the United States, is a different animal and it’s very tough to compete against head-to-head. As I said, if Tampa has a good team, they fill the building.

Looking at the NHL landscape, where do you see Tampa Bay, other than toward the bottom?

I think it’s a team with a good future. You’ve got the best goal scorer in the world on your team in Steven Stamkos. They’re going to draft high again this year; they’ve drafted high for a number of years because of… being bad. Victor Hedman is a quick young defenseman to build around back there. They obviously have to find a goaltender this year, some place. Stevie Yzerman’s doing a good job, they’ve got an owner that will spend money, and those two things — a smart GM and an owner who spends money — usually mean the team’s getting rebuilt very quickly.

That touches on my next question: How does this regime compare to the OK Hockey group?

It’s an entirely different animal. This group is well-funded; the owner’s got a lot of money. He’s already spent millions on the building and he’s basically given Stevie carte blanche to do whatever he wants. And it’s stable; you know this guy’s going to have money in 10 years. You know this guy’s going to ready to shell out money in 20 years. There’s stability in the franchise now. There wasn’t stability before.

What do you think of Guy Boucher behind the bench?

He’s a good coach and he’s done a good job wherever he’s been. Last year he had them playing very well, there were a lot of guys who had excellent years. The young players came in and played very well. So I think he’s done a good job.

After leaving Tampa, you’d said Steven Stamkos wasn’t NHL-ready; he now has his second Rocket Richard scoring title with a 60-goal season. What do you think of the development of his game?

I think it’s been unbelievable. I had him for 12 games, so it’s a different reality with a full-blown NHL player with four years under his belt. … He’s got a fantastic shot, he’s a good skater, he competes very hard. And like I said, he’s the best goal scorer in the world.

What went wrong for the Lightning this season and what will it take for them to turn it around next year?

What happens sometimes is you count on people and the job doesn’t get done and you’re in trouble. Tampa thought that [goaltenders Dwayne] Roloson and [Mathieu] Garon was the group they wanted in net and, you know, they didn’t play great. They played great at times; Garon came in and played well at times. You know, Roloson, I think, didn’t play the way they thought he would. In the NHL today, if you don’t have great goaltending, you don’t win.

As the sport evolves, what direction do you see it heading?

I think the sky’s the limit for the NHL. You saw, with the NBC package, ratings are good. The buildings are full. We have great young stars. It’s playoff time, which is always the most exciting part of the season in the NHL. It’s a world sport; we’ve got the Olympics coming up over in Russia. I think the NHL revenues are going up every year. If we can just get a new collective bargaining agreement signed with no problems, I think the NHL is just going to be on fire.

Do you have any aspirations to get back behind the bench again?

No, I’m very happy where I am. I’ve got the best job in sports.

You’ve got a rather iconic look: one of the best beards in existence and a haircut celebrated throughout the sport. Any style tips?

My whole thing is I never wanted to look like everybody else. I think that the easiest thing in the world is to just be a clone and say the same things as everybody else and look the same as everybody else. For those guys out there that have the guts not to look like everybody else, then just go for however you want to look. That’s sort of the way I’ve lived my life.

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