The many connections in Barry Melrose’s hockey life are both startling and remarkable.
He played for Punch Imlach at the end in Toronto and with Borje Salming and Darryl Sittler at the beginning with the Maple Leafs.
He played for Harry Neale in Detroit and alongside Steve Yzerman and Bob Probert.
He played for Jacques Demers in Cincinnati and with the teenager Mike Gartner.
He coached Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille and Jari Kurri with the Los Angeles Kings and that was after he coached Trevor Linden in Medicine Hat.
This kid from Kelvington, Sask., population of 864 depending on the day, the place you can find when Highway 38 intersects with Highway 49, happens to be Wendel Clark’s cousin and Joey Kocur’s cousin. And, for the past 46 years, he had made his living in and around professional hockey as player, coach and broadcaster.
Just not any more.
About three years ago, Melrose knew something wasn’t right with him. The simple pleasures in life — lighting a cigar, opening a can of beer, pouring a drink for friends, reading a book — were suddenly challenging and difficult. His hands started to shake. Some days were better than others.
Sometimes the words he wanted to say — as someone who had become the voice of hockey in America on ESPN for almost 30 years, the Don Cherry without the crazy clothing — weren’t coming out as intended.
As Melrose has managed his entire life, he pushed on — because that’s what he always has done. He kept working, kept trying, he wasn’t going to let anything defeat him.
But Parkinson’s Disease has a mind of its own. Parkinson’s had taken over too many of his days. And when this hockey season began, one of Melrose’s closest friends at ESPN, John Buccigross, announced that Melrose would not be on television because he was suffering from Parkinson’s.
“I feel fortunate,” Melrose said on the phone from his home in Florida.
Those aren’t the words you would expect from someone with Parkinson’s, but Melrose has made a living saying what no one would or could say.
“You look around at what other people have, some people have a lot worse than me. You just keep battling and you hope something will happen, something will get better,” he said. “Since I got this, I’ve heard from so many people. I didn’t know so many people have this. Everyone seems to have it. And a lot of us don’t know, the doctors don’t seem to know, what’s going to happen next.”
His phone hasn’t stopped ringing and buzzing since the news of his situation became public. In truth, his phone was buzzing before that.
Michael J. Fox, the Canadian star who Melrose met when he was coaching the L.A. Kings, reached out to him. Fox has been living with Parkinson’s for more than 30 years.
There’s no magic here, there’s no trick plays, every day is a fight and you have to keep on fighting.”
Michael J. Fox’s words to Barry Melrose
Fox told him “you’re in the second inning of a 10-inning game … there’s no magic here, there’s no trick plays, every day is a fight and you have to keep on fighting.”
“Michael is an amazing guy,” Melrose said. “His story is great. He grew up in B.C. and became a star. And knowing what he has gone through for 30 years is so impressive to me. He’s not a big man. It takes so much work to do anything on a daily basis. You lose your strength. He’s an inspiration to me. He’s out there every day trying to stay strong, trying to battle. And he’s a great guy, too.
“He reminds me of Gretzky, although you really can’t compare anyone to Gretzky. But he has so many of those same qualities, the qualities I saw in Wayne.”
Gretzky hasn’t just called. He has rolled up his sleeves for his old coach. He’s involved, like Fox, like former NHLer Steve Ludzik, in fundraising for Parkinson’s. The more money raised, the more research done, the more possibilities for the future.
Melrose is 67 years young. He never seemed like an old man, never behind the times. He was always bright and coherent and funny and succinct in his television spots on a network that only recently came to care about hockey.
At one time, Melrose was just about the only voice of hockey on ESPN, then suddenly the network became rightholders and Mark Messier and P.K. Subban and Ray Ferraro were visible almost daily on American television.
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The love of the game — or the people in it — hasn’t left Melrose and probably never will.
You find out who your friends are, or who cares about you, when you’re not right. You find out that the hockey world is incredibly large and small all at the same time, which someone working for ESPN from a Canadian town of 684 could certainly comprehend.
“At one time, I think we had about six guys from our area playing in the NHL — me, Wendel, Joey, Kelly Chase, Trent Yawney and Bernie Federko — and Winnipeg didn’t have any,” he said. “I was always amazed by that back then. They had a team but nobody from there playing in the league.”
Without proof of any kind, Melrose and his wife are convinced that he has the brain disease CTE, which has led to his Parkinson’s. Daily he takes his pills, watches hockey, pushes himself to walk — because the walks are part of his daily maintenance.
“You can’t just sit on the couch,” said Melrose, the former Leaf who coached the Kings in that famous 1993 semifinal series. “You have to battle. You have to walk. We try and walk every day. You have to own your body and make it work, hard as that may be.
“It hasn’t gotten worse. I think it’s gotten better. That’s the fight. Every day is a fight.”