By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – A gold Stockton Thunder jersey worn by a fan stood out amid the green and blue at the Florida Everblades game against Mississippi on Friday night.
It was an unusual choice — but then you see the name on the back.
It had been eight months since that player whose name was on the Stockton jersey had last worn Everblades gear, eight months since the 2007-08 ECHL All-Star and team leader in goals was released abruptly with two games left in the regular season.
For better or worse, good and bad, Mathieu Melanson made a definite impact during his 52 games with the Blades last season. — so much of an impact that his former Stockton jersey, the team he played with in 2006-07, can still be seen in the crowd at Germain Arena when the Blades play Melanson’s current team: the Mississippi Sea Wolves, even though Melanson had an injured wrist this past weekend and didn’t play against the Blades.
His 28 goals and 30 assists in 52 games won’t be quickly forgotten. Even today, former teammates wonder if perhaps Melanson’s scoring would have helped the Blades avoid being swept in the first round of the playoffs last season.
But the other side to Melanson’s story, the side that sometimes overshadowed his obvious talent, will also be remembered.
Shortly after Melanson was released in April, allegations and rumors once again surfaced about the then-22-year-old’s attitude, commitment to his team and off-ice antics.
Then-coach Gerry Fleming and Blades general manager Craig Brush publicly dismissed those accusations, citing Melanson’s lack of two-way play and his inability to fit in with the influx of affiliated players sent down from the AHL.
Melanson and his teammates knew differently, though.
“A couple of times (Fleming) told me that he didn’t think I was a team player,” the 6-foot, 190-pound winger remembered.
“Melly’s Melly. He’s a good friend of mine, and he plays with a lot of emotion. … Maybe sometimes he tried too hard or cared too much,” said Brad Herauf, Melanson’s former roommate, adding that maybe Melanson needed a year to mature in the league.
Eight months ago, Melanson left Florida bitterly and angrily, feeling betrayed by Fleming, who had known Melanson since he was a little boy.
Today, Melanson is back in the ECHL’s South Division. This weekend, he was back at Germain Arena.
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“Looking back, I probably made some mistakes,” Melanson says, sitting in the stands at Germain Arena on Thursday, watching the Blades practice. “I know people will find it hard to believe, but Gerry and I really did have a good relationship … something just went wrong along the way.”
Melanson said things first started to change when he returned to Florida from a call-up to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose in January 2007. On the ice, points weren’t coming quite as easily and Melanson was still frustrated about his lack of scoring in the AHL.
The Blades as a whole were frustrated, too, mired in the middle of the South Division.
Shortly after Melanson had returned, the Fort Myers News-Press mentioned in an article that his all-star jersey was hanging in the locker room. It perpetuated rumors that Melanson wasn’t a team player, that his ego mattered more than the team.
The way Melanson sometimes played and acted on the ice — emotional, angry, sometimes even breaking sticks and berating teammates — seemed to support that talk.
But he says that was a misconception.
“Even though I did some things I regret, my heart was always in the right place. I wish people would’ve gotten to know me more. I can’t play well without playing with emotion,” he said. “But the team was always my priority. I hated to lose more than anyone.”
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For most hockey players, it’s size, strength or speed that stops them from getting to the next level. Or maybe they don’t get noticed because they didn’t play on the right teams or didn’t know the right people.
Melanson never had any of those problems. His dad, Rollie, was an NHL goalie for nine seasons and the Montreal Canadiens’ goaltending coach from 1997-2008. Rollie Melanson could introduce his son to plenty of powerful people in the world of hockey.
Plus, Mathieu Melanson won a Memorial Cup — the Canadian major-junior championship — with the Quebec Remparts in 2006. He was the team’s fourth-leading scorer.
But he wasn’t signed — not by the Minnesota Wild, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2003 — and not by any other NHL or AHL teams.
That was when Melanson almost gave up on hockey, before signing with Stockton at the end of the 2007 season and then joining Florida last year.
Players with less impressive stats and fewer connections than Melanson were being signed to NHL and AHL deals. His reputation of having a bad attitude was the only thing slowing his hockey career.
He had hoped that wouldn’t happen with Florida and Fleming, who was still close friends with Melanson’s dad, but by the end of the season, Melanson found himself released and thinking again about what he might have done wrong.
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What about now? Melanson seems to have won a fresh start with the Sea Wolves, even though coach Steffon Walby said he was warned about Melanson’s potential for attitude and off-ice problems.
“I was told about different signs to watch out for,” Walby said. “The first time something like that happens, I’ll have to deal with it. But so far, through Christmas break, I haven’t seen any of that. He seems to have grown up a little bit.”
“He started off the year with me with a clean slate, and right from the first time I talked to him he was very honest about everything,” Walby added.
Despite the warnings, Walby couldn’t pass on Melanson’s offensive upside. And despite his injuries, the gamble seems to have paid off. Melanson already has 11 goals and 13 assists in 23 games. Walby still wants to see more consistency and two-way play, but if Melanson’s attitude and behavior off the ice have improved, his on-ice troubles should be easier to fix.
Occasional linemate and Mississippi leading scorer Ryan Cruthers chuckles when asked about Melanson.
“He’s a character,” Cruthers said. “He’s still one of the more emotional guys I’ve played with, and he has a good time off the rink. He’s still pretty vocal.”
Cruthers said Melanson still has a tendency to spout off at his teammates from time to time, but everyone understands that it’s the emotion and desire to win that drives him to do it.
Plus, Melanson is now backing up his words by setting an example.
“He works hard every day. Nobody can take that away from him,” Cruthers said. “I think (Melanson) learned from what happened in Florida. He’s in a routine here, and he’s doing the right things.”
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On Nov. 9 against Wheeling, just two seconds into the game, Melanson dropped the gloves in a rare fight against Erik Johnson.
He did it to fire up his team, who was then struggling in the standings and matched up against a high-flying, high-scoring Nailers offense.
Two periods later, Mississippi found itself trailing 3-1 with two minutes left in the game. This one looked like another disappointment.
But Melanson suddenly put his team on his shoulders. He scored to make it 3-2 on a rebound from Bill LeClerc. Then, with 24 seconds left and Wheeling on the power play, Melanson charged down the ice and scored short-handed to tie the game.
Three minutes into the overtime period, he won the game for his team with a hat trick.
Melanson’s fight started it, and his three goals ended it. There was no question who the first star of the game was that night.
For Melanson and those who have watched his career, even those who have been frustrated by him, that night was a glimpse into the kind of player, person and teammate they always knew Melanson could be.