SPOTLIGHT: MELROSE PICKS

Bruce BerletBy Bruce Berlet

Former NHL player and coach Barry Melrose has always been an entertaining personality and a straight shooter as an ESPN hockey analyst.

Not surprisingly, Melrose picked two former Hartford Whalers as the greatest power forwards in NHL history. Melrose’s criteria was the candidate has to be a frontline player, very physical and has to fight. He’s not just a big guy who is a very good player who scores but is a big, mean, nasty, physical, tough guy to play against. Melrose’s picks have a lot of goals and penalty minutes and are the type of guy the other team didn’t like to play against.

When you have a special occurrence named after you, it’s hardly a surprise that Melrose’s No. 1 power forward is Gordie Howe, who ended his illustrious 32-year pro career playing with sons Mark and Marty in Houston and Hartford. When anyone who has a goal, an assist and a fight in a game is deemed to have had a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” it’s the ultimate in flattery for a tough, talented player.

Melrose said he never realized how big the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Howe was until he played against him in the World Hockey Association when he was in Cincinnati and Gordie in Houston and nearly 50 years old. And players weren’t nearly as big and fast in Howe’s era as they are now, which helps explain why he was the most dominant player of his day.

“I can’t imagine what he was like in his 20s,” Melrose wrote. “He was big, he was mean, he would fight, obviously he was one of the greatest goal scorers we’ve got in our sport and he was a great passer. If you look at power forward in the dictionary, there’s probably a photo of Gordie Howe next to it.

“You watch film of back in those days and he towered above guys. You see him going to the net and the D can’t handle him because he’s so big, so powerful and had a rocket of a wrist shot. I played against Gordie and I know. You knew where he was at all times – and you did that because it was for your own safety.”

Melrose’s No. 2 was Brendan Shanahan, who also made his mark mostly with the Detroit Red Wings but also had a brief stint with the Whalers as a right wing and captain. He’s a member of the Triple Gold Club, having won a Stanley Cup (1997, 1998, 2002), World Hockey Championship (1994) and Olympic gold medal (2002).

“This guy did it over a long period of time,” Melrose wrote. “He fought everybody, his numbers are fantastic, he won Stanley Cups – just a complete, complete player. He might not have been as tough as (Boston Bruins right wing Cam) Neely, but he may have been a better goal scorer. He was also a great passer, tallying more assists than he did goals. What’s more is that he came in as an 18-year-old, and he did it from Day 1.”

Shanahan is now the NHL’s disciplinarian, and having played until 2009 gives him a better understanding of what is going on on the ice as far as fighting and hitting.

“He knows what’s going through the minds of tough guys and why they’re fighting at that point of the game,” Melrose said. “He can tell when a fight is done on purpose or when it’s done as a tool by the coach. I think Brendan, his career and what he went through as a player and how he played will make him better qualified for that job than a lot of people would have been.”

Melrose’s third choice played about 100 miles from Hartford and had his career cut short by a hit from former Whalers defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. Neely’s numbers (395 goals, 299 assists, 1,200 penalty minutes) aren’t as high as they would have been if he hadn’t been injured so much. But for a few seasons he was arguably one of the best players in the NHL, scoring 50 goals with a rocket shot and being one of the toughest guys and best fighters in the league.

“Without a doubt, he was one of the scariest guys in that era to play against,” Melrose wrote.

No. 4 played about 100 miles in the opposite direction from Neely. Clark Gillies was a rugged mainstay of the New York Islanders’ four consecutive Stanley Cup titles at the start of the 1980s. The Isles had future Hall of Famers Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin, but they were often playing against the Philadelphia Flyers, and Gillies was often the MVP.

“Back then, we said he ‘kept the flies off Bossy and Trottier,’ ” Melrose wrote. “Opponents knew that if anybody did something to them they’d have to answer to Clark and that’s what a power forward does. He’s a deterrent. He was as tough as anyone in the NHL, but he was also an excellent hockey player. It’s not just enough to be a tough guy. You have to be an excellent hockey player, too. Clark Gilles certainly was.”

Wendel Clark got Melrose’s final nod after playing 793 NHL games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Quebec Nordiques, Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Red Wings and Blackhawks. In the early 1990s, Clark was probably one of the three toughest forwards in the NHL while scoring 40 goals a season.

“I coached against him in 1993 when I was with L.A. and Wendel was with Toronto, and he was their best player,” Melrose said. “We stopped Doug Gilmour, we stopped Dave Andreychuk, but we just couldn’t stop Wendel. It seemed like he scored every game against us. Gilmour got a lot of ink, Andreychuk scored a lot of goals, but to me, Wendel was the heart and soul of that team.”

There also was some local ties in Melrose’s “Top Five Skaters of All-Time,” starting with Bruins Hall of Fame legend Bobby Orr, whose all-around brilliance revolutionized a defenseman’s role that was lately taken on by Paul Coffey, who won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins and spent an unhappy 20 games with the Whalers in 1996 before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.

“If you look at what (Orr) did, the way he could move sideways, a lot like Coffey, (though) people just couldn’t catch Bobby Orr,” Melrose wrote. “He played the game at a different speed. He created the spin-o-rama – no one had ever done the spin-o-rama before Orr did it. The offense was spectacular – he was the first defenseman to win the scoring title.

“He could hold the puck for a minute at a time. He could keep it for full shifts because he skated so much better than everyone else. He changed the game in so many ways, and he was able to do all of this because of his skating ability. He skated so low to the ice, and he was another bow-legged skater. He was very courageous and played with a ton of passion.

“Orr was over plus-100 one year – nowadays if a defense is over plus-30 people are ecstatic. When you watched him play, it was just two different speeds. When he had the puck people were either chasing him or they were scared of him and backed in. They were petrified. He could make you look like an idiot, and he revolutionized the game with his skating ability. That’s why I think Bobby Orr is the greatest skater in the history of the game.”

Orr often mesmerized the opposition with his stickhandling, pirouettes and, of course, his skating. Other than his famous “fly-through-the-air goal” against the St. Louis Blues to clinch the Stanley Cup on May 10, 1970, my favorite Orr moment is seeing him pick up the puck while killing a penalty against the California Golden Seals, skating the length of the ice weaving around and through the Seals players, circling the opposing net and making a return trip down the ice, picking up one of his gloves along the way. He must have killed more than a minute of the penalty on his own, but such mad-cap dashes unfortunately led to a premature end to his career. But Orr remains an icon in Boston, where his No. 4 is retired, and receives loud ovations in Chicago, where he finished his career in 1978-79. Despite the constant knee problems and being a defenseman, Orr had an astonishing 270 goals, 645 assists, 915 points and was a NHL record plus-597 in 657 NHL games with the Bruins and Blackhawks.

Melrose rated Coffey the second-best skater, followed by Mike Modano, who retired after last season, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure, who had seasons of 60, 60, 59 and 58 goals before finishing his career with the Rangers in an injury-plagued 2002-03 season.

GERNANDER, LEETCH TO BE AMONG SEVEN NEW HALL OF FAME MEMBERS

Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native who spent most of his 16-year NHL career with the Rangers, are among the seven newly selected members of the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame. Others to be honored on “Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame Night” on March 10 when the Norfolk Admirals are at the XL Center are former Whalers goalie Mike Liut and right wings Blaine Stoughton and Pat Verbeek, three-time Olympian and all-time NCAA women’s leading scorer Julie Chu, a native of Fairfield, and William E. Barnes, one of the founders of the New England Whalers. Barnes was involved in numerous charitable organizations before he died in 2006.

Fox 61’s Rich Coppola will emcee the induction ceremony at 3:30 p.m. (free admission), and the banner raising will be during the first intermission of the Whale-Admirals game.

“Obviously it’s nice to be recognized, and it’s a little different that some of those players are NHL guys,” said Gernander, whose No. 12 is the only number in Wolf Pack/Whale history to be retired to the XL Center rafters. “I’ve spent more time in Connecticut than anywhere else, so I’m pretty fortunate in that regard. Any time that you get recognized I don’t think it’s so much the individual as it’s the people he has been fortunate enough to be associated with. It’s been a first-class organization for a parent club as far as the New York Rangers go. We’re always given every opportunity to succeed and excel here, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play with so many good players and to coach so many good players that I just feel very fortunate. I think it’s just more or less a byproduct of all the great people that I’ve been able to work with.”

Gernander has been with the Wolf Pack/Whale franchise since 1997, when the Rangers moved their top affiliate to Hartford from Binghamton, N.Y., where he played for three seasons. After retiring in 2005 as the AHL’s all-time leader with 123 playoff games and the league’s career scoring leader among American-born players with 624 points in 973 games, Gernander had his number retired on Oct. 8, 2005 as he began two seasons as an assistant coach under Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld. Gernander took over as head coach on July 23, 2007 and is trying to lead the Whale to the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

On her Twitter account, Chu, an assistant coach for the Union College women’s hockey team who also plays for the Montreal Stars in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, said, “Greatly honored to be a part of the 2012 CT Hockey Hall of Fame class. What a privilege.” A week after being inducted into the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame, Chu will be the keynote speaker at the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award ceremony in Duluth, Minn., where the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four will be played March 16 and 18. Chu won the award in 2007 as a senior at Harvard University, where she played with fellow Olympians Angela Ruggerio, who played at Choate School in Wallingford, and Branford native Caitlin Cahow, who is playing for the CWHL’s Boston Blades. The Kazmaier Award is annually given by the USA Hockey Foundation to the top player in NCAA Division I women’s hockey.

The Class of 2012, the first inductees since 1990, will join the eight members of the storied Hartford Whalers Hall of Fame that have been adopted by the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame. The seven new members will be inducted before the game against the Admirals and will be recognized during the first intermission. Fans will receive a special souvenir of the night as 5,000 Hall of Fame posters will be given away, courtesy of SuperCuts. There also will be a special meet-and-greet event that night with details to be announced soon. For more information, visit CTHockeyHOF.org.

HOCKEY ’N HEELS LADIES NIGHT ON FEB. 29

The Whale is hosting its first Hockey ’n Heels Ladies Night on Feb. 29 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Russian Lady in Hartford. Appetizers and drink specials will be available as several Whale players will be on hand to offer insight on hockey.

Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., and $35 tickets will include a ticket to the Whale game against the Sound Tigers on March 9, a picture with the players and a Hockey ’n Heels T-shirt. Fans must be at least 18 years old, and tickets must be ordered by Feb. 27. For more information or to order tickets, contact Ashley Ford at 860-728-3366 or Ashley.fore@ctwhale.com.

College students can get discounted Whale tickets to weekday games with a “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office at the XL Center can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.

Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at TheAHL.com. The Whale’s Mats Zuccarello and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and Greenwich native Cam Atkinson of the Falcons were on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane, captain of the Hershey Bears.

LEGACE SETS WINS RECORD FOR FALCONS GOALIES

Manny Legace’s 30-save performance in a 4-1 victory over the Providence Bruins on Saturday night made him the Falcons’ career leader among goalies with 64 wins, one more than former teammate Scott Langkow.

“Scotty’s my good buddy,” Legace told Fran Sypek of the Springfield Union-Times. “We played against each other in Germany last year.”

“It was a great night for Manny,” Falcons coach Rob Riley said. “We are happy for him, he has meant a lot to this organization and he was very good for us tonight.”

Legace, the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, was the game’s first start, and when he came out for his curtain call, he took a quick lap to center ice pointing up and thanking the fans and pointing over to the family section inside the MassMutual Center.

“He is a true professional and has been all year for us,” Riley said. “He was sharp throughout the game, and it was a must needed win for our team.”

Former Wolf Pack wings Alexandre Giroux and Dane Byers and Atkinson, who starred at Avon Old Farms and Boston College, scored the Falcons’ first three goals.

Legace lost 2-1 to the Worcester Sharks on Sunday as Alex Stalock made 15 saves in his first AHL start in more than a year. The 15 stops included a penalty shot by Giroux, who has 358 AHL goals and a former AHL MVP. The Falcons’ lone goal came from Byers, who scored in a third straight game, starting in a 6-3 loss to the Whale on Friday night. The Falcons could have got within a point of the Sharks but are now five back with only 23 games left.

Stalock’s career was threatened when the skate of the Manchester Monarchs’ Dwight King sliced a nerve in the back of his left knee in a game on Feb. 4, 2011. Stalock, who set an AHL rookie record with 39 wins in 2009-10 when he was team MVP, was out until Jan. 21 when he started a 5-1-0 run with Stockton of the ECHL before rejoining the Sharks on Feb. 13.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

Goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, the Whale’s MVP last season, signed a one-year contract extension with the San Antonio Rampage on Friday. Grumet-Morris has a career-high 17 wins (17-8-2) with a 2.22 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and three shutouts in 27 games with the Rampage since joining the team Nov. 24 after starting the season with Loresnskog IF in the Norwegian Elite League. His third shutout was a 22-save effort Sunday in a 1-0 victory over Oklahoma City and All-Star Yann Danis and came on the first anniversary of a 5-4 shootout loss in the outdoors Whale Bowl against the Providence Bruins before 15,234 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

Kevin Poulin, on recall from the Sound Tigers, was pulled after allowing two goals on five shots in the opening 1:35 as the New York Islanders lost 6-0 to the Ottawa Senators on Monday. Former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya, the Rangers’ first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2004, replaced Poulin and allowed four goals on 27 shots. Erik Karlsson had two goals and two assists, Jason Spezza scored twice and Craig Anderson made 28 saves for his third shutout of the season for the Senators.

Hamilton Bulldogs center Joonas Nattinen was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday after getting four goals and assists in three wins. After scoring two goals in his first 36 games, Nattinen matched that total in the first 4:22 of a game against St. John’s and later added an assist in the first period of a 4-3 victory over the league-leading IceCaps. He scored again the next night as the Bulldogs rallied for a 5-2 win over Rockford, and his goal against Rochester on Sunday gave Hamilton the lead for good in a 7-3 victory. Nattinen, 21, of Jamsa, Finland, is playing his first season in North America after being the Montreal Canadiens’ third-round pick in 2009 and represented his homeland in the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championships.

Center Andrew Yogan, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2010 who had two goals and an assists in two games with the Whale at the end of last season after missing most of the season with a shoulder injury, had two goals and two assists and was plus-3 as Peterborough beat Ottawa 4-3 in an Ontario Hockey League game Saturday night. Yogan has 29 goals and 28 assists in 55 games for the Petes (25-26-3-3), who are battling for one of the final playoff spots in the OHL.

The 2012 NHL draft will be June 22-23 at the new Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Round 1 is on the 22nd and rounds 2 through 7 on the 23rd. To follow the NHL draft, visit NHL.com.

SOUND TIGERS CLOSE IN ON WHALE

Three forwards on professional tryout contracts – Kael Mouillierat, Blair Riley and Sean Backman (shorthanded) – scored to back the 26-save effort of rookie Anders Nilsson as the surging Bridgeport Sound Tigers beat the Adirondack Phantoms 3-0 on Monday.

Nilsson won a team-record ninth straight game as the Sound Tigers (28-18-3-2) improved to a staggering 16-1-0-1 in 2012 after closing 2011 on a 2-10-1-1 slide that dropped them into the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference cellar. They are now only one point behind the division-leading Whale (26-17-7-7) with two games in hand. The Whale, who had an eight-game point streak (7-0-1-0) ended by a 4-3 loss at Providence on Sunday, are off until Friday night, when they host the Portland Pirates (24-22-3-3), who lost 5-3 to the visiting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Monday. It was the Pirates’ fifth loss in six starts and eighth in 11 games (3-7-1-0) since a four-game winning streak. All-Star Colin McDonald, the son of former Whalers defenseman and announcer Colin McDonald, had two assists for the Penguins (31-16-2-5), who moved into a share of the East Division lead with the idle Norfolk Admirals. Rookie right wing Carter Camper, who had a hat trick against the Whale, including the winner, was called up by the Boston Bruins on Monday.

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