MONTREAL – The NCAA is a breeding ground for some of the best young talent in North America these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the ‘80s, Division I superstar Scott Mellanby had his work cut out for him as he looked to crack the World Juniors roster.
During the 1980s, scouts spent a lot less time scouring American campuses for prospects. In those days, team’s preferred picking up Junior players who weren’t afraid to mix it up in the corners and play a physical brand of hockey. Despite playing for the University of Wisconsin Badgers, Mellanby still managed to make a name for himself with his nose for the net and his fearlessness on the ice.
“When I got home for the Christmas break in 1984, I got a call from Hockey Canada a few days after the tournament had started because one of their players had gotten hurt,” divulged the Canadiens’ current director of player personnel. “Being a college player, I hadn’t skated in a week so I had to turn down their offer. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go; my agent thought it might be a mistake for me to go there after being off for a week because if I played poorly and looked bad it wouldn’t help me in the future.”
Mellanby eventually got the chance to impress the Team Canada brass when he was invited to camp from the get-go the next year. Despite coming in with solid credentials and offensive statistics, the other players at camp weren’t immediately impressed by the young Montreal native. The NCAA standout had to fight to win over the team’s coaching staff and convince his future teammates he was a lot tougher than they imagined.
“I think a few guys took some shots at me during the scrimmages because I was a college kid. I was a gritty player so when I got pushed, I pushed back,” explained Mellanby, who was already 6 feet tall and tipping the scales at 200 pounds at age 19. “I think that earned me some respect.
“Back then there was a big debate between college hockey and Junior hockey; it was almost a political battle,” he added. “There weren’t a lot of people in the Junior ranks who appreciated US college players.”
Not about to back down from a challenge, Mellanby battled hard enough to earn his ticket to Hamilton, where the 1986 World Junior Hockey Championships were being held that Christmas. From the moment he pulled on his new red and white jersey for the first time, all prejudices his teammates originally had went out the window. The only thing that mattered was becoming a cohesive unit ready to win a gold medal in front of the home crowd.
Led by Shayne Corson, Joe Murphy and Joe Nieuwendyk, the hosts exploded out of the gate, winning their first five games by a combined score of 50-12. But suffering back-to-back losses to the USSR and Czechoslovakia forced Canada to settle for a second-place finish at the tournament. Making matters worse, they had to watch the Soviets collect gold on Canadian soil during a time where there was little love between the two nations.
“When we faced them, our strategy was to use the crowd and run them out of the rink. That’s what we tried to do, but it didn’t work,” admitted Mellanby, who had five goals and nine points at the tournament. “They were tough in their own way and they kept getting back up. They really showed how tough they were as a group against us. Maybe they were mentally prepared for that by their coaches, but it seemed that the more we ran at them, the tougher they got.”
In a country like Canada where gold is the only acceptable color when it comes to hockey, the loss was particularly hard to swallow inside the hosts’ dressing room. Despite finishing second, the players overwhelmingly felt they hadn’t won silver; they had lost gold.
“To be honest, it was very deflating,” confessed Mellanby. “In Canada, even back then, you either won or you didn’t. Leaving the tournament, we felt like we let the country down. We had that feeling that we didn’t live up to expectations.”
His time at the World Juniors may not have finished the way he would have liked, but the experience helped him forge relationships that extended far beyond the two-week tournament. With over 1,400 career NHL games under his belt, it was a rare night when Mellanby didn’t enjoy having at least one of those former teammates on the ice, either with or against him.
“We had a lot of the guys on that team who played a lot of games in the NHL. Guys who had long careers like Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, myself, Luc Robitaille,” he shared. “Just getting to know some of the players I ended up playing with and against throughout my career was great because when I would play against them, I knew them as people.
“I’m not a Hall of Fame player; I played in one All-star game in my career. So I didn’t get the chance to play for my country very often. Getting an opportunity to represent Canada is a hard thing to do, so to do it was special. In my heart that was something I really wanted to do.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Shauna Denis.
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