A quick Google search on James Melindy does not take long to yield one of the everlasting images of the last season the ECHL managed to complete.
Scroll down just a bit, and there’s the Newfoundland native hoisting the Kelly Cup for his hometown Growlers, complete with captain’s “C” on his chest, in their first year of existence in front of a packed house at the Mile One Centre.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Well, there is one way: to do it again.
The Growlers were once again on top of the North Division, and had already clinched a return to the playoffs with a 42-17-0-1 start before things came to an abrupt halt in early March. A chance to not only go back-to-back, but to do so in the first two seasons the franchise was in existence had fallen by the wayside, and through no fault of their own.
“Yeah, that’s obviously frustrating,” Melindy told FloHockey. “Any time you get a chance to put a good team together and have a strong regular season like we had and have that momentum rolling the right way towards the playoffs, it’s always disheartening to not get the opportunity to win. From the start of the season, and even before that with the offseason and all that preparation, and then battling all year to put yourself in a good situation to have a chance to win, for everything to end up the way it did, it was really tough.”
It was particularly difficult for Melindy, who not only understands how difficult it is to win the game’s biggest prize having fallen just short with the Wheeling Nailers in 2016, but who also sees the clock ticking on a career that is set to embark on an eighth full professional season despite being just 27 years old when his team’s side of the 2020-21 campaign is set to begin in January.
“Time is getting short,” he said. “Any chance you get to win is obviously a moment you want to take advantage of. But, at the end of the day, things had to be done for the greater good of the people. It sucks, but it definitely had to be done.”
It would have been hard to bet against the Maple Leafs-affiliated Growlers, who have been among the best in the league since their inception and have an incredible 85 wins in their first 132 games. That alliance with one of the National Hockey League’s Original Six franchises has certainly played a large role in that early success.
“I think a lot of comes down to having a good relationship with your affiliate,” Melindy said. “The Maple Leafs have done a great job of setting the standard of how the organization wants to be run, and they’ve been the first in a long time to really implement a three-tier system within their organization where if you can’t get the minutes in the American Hockey League, they’re going to put you in a good opportunity to develop and get playing time in the (ECHL). When you’re truly ready to make the jump to the American League, you can and onward from the American League to the NHL.
“They have a different mindset than some teams that are around this league, and Toronto does a lot of research when they’re bringing in players. The Marlies assigned a lot of players in the first and second seasons to us, and when we got them, they were motivated to play well to get back up to that next level. There was a lot of internal competition, along with just good people.”
That starts, at least in Newfoundland, with Melindy himself.
“He brings that veteran presence,” Growlers head coach John Snowden told FloHockey.
“He’s been in the American League, he’s been in our league now for some time, and he’s a steady voice. He’s a local guy there too, so he really helps out with our guys and the transition to moving to St. John’s and getting used to living in Newfoundland. He’s different than a lot of the players we have with the way our teams are built with speed and skill — he’s a very efficient skater, and I think he’s got a lot more skill than people give him credit for — but he’s more of a harder-nosed guy, a pass-first simple player.
“But it’s that leadership that he brings, it’s his voice in the room, it’s his everyday demeanor of understanding our staff and our organization has a certain expectation of our players. He makes sure he’s the first one to do it. If your captain, your leader, your most veteran player is the one leading the charge on that, it’s pretty easy for the rest to follow. We’ve been pretty blessed to have a guy like that, especially a local guy in St. John’s to help these guys be pros every day.”
There is, Melindy admits, a unique source of pride that comes from wearing the sweater of his hometown team, albeit one that wasn’t around when he was growing up.
“The first year we had four Newfoundlanders come home to play, it was just such a good fit for us,” he said of a group that consisted of himself, NHL veteran Adam Pardy, Zach O’Brien, and Marcus Power.
“When you have four guys with a lot of pride on the line who want to be successful at home — yes, you are playing in front of friends and family, and there’s that little bit of extra motivation — you want to do well and you want to have a positive impact in the community. You want to show kids around here that playing professional hockey is a reachable goal if you put your mind to it. They can look at us and hopefully see themselves one day in our shoes.”
Mike Ashmore has 17 years of experience covering professional and college sports. You can follow him on all social media channels at @mashmore98.