Whispers of the Wrigley

Pictures and memories often fade over time. But there are some things in life that remain embedded in our minds forever. For Moncton’s hockey-crazed fans, that event was the Wrigley Tournament in 1977. Over four decades later, the Wrigley Tournament remains an important part of the city’s hockey lore as it launched and defined the career of Moncton puck stopper Roland Melanson.

The Wrigley Tournament is now known as the Telus Cup, the National U18 Major AAA tournament. The national championship still garners tons of attention across and for one week in 1977, all eyes were on the Hub City and a local netminder that became a star and stole the show. “I remember people literally sitting on the rafters watching games. When we were still in the medal rounds or having a chance to win medals, the atmosphere was incredible,” said Melanson.

“In my opinion that atmosphere has never been duplicated.”

“We were a bunch of young kids, 15 and 16 years old trying to make a name for ourselves. They were shutting down schools for kids to come out and support us, that’s how big it became.”

The Wrigley was a pressure cooker, but one that “Rollie the Goalie” carried with him the rest of his career. Shockingly, the Wrigley Tournament and playing for the Moncton Flyers almost never happened. “It was a pretty unique experience; I was playing most of my hockey around the Shediac and Cap Pele area at that time with Junior B and Junior A teams at 14 and 15 years of age.”

“I had a special person contact me for the Wrigley Tournament,” Melanson said.

That phone call changed Melanson’s life forever. The special person on the other end of the phone that night was none other than Tony Zappia. “Tony had coached against me in Junior B, and I had a good season and won Goalie of the Year, he knew I was still Midget age.” Melanson’s voice changes when he reflects on his relationship with his former coach and mentor. The love and admiration for the coach, but more importantly for the man shines through on every word. “We had a lot of interesting games during those days against Richibucto, and Tony of course was coaching.”

“We had tremendous respect for each other, so when he called, all he said was ‘would you be my guy with the Flyers?’

Melanson couldn’t say yes fast enough. At the time of the invite, the passionate skilled netminder was going to school in Moncton so everything seemed to be falling into place. “I was going through an English program at the time because we had lived in Boston from when I was 8 to 12 years old. I was skating a lot then, but when my parents moved back to the province, I got back to playing hockey instead of baseball.”

From Junior hockey back to the Midget ranks Melanson didn’t know what to expect, all he knew was that he was Tony Zappia’s guy between the pipes and that’s all that mattered. “The Wrigley was a huge steppingstone for me,” said Melanson.

“You have to be able to do it under pressure.”

“Not just to play well, but to be able to play well and win games and be able to win all kinds of different games,” explained Melanson.

“Some games could be 1-0 or 2-1, and the odd game could be 5-4, but you have to learn how to come up with the big saves in the key moments to prove to scouts that you’re deserving to being drafted in the high rounds by major junior teams.”

“That was the statement then, that was the ultimate stage for 15- and 16-year-olds, in Moncton back then there was nothing bigger.”

“I was probably a little bit different.”

“I just loved to compete and loved to win. Even in practice, there wasn’t a puck that was going to go in.”

“That was my mindset for the entire practice.”

The essence of the game and position happened between the ears and at the other end of the ice for Melanson. It was yet another lesson he learned under the guidance of Zappia. “I never looked at those things as pressure, I looked at as there’s a guy lined up across from me at the other end of the rink and I’m going to be better than him tonight.”

“That’s what my motivation was.”

“Of course, there was pressure, but it was positive pressure, that pressure was pushing from inside of me out, to try to do my job and I really believed enough in my abilities that I could be a difference maker in any game at the Wrigley.”

“Even if we were outmatched, I thought deep down that being a goaltender, I could change the game or outcome by the way I played.”

“I was just driven and wired that way. Sometimes that’s really good and sometimes it can be your worst enemy when things don’t go your way, you can beat yourself up.”

“Tony taught us a lot about mental toughness when he was our coach. He taught us how to hold it together if we were down after the second and that we could still go out and win the game.”

The Flyers that year played against and beat a lot of Junior B teams from the region. Zappia’s squad didn’t lose a game until January that season. “Tony was able to teach us how to play through all types of circumstances and not get raddled and we took that with us to the Wrigley.”

“We took it one period and one game at a time and knocked off a lot of good teams. Tony identified roles for everyone, our fourth line was just as important as our first.”

“The fourth line blocked shots and killed penalties. They did a lot of the grunt work, we had guys that always showed up to play. We had a lot of fun playing the game during those years.”

There’s nothing like National exposure, but it was a different time and different era of the game from a scouting perspective. How difficult was it for a goaltender to be scouted at that time in this region? “If you look back at it now, there wasn’t a lot of people in the NHL that were coming out of New Brunswick. We had a lot of role models growing up like Oscar Gaudet and Gordie Gallant, Rick Vaive and Danny Grant, we had a lot of great players in the Maritimes, but there wasn’t a lot of goaltenders coming out of the region,” explained Melanson.

“At that time there were a lot of players that didn’t want to leave the Maritimes. A lot of players chose to go the University of Moncton, or they chose to play Junior A with the Beavers or whatever the case may be.”

At a very young age Melanson knew he wanted to go as far as possible in the game.

“I was driven, I just wanted to be the best that Rollie Melanson could be. I was driven, because I hadn’t been cut from very many teams. I tried out for the Shediac Flames when I was fourteen years old, and that was the first time I was cut and I wanted to play Junior B hockey at that age, so I went to Cap Pele and made their team.”

“I really cherished the moments when people like Tony Zappia approached me and asked me to be his guy, I took that as extreme motivation.”

“That is something I never forgot for the rest of my life,” Melanson said.

The stage was set, Melanson and the rest of the Flyers never imagined in their wildest dreams what the Wrigley Tournament would be like.

“To have eight or nine thousand people at the Wrigley at that age at the Moncton Coliseum it felt to us like we were playing in the NHL.”

“The crowds were out of control; I don’t think they could have produced enough tickets.”

“I was so cool being exposed to that type of limelight at the same time as pressure which pushed us to be great for our city.”

“It’s hard to describe, it’s hard to put into words that feeling and that atmosphere unless you were there,” Melanson said.

“I remember looking up in the stands during the semi-finals against Quebec, people were sitting on the rafters, there were just no seats. It was wall to wall, there was no place to walk in the place.”

From sitting on the stairs between each section in the bowl to the balcony, the Hub City and the entire region for that matter followed the Wrigley. “Thank God, there was no fire code back then, they would have shut the place down,” Melanson said laughing.

“There might have been eight thousand people, but it felt like twelve.”

“I’ll be 62 this summer, I was only 16, back then, I run into five or six people every summer that want to talk about that tournament. 46 years later, people still remember it like it was yesterday.”

“It was all because of the people from Moncton that made it possible.”

“It was the people that made it possible for us to want to come to the rink every day and put in the work and work the right way, to respect each other.”

“I think that year and event united the city.”

“Everyone wanted to be part of that Wrigley team and that was really special,” Melanson said.

The Flyers would eventually finish 4th at the Wrigley, but they won over the hearts of Monctonians. The Flyers went on to win the Provincial Championship as well as the Maritime crown in the spring of 1977. The team also were awarded the City of Moncton Ambassador Award. From the Wrigley to the bright lights of the NHL, Roland Melanson’s journey in the game continued, but the memories of the event will last forever. “To this day, I’ve never had a year that as much fun as the year of the Wrigley Tournament in Moncton.”

That’s saying a lot coming from a three-time Stanley Cup champion who claimed hockey’s holy grail in his first three seasons as a pro with the New York Islanders.

“I know that’s a really strong statement about winning the Cups, but when you turn pro, it’s a real business, but the fun that we had watching fans come into the Coliseum and supporting us like they did back then was truly incredible.”

“The Wrigley year was the ultimate, I think we only lost ten games all year, it was incredible.”

“It wasn’t just about the defence or forwards or Rollie, it was about Tony Zappia making us play as a team, it was just an unbelievable experience, I wouldn’t trade my year with the Wrigley for the Cups, it was that much fun, it was really incredible.”

The Journey Continued

1,888 kilometers, Moncton, New Brunswick to Windsor, Ontario. That’s how far Roland Melanson had to go to keep his hockey dreams alive.

Photo Credit Bruce Bennett

In that era of the game players from the Maritimes and Atlantic Canada could decide which Major Junior league they wanted to play in. The decision for the Melanson was easy. He would join the famed Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. Melanson was drafted by the New York Islanders in the 3rd round 59th overall in 1979 NHL Entry Draft which happened during his second full season in Windsor. After three seasons with the Spitfires, Melanson was on the move to Oshawa where he finished his junior career with the Generals.

“When I was drafted by the Islanders, Billy Smith and Chico Resch were icons.”

“Obviously, they were two very established guys, both of whom were in the prime of their careers. I was taken in the third round, and automatically thought, how in the hell am I going to make that team.”

“When I signed my entry level contract with the organization, they won the Cup.”

“Two icons, I just thought to myself, it’s going to be a long time before I make this team, but I took my attitude, like I did in Windsor and Oshawa and I applied it every day.”

“I worked and worked. I got the opportunity to play a lot in the first training camp. Smity came into camp and had an injury, so I had the chance to play a lot of minutes.”

“I built a lot of confidence that I could play in that league, and I received tremendous support from Chico.” 

The competition between NHL netminders is fierce, but Chico Resch went above and beyond. “Chico was like my coach. He would take me out before practice and he knew I was there to take his job, but he would always show me things.”

“That really helped me to prepare for the league quicker.”

Photo Credit New York Islanders

A trip to the minors was still in the cards because Smith was healthy enough to return to start the 1980-1981 season. “I went down to the minors after playing like nine games with Islanders and played well down there.”

“I was playing lights out in Indianapolis and winning a lot of games. Junior hockey really prepares you for pro hockey, because you get bombarded with shots at that level.”

Melanson had gotten a taste of the National Hockey League and wanted more. Handling the pressure and mental toughness required to excel at the pro ranks came easy to Melanson due in large part to his experiences during the Wrigley.

“My mental toughness was definitely there because what I went through with Tony at the Wrigley and what I went through in junior.”

“I was able to take those things to the next level.”

An injury to Chico Resch would ironically opened the door for Melanson to make his much-anticipated NHL debut. “Chico got hurt, and Billy wasn’t playing very well so they called up my backup, they kept losing games, like five or six in a row.”

Losing streaks at the NHL level is never a good thing especially after winning the organizations first Cup. “I finally got called up and I was thinking right away that I was just going to be the backup.”

“I flew in on the day of the game to Detroit and got into morning skate, Al Arbour comes over and taps me on the shoulder and says ‘kid you’re in tonight.’”

“I never thought I would ever reach the amount of butterflies I had in that moment. I was shaking in my boots,” Melanson said.

“I needed a game to get my feet wet, because it happened so fast, it was like a blur. Detroit didn’t have big teams back then, we ended up winning the game six to four.”

Melanson didn’t have time to let everything sink in. His dream had come true, but he knew deep down he could be better. “So, I get my first win, but I didn’t play as well as I wanted to, there were definitely a couple of goals I should have had, but winning the game was the most important thing.”

“Learn to win, all types of games, that all came from Tony again,” said Melanson.

The story behind Melanson’s second NHL start reads more like a Hollywood script. “I came to the rink the next day and we practiced and then we flew down to Boston.”

“Smity was scheduled to start versus the Bruins, so we get to the morning skate, and he ended up having a sore back. Al comes back over to me and said ‘Rollie, you’re in tonight.’”

The kid that spent four years of his life in Boston idolizing the Bruins would be getting the start on Garden ice. “I idolized Bobby Orr, they won two Cups when I was growing up there. Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Gerry Cheevers, they were all icons to me.”

“The Bruins had a really good team that year, I’m sitting there and then the game starts and I’m playing almost scared to death, I didn’t want to embarrass my teammates, I didn’t even know if I was ready to play on that stage. So, there I am playing my first game in the Boston Garden against Jim Craig, and we win.”

“If I remember correctly, I think I got first or second star that game, I was playing on emotion, and playing on nerve.”

“Just trying to play the game like I was kid again, just trying to enjoy the moment.”

Making it to the NHL is one thing, having early success under the bright lights of best league in the world was something Melanson never took for granted. “I was playing for myself and of course not to let my teammates down, but I was doing it for guys like Tony Zappia.”

“Those moments in my career, made those guys proud and that was really special.”

Melanson won six games in a row to start his Islanders and NHL career. “I had to go back to the minors when Chico and Smity were ok and healthy, but that first year I ended up playing seventy-two games between the NHL and AHL, it was incredible the amount of winning I did that first year, it was all of the teaching that I received from Tony that prepared me for those moments,” Melanson said.

Photo Credit New York Islanders

“Tony made the game fun.”

“I was able to take the memories from that year and make a career out of it, but when I finished playing, I took a lot of that same stuff from experiences with all the guys I had played with over the years and was able to bring that into coaching.”

Melanson coached professionally at the AHL and NHL for over two decades. “I was able to spend close to forty years of my life doing something that people only dream about.”

Photo Credit CTV News

“They say a lot of people don’t have fun in the game, if I didn’t have fun in my career as a player and coach, I wouldn’t have done it,” stressed Melanson.

“The right teaching early is so important and Tony gave it to me and all of us that played on that team. Tony made us a team first, and you carry that with you for the rest of your life. You try to bring up your kids the same. You try to live your life the same way, to try to be a good support to the team.”

Alfie and Albertine Melanson did whatever they could for their family. The value of hard work was never lost on their children, if anything it was etched in the very fabric of their family and is something that Melanson has carried with him in every facet of his life.

“My mom and dad didn’t have a lot, but they gave me everything they could give me in order for me to be a success and have the career that I had.”

“The game of hockey brings special moments together at any given time and you never forget those moments.”

“The game can sometimes be cruel or tough, but it teaches you how to be a good man and person. You have eighteen other guys looking at you in the eyes in dressingroom, wondering how you are going to perform when it counts and if you aren’t doing it the right way.”

Melanson’s memories of the Wrigley and life in Moncton and the game of hockey still remains close to his heart.

“Tony passed away fifteen years ago, but I’m still great friends with his son Colin. It was a tremendous relationship and it allowed us to have tremendous success with that Wrigley team.”  

“It’s been a long time since that tournament, it was a very special. It was a flagship event for the city and our city and community did an amazing job hosting it,” said Melanson proudly.

“The City of Moncton is great, it’s a great place for young athletes, it doesn’t matter what level, but playing sports is a fantastic way to learn about family especially if you can learn it through a game.”

“There are certain things that you never forget in life, family is number one, but certainly the Wrigley was a special family event and to be honest with you, I think the entire city felt like one big family during that event.”

Anything was possible for Roland Melanson because of the support, love and guidance he received here in the City of Moncton. He believes the same can be said today.

“This city is great, we have so much fun in our backyard and if you’re from that area you can make it work and it could be in any sport, you can not let people tell you that you can’t, it takes determination, grit, hard work and second effort, but you can definitely make anything work out of Moncton, New Brunswick.”

“We are all proud of our city.”

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