((This story also appeared at SeattleHockeyInsider.com))
Taking the “road less travelled” these days while developing as a hockey prospect in North America is no longer a term that reflects a creative or romantic concept, in many cases it’s actually a necessity. For those who are not top tier prospects by the time they’re 14-years-of-age and maybe haven’t grown into their bodies just yet, that would be most of them, the path to finding the most productive, secure, and enjoyable playing situation can be an adventure.
Not every kid is a lock for major juniors or for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, just as very few undrafted Tyler Johnsons make their way to the NHL to play 700 games.
Meet Luke Melnik, New Jersey born, Florida raised.
Or is it Alberta? Michigan? How about southern California?
“Started in Florida with the Junior Panthers where he won a state championship with the Under-10’s with Petr Sykora, then Luke was recruited to the California Brick squad where he played with a loaded Team California in Canada, still U-10,” Luke’s dad Patrick recalls. “From there he played a year with the Junior LA Kings, then two years with the Spring Bank Rockies in Calgary, where they were a provincial finalist. Nine of those kids went to the Western League. Then he went to Detroit where he made a brief stop with Compuware before shining with Little Caesar’s. Loved L.C., won two out of three state championships in Michigan and were one goal short of the Under-16 national championship.”
“We travelled with the dogs, the dogs were with us,” Luke’s mom Wendy said. “They were everywhere, just to give him the normal surroundings. I made it a home. We set up everywhere.”
“It’s a hockey life story, from start to finish,” his dad says.
“It’s a tremendous commitment by them,” Luke says of his parents, “and I couldn’t be more thankful for their support.”
Luke Melnik playing for the Merritt Centennials against the Victoria Clippers at the BCHL Showcase.
Next stop: Back to western Canada and the Merritt Centennials of the BCHL where Melnik plays now, somewhat following in the footsteps of current NHLer and Coral Springs, Florida native Brandon Duhaime.
Via the same skill coaches, the two skated together in the Sunshine State during the off-season.
“He’s taken that same route a little bit,” Duhaime says. “I think he’s a year younger than I was when I went, but he went to the BCHL and the same team I did, the Merritt Centennials, so it’s pretty cool to see him taking the same route.”
Duhaime parlayed his time in British Columbia into a season in the USHL junior league, a 4th-round NHL Draft selection by Minnesota, and then three years playing at Providence College in Rhode Island.
He’s now a 4th-liner for the Wild with 157 games of NHL experience under his belt at age-26.
Duhaime only tallied six goals and 19 assists over 53 games in Merritt. He says it’s all about getting the ice time and experience.
“Taking those steps, going to the rink every day, getting stronger, getting faster, and just kind of developing your game that way,” Duhaime advises. “He’s a real good kid and he’s got a real bright future.”
No more mom and family dogs. Teenage Melnik is on his own and his billet (host) family in this case, happens to be that of his head coach Brian Passmore.
“It’s a big difference from Florida, it’s a much smaller town,” Luke says of Merritt, “I’ve learned to get in a routine and keep working and getting better every day.”
With an October birthday, Melnik is by far the youngest player on the team.
Luke Melnik of Merritt playing in the BCHL Showcase at the Kraken Community Iceplex in October.
“He’s just learning to how to play defensively first and then he’ll work his way up like any rookie, but he’s so skilled, he’s a guy we use on the three-on-three in overtime and he is seeing a bit of time on the power play,” Passmore says of the just turned 17-year-old.
Melnik isn’t myopic. He plays multiple sports, including as a very competitive tennis player, and he’s a student of the game. For now, he’s the classic “undersized forward”, having just grown to 5-foot-10.
“He’s 165 now,” Passmore pointed out following the BCHL Showcase in Seattle in late October, “he’ll be 175, 180, and then guys will be bouncing off him. Right now for him it’s all about smarts, good stick, making decisions. They’re gonna make mistakes, and sometimes when you make them you sit or you get back out there and learn a lesson.”
A Melnik shift for Merritt against Victoria at the Kraken Community Iceplex.
Long bus rides are a new concept for the Floridian, a simple reality of playing junior hockey at any level in western Canada.
“The experience is the education,” Luke’s dad points out. “I think he’s been lucky to utilize the game to live in different locations and blend in with different teammates and environments while being adaptable and a good teammate. I think that’s probably the greatest thing he’s learned. It’s been amazing to play on both sides of the border.”
Wendy was born in Toronto to a dad who was a huge Maple Leafs fan.
“I don’t know anything different,” she said. “I don’t analyze everything. I’m used to it. My dad used to drag me to the Leafs games. I understand and appreciate it now, but back then it was the Hot Stove Lounge, and I remember sitting there as a young girl thinking, ‘how do these men beat each other up on the ice and then they go downstairs and have a beer and shake hands.’ My dad taught me that it’s just part of the game, and it’s about the relationships they had in junior hockey and when they were younger.”
It’s that appeal and culture that attracted Patrick, a former All-America, national champion high school wrestler and college football player who until two decades ago didn’t know a whole lot about pucks.
A close friend introduced him to the NHL in the early 2000’s and then his son to skating a few years later.
Luke was in love with the experience the minute he hit the ice.
Luke Melnik of the BCHL Merritt Centennials.
“I love being with my teammates, every time you get to a new team you get twenty new friends,” Luke says. “Just scoring goals and people saying ‘good job’, it just feels good.”
The Melniks realize and appreciate what they have, the financial ability to pull off such an adventure, what would be an obvious road block for many other families. Dad worked and travelled while mom roamed with son on the hockey road.
“She’s the ultimate hockey mom,” Patrick says. “She’s been with him every step of the way. Remarkable lady, couldn’t have thought about this without her, truth of the matter. All credit to her.”
But while it allowed for flexibility and more options, meeting the next goal of playing division-1 college hockey comes down to the same things; skating ability, skill development, and hard work. The players who mature quickly and are coachable, more often than not, figure much of that out on their own.
“I’ll just keep working,” Luke concludes. “Keep working, get better, and get to the next level, that’s my plan.”
Melnik’s Merritt teammates leave the Kraken Community Iceplex rink after an overtime loss to Coquitlam.
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