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Backchecking: Malinowski still working magic

Merlin Malinowski battles Borje Salming during their NHL days. (Photo By Graig Abel)

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Merlin Malinowski battles Borje Salming during their NHL days. (Photo By Graig Abel)

BY KEVIN GLEW

The Magician is still performing at the rink.

No, he may not be dazzling fans with nifty moves anymore, but Merlin “The Magician” Malinowski is now pulling rabbits out of his hat as coach of the Junior B Western Ontario League’s St. Marys Lincolns.

“I enjoy working with these young kids and helping them try to make the step to the next level,” said the 49-year-old Saskatchewan native.

And who better to prepare these youngsters than someone who has had success in the NHL, Europe and Olympics.

After excelling in minor hockey in Meadow Lake, Sask., Malinowski played junior in Alberta. He banked 126 points with the Medicine Hat Tigers in 1977-78, convincing the Colorado Rockies to select him in the second round (27th overall) of the 1978 NHL draft.

Raised in Western Canada prior to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames joining the NHL, Malinowski had never been to an NHL game before suiting up for one. His first regular season contest was against the Philadelphia Flyers at The Spectrum on Nov. 5, 1978.

“I remember standing on our blueline, taking warm-up shots and I kept looking over my shoulder to see what Bobby Clarke was doing,” he recalled. “I was star-struck, there’s no question.”

Less wide-eyed as the campaign progressed, he tallied 23 points in 54 games and was named the Rockies’ top rookie. He spent the majority of the following season in the minors, but did manage to play 10 NHL games under Don Cherry.

“I remember going into his office once and it was just wall-to-wall pictures and he said, ‘Go ahead, look around and check them all out.’ He was a player’s coach,” Malinowski said.

Unfortunately, Grapes was fired prior to The Magician’s best season. Skating primarily on a line with Ron Delorme and Randy Pierce, Malinowski rang up 62 points in 69 games and was named the Rockies’ top player in 1980-81.

“That was a great year. I certainly look back on that year with some great memories,” he said. “It’s too bad that the team couldn’t have been more successful at the same time and made the playoffs, that would’ve been a lot nicer.”

After notching 41 points in 69 games the following year, the shifty forward transitioned with the team to New Jersey. Considering Colorado is a hockey hotbed today, it’s difficult to fathom that a franchise once left the city.

“The NHL wasn’t really on the map in the United States (at the time),” Malinowski explained. “Going back to Don Cherry, if he had been able to stay there, he might have got that thing turned around, because when he arrived the game became much more colorful and lively, there’s no question about it. But Don got the boot after one year and that probably killed the franchise as much as anything.”

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With just five games under his belt in New Jersey, Malinowski was dealt to the Hartford Whalers in October, 1982, where he would play with Ron Francis.

“I had the good fortune of playing on a line with him for a month there towards the end of the season and it was my best month of the year,” Malinowski recalled. “He was just a phenomenal player and a well-deserved Hall of Famer.”

Released by the Whalers after training camp the next year, he headed to Europe to play in Switzerland. He also suited up for Canada in three Spengler Cups, experiences that helped him land a spot on the 1988 Canadian Olympic team.

“It was the greatest 10 days of my career,” said Malinowski of the Olympics. “Growing up as a kid we loved going to tournaments on the weekend, and this was just the ultimate hockey tournament.”

Malinowski also feels blessed the Games took place in Calgary.

“It was such a thrill to put on that sweater,” he said. “Because I was from the West and I played my junior hockey in Southern Alberta and my grandfather was able to get there, my grandma was there, my mom, my dad, aunts, uncles, cousins. It was just phenomenal.”

After retiring as a player in 1991, he took a break from hockey until the 1995-96 season, when he served as an assistant coach with the Ontario League’s London Knights.

“Then I got wind that a team I played for in Switzerland was going to be changing coaches, so I threw my name in the hat and that’s what took me back to Switzerland,” he recalled.

He coached in Switzerland until 2003 before returning to Canada and settling in at St. Marys. On top of his coaching duties, Malinowski now works as a dispatch manager with Graham Energy Ltd., an independent fuel distributor in St. Marys. His wife, Jennifer, is from the St. Marys area and the couple has two children – Alexandra (16) and Jonathan (15). Jonathan plays hockey in town.

“He’s a different player than I was,” said Malinowski. “He’s a big hitter.”

The ex-NHLer says he would consider coaching in the OHL or the NHL in the future.

“It’s a tough, tough market to crack,” Malinowski noted. “I mean, there are some great coaches and it’s tough for a relative rookie to break through into that. I don’t have any fantasies that I’ll be coaching in the NHL, that’s for sure.”

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