Playing in front of family at Calgary Olympics was also a career highlight
By Pat Payton
When Merlin Malinowski was playing minor hockey in the small town of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, he had the dream that many Canadian boys have. And that dream was to play professional hockey.
Just before his 15th birthday, Malinowski left northern Salskatchewan to play Junior hockey in Alberta. He played one year of Jr. ‘B’ in Hanna, and the next two seasons with Drumheller Falcons of the Provincial Tier II Jr. ‘A’ League.
In his second season in Drumheller (1975-76), he earned league MVP honours after a 60-goal season. It made him a top prospect with the Major Jr. ‘A’ Medicine Hat Tigers. The 18-year-old centre cracked the Tigers’ roster in the fall of 1976, and finished fourth in team scoring with 70 points (22-48) in 70 games.
Long road trips in Major Jr. ‘A’
The Western Hockey League has teams in four provinces–from British Columbia to Manitoba–as well as in the northwestern region of the United States. Malinowski described the travelling as “crazy.”
“But you don’t know any better at that age,” he said. “You spent a lot of time on a bus, and the buses didn’t have video. There was only an eight-track tape at the front. You read a lot of books and you played cards.”
Malinowski remembers travelling to the west coast and playing five games in a 10-day period.
“One year, after the last game, we left Portland, Oregon and we drove 21 hours back to Medicine Hat. We only had two stops, and drove through the night. We travelled through three time changes before we got back home.
“Another trip home from New Westminster, B.C. was 19 hours. We finished the game and then drove straight back.”
Other than Lethbridge and Calgary, every road game was five-plus hours to play in cities like Saskatoon, Regina, Estevan, Winnipeg, and Billings, Montana.
“They were long trips,” he recalled. “You couldn’t do school. They had tutors and we’d take classes at night. There’d be three or four hockey players in a room with a teacher. That’s how you got your final school year. There wasn’t a lot of time for school with all the travel.”
In his second season with the Tigers, Malinowski led the team in scoring with 48 goals and 126 points in 72 games. He also had 131 penalty minutes. He collected 20 points (9-11) in 11 playoff games as well.
After scoring a hat trick in Calgary one night, a Calgary sports writer gave Malinowski the nickname ‘The Magician.’ It’s a moniker that he would carry for the rest of his career.
Colorado’s second-round draft pick
Following that 1977-78 season, the dream came true for the 19-year-old Malinowski. He was drafted in the second round, 27th overall, by Colorado Rockies in the NHL entry draft.
“It is one of the brightest memories that I have,” he said. “In those days, you didn’t go to a city and sit in the stands. I waited for the call from my player agent. When I got that phone call, it was a sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment. There was also an excitement about starting a new phase of my life.”
Playing in the NHL “felt like “Christmas morning every morning,” he remembers. Malinowski played a total of three full seasons with the Rockies. He also had stints in the American and Central Leagues.
In his second season in Colorado, the centreman played for outspoken coach Don Cherry. He described Cherry as a players’ coach. “I got called up halfway through the season, and me and another guy didn’t have a car. Don told us that we could use Rose’s car. We went back to his house and met his wife and dog Blue, and he gave me the keys to Rose’s car.”
The following season (1980-81) was Malinowski’s most productive season in the NHL. He clicked for 25 goals and 62 points in 69 games and was named the Rockies’ top player.
Following the 1981-82 campaign, Malinowski and the Colorado franchise moved to New Jersey. With just five games under his belt in New Jersey, he was traded to the Hartford Whalers in October, 1982. A highlight with the Whalers was playing on the same line with future Hall of Famer Ron Francis. The next summer, he was faced with a tough decision — accept a two-way contract offer with the Pittsburgh Penguins, or go to Europe. He chose to go to Switzerland.
Malinowski would play a total of eight seasons in that country’s First Division, skating for EHC Arosa and SC Langnau Tigers. He was also invited to play for Canada in three Spengler Cup tournaments, experiences that helped him land a spot on the 1988 Canadian Olympic team.
Playing in ’88 Olympics a thrill
Malinowski said it was “a thrill” to pull on the Canadian jersey and play for his country in the Winter Olympics.
“What was great was playing in Calgary,” he remembers. “I’m from the west, and my grandparents were able to come and watch me play. I also had a lot of cousins, and aunts and uncles. They did a great job of bringing in your parents, and putting them up and looking after them.
“It was all a highlight. My grandfather followed my career pretty close and was quite proud of what I had done. For him to be there was pretty special for sure.”
At the Winter Olympics, Malinowski picked up three goals and two assists in eight games for Team Canada. Canada finished with an overall record of 4-3-1, and placed fourth overall–just missing a medal–behind the Soviet Union, Finland and Sweden.
After Malinowski retired as a player in 1991, he coached three different First Division teams in Switzerland over a span of seven seasons. During his time in the mountainous Central European country, he played on one championship team and coached another to a league title.
“Switzerland was a big part of my life; it was a great experience,” he said. “What is really different (from North American hockey) is the party-type atmosphere in the arenas. They have a lot of standing room over there, and fans are singing songs. It’s an event.
“It’s kind of like NFL football every Sunday, with your tailgate parties. When I played, Swiss hockey was Tuesday night and Saturday night. The building was singing and rocking, just a real fun atmosphere. The fans were loud, and it was fun to play and coach in that type of atmosphere.”
After returning to live and work in Canada, Malinowski got back into coaching. He was hired by the Jr. ‘B’ Lincolns in 2003, the year he and his wife Jen settled in St. Marys. He twice coached the Lincs. His first tenure spanned seven seasons, and he guided the team to Game 7 of the Western Conference final in the spring of 2006.
Malinowski also coached three years of ‘AAA’ minor hockey — two with the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs and one with the Huron-Perth Lakers.