WILKES-BARRE — Tom Mele’s approach to media interviews is the same as the way he does things on the ice: direct.
The 31-year old forward signed a deal with the Wheeling Nailers this summer and now he’s in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s training camp trying to make an impression.
The sixth-year pro has spent most of his career in the ECHL and has only appeared in three AHL games despite logging two seasons of 20-plus goal and more than 180 penalty minutes.
When it was pointed out that it’s a bit surprising he hasn’t gotten more of a look in the AHL, Mele said, “That makes two of us.”
When asked if he is a bit of a late bloomer in pro hockey, he replied, “100 percent.”
And regarding his thoughts about joining the Pittsburgh organization, Mele replied, “It’s an honor.”
The native of the Bronx, N.Y., Mele had a breakout season in 2014-15 with the Tulsa Oilers when he posted 21 goals, 38 points and 200 penalty minutes in 60 games. He followed it up with 27 goals, 52 points and 181 penalty minutes the next season, before an injury last year limited him to 40 games with only 10 goals and 19 penalty minutes.
Mele said he hopes to make a comeback this season after dealing with an injury the year before, and he described his game as more of a two-way forward — and more.
“I play with a chip on my shoulder. I’m not afraid to get physical, but at the same time I know how to make plays and put the puck in the net,” Mele said.
With limited opportunities to play ice hockey while growing up in the Bronx, Mele got a later start than most players. He didn’t start playing junior hockey until the age of 18, began his college career at age 21 and didn’t turn pro until he was 24. And when Mele finally did get his first look in the AHL — three games with Oklahoma City in 2015 — he was 28.
But now he has a clean slate with the Pittsburgh organization.
“The first meeting I had here, (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach) Clark Donatelli stressed that we don’t care where you come from and we don’t care how old you are. If you can help our team win, you’re an asset,” Mele said.
The opportunity to join the Pittsburgh organization almost didn’t happen, however, as Mele had opportunities to continue his career in Europe and he close to leaving.
But after a disappointing performance last season thanks to an injury, Mele just couldn’t bring himself to give up on his career in North America just yet.
“I wanted to give it one more opportunity before I went overseas. This opportunity came about and I jumped on it,” he said.
And just like most of the achievements in his career, the opportunity to come to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s camp was a bit unexpected. He said he didn’t know he would be invited to camp until a week before it began.
“I don’t know what happened. I don’t care. I’m here now and I’m going to do whatever I can to leave a lasting impression, whether it’s for now or a call-up later in the season,” Mele said.
Now that he’s healthy again, Mele hopes to replicate those past seasons when goals came in bunches and the penalty minutes piled up.
It’s a combination that he feels sets him apart from other players.
“I’m not a goon. I know how to score goals and make plays,” Mele said. “It just so happens I play with a bit of an edge. Sometimes I initiate it, but I don’t go out there every night and try to fight. It just comes with the way I play.”
• With four exhibition games coming up, Donatelli’s training camp roster swelled significantly on Tuesday when Pittsburgh re-assigned 21 players. The list includes: Forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Thomas Di Pauli, Adam Johnson, Sam Miletic, Dominik Simon, Colin Smith, Daniel Sprong, Christian Thomas, Freddie Tiffels and Garrett Wilson; defensemen Lukas Bengtsson, Frank Corrado, Kevin Czuczman, Ethan Prow, Chris Summers, Jarred Tinordi and Zach Trotman; and goalies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry.
Dea, Wilson, Summers, Czuczman, Tinoradi, Corrado and Trotman all have to clear waivers on Wednesday at noon before they can join the team.
• Several of those players re-assigned participated in Tuesday’s practice, such as Prow, Smith and Thomas. Smith was injured early in Pittsburgh’s camp and is happy to be back on the ice.
“It was definitely disappointing, but at the same time it’s in the past and I’m focused on what I have to do to establish myself as a player and get better,” he said.
• Miletic joined WBS in practice on Tuesday, a day after signed a three-year entry-level deal with Pittsburgh. Miletic said he watched other undrafted players such as G Alex D’Orio and F Jordy Bellerive sign deals during camp and hoped he would be rewarded as well.
“D’Orio and Bellerive came in and worked extremely hard and played well in the rookie tournament and got contracts. It was inspiring for guys like me that were kind of in the same spot,” Miletic said.