In hockey, it takes courage to block a slap shot or battle with a bigger and stronger player for a puck in the corner.

Taj Melson did that as a defenseman for the St. Cloud State men's hockey team from 1992-96 and then played professional hockey until 2006. After he retired, Melson went back to school and became a doctor.

Melson, 45, works in emergency rooms of hospitals in Buffalo, Minn., and Coon Rapids, Minn. With the coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks, there is some new perspective on the courage of medical professionals.

"It almost makes me think of the people who go off to war," St. Cloud State men's hockey coach Brett Larson said. "They are on the front lines of a different kind of battle. I think a lot of people right now have that same respect that you have for the people who are putting their own health on the line to save others.

"It's a whole new level of courage."

From left, St. Cloud State defensemen Dan Reimann (17) and Taj Melson talk with head coach Craig Dahl near the bench during the 1995-96 season. Melson earned All-WCHA Third Team honors that season when he had 38 points and 52 penalty minutes in 39 games. (Courtesy of St. Cloud State University)
From left, St. Cloud State defensemen Dan Reimann (17) and Taj Melson talk with head coach Craig Dahl near the bench during the 1995-96 season. Melson earned All-WCHA Third Team honors that season when he had 38 points and 52 penalty minutes in 39 games. (Courtesy of St. Cloud State University)

On the front lines

Larson was a teammate of Melson's for two seasons in minor league hockey and for three seasons playing in Roller Hockey International in the 1990s. After Melson retired from hockey, he went back to school and got a second degree in microbiology and then went on to get his medical degree at the University of Michigan.

Melson, 45, said that they are seeing people with the virus in his emergency rooms, but some of the messages to the public are keeping overall traffic to a manageable level.

"Here in Minnesota, we're obviously being affected, but we're not seeing the volume of the sick patients that they are seeing in New York, Louisiana and Washington," he said. "But we are certainly seeing patients with COVID-19.

"All of the health systems and physician groups are doing what they can to limit people with their interactions with other people. We have seen some decrease in some of the volume in the emergency department for things that could maybe be better handled in a clinic or remotely. But the sick people, the broken bones, the heart attacks, the strokes are still coming, too."

When Melson was getting his microbiology degree, he was also doing research and, at one point, was considering doing further study into infectious diseases. That background has helped him cope with some of the added stress of being in a hospital during this time.

"For me, it's going OK and it's one of those things that I thought about before even choosing this career," Melson said. "I had an interest in infectious disease and, back at that time, I did a lot of reading and certainly a pandemic was one of the things that I had read about.

"The thing that makes it surreal for me is that, in the medical field, we all knew that at some point, this might happen. But seeing how this all plays out has just been surreal."

Melson has been married to his wife, Billie, for six years and the couple has two boys, Rylen, 3, and Rhett, 11 months, and they live in the Orono, Minn., area. With the health risks involved in his job now, Melson said that there are several precautions that he is taking to keep his family safe.

"There's a lot of anti-viral wipes and hand sanitizers that we use and the clothes stay at the hospital and go into a specific area to get laundered," he said. "We're all kind of making decisions about where do we all do a little more thorough wipe-down at work before we come home (or not).

"Personally, I'm using an outside shower when I get home. I'm trying to limit the risk to my wife and kids. I will use that and then get into completely new clothes again before I come into the house."

St. Cloud State's Taj Melson (left) prepares to shoot the puck with defenseman Greg Zwakman of the University of Minnesota defending during a game at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn. Melson was a defenseman for the Huskies from 1992-96 and is an emergency room doctor for hospitals in Coon Rapids, Minn., and Buffalo, Minn. (Courtesy of St. Cloud State University)
St. Cloud State's Taj Melson (left) prepares to shoot the puck with defenseman Greg Zwakman of the University of Minnesota defending during a game at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn. Melson was a defenseman for the Huskies from 1992-96 and is an emergency room doctor for hospitals in Coon Rapids, Minn., and Buffalo, Minn. (Courtesy of St. Cloud State University)

Getting into medicine

Melson played high school hockey at Robbinsdale Armstrong (Minn.) before arriving at St. Cloud State and was named to the All-WCHA Third team as a senior when he had 38 points and 52 penalty minutes in 39 games. He majored in ... criminal justice.

"My grandmother was a labor and delivery nurse, so that was kind of my first contact with anything medical," he said. "When I was at St. Cloud, a gentleman who was an intensivist at St. Cloud Hospital — Scott Davis — allowed me to do a preceptorship and that really kind of kicked things off.

"I knew that I wanted to go on and play (pro) hockey, so (medicine) was kind of on the back burner until the hockey career was over. Even at St. Cloud, I knew I had an interest in medicine."

Melson's first two seasons of pro hockey were from 1996-98 with the San Diego Gulls of the independent West Coast Hockey League and one of his teammates was Larson, a former University of Minnesota Duluth defenseman. Larson said that he has a lot of good memories of Melson as a player.

"He was a great teammate and he was also a great player," Larson said. "He was one of the fastest guys I ever played with. As a defenseman, he created so much offense with his speed and he was a really dynamic, fun defenseman to watch.

"He was always a very hard worker, very dedicated. We'd be on bus trip and the rest of us morons would be looking Sports Illustrated or something and he had his MCAT books out, studying for medical exams. He was just always real dedicated and driven and you always knew that he'd be successful."

Pro hockey to the ER

Melson played most of his pro ice hockey career in San Diego, but he also played four seasons in the RHI with the Minnesota Arctic Blast (1996), Orlando Jackals (1997), Anaheim Bullfrogs (1998) and Minnesota Blue Ox (1999).

Even though he never made it to the NHL, Melson said he enjoyed his pro hockey career before retiring.

"The minor leagues, for a young person coming along who has played hockey their whole life, was a great experience for me," he said. "I got to interact with a lot of different people from all over the world, which was great.

"I also played roller hockey during the summers and that paid some bills and allowed me to travel and put off the real world for awhile."

At the University of Michigan, he met his wife, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science. After finishing his doctorate, Melson worked at Hennepin County Medical Center before getting his current position working in emergency rooms.

So what is it about working in an emergency room that Melson enjoys?

"It's the unknown and the interaction from different people from all different walks of life," he said. "Everybody from the cradle to just before the grave sees us and I like that variety and being there for people."

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