Brendan Morrison: The Man in the Middle

Originally published in Rinkside in 2005

By Lucas Aykroyd

Wayne Gretzky got a ton of attention when he centered the NHL’s most dangerous line with Esa Tikkanen and Jari Kurri in Edmonton. It was the same for Eric Lindros when he hooked up with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg to form the “Legion of Doom” in Philadelphia. But for several seasons now, Vancouver’s Brendan Morrison has been happy to let the spotlight shine on his linemates, Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, who are frequently Art Ross Trophy contenders.

This savvy 30-year-old center is a consummate team player. He knows his puck-moving ability has had a major impact on his linemates’ success, even if it’s not always heralded by the media.

Morrison also knows the Canucks have a limited window of opportunity to win the Stanley Cup with their current core group, and he’s happy GM Dave Nonis decided to retain the chemistry that helped Vancouver capture the 2003-04 Northwest Division title, instead of shuffling the deck like many other NHL teams.

“It’s a big confidence booster for the guys in our room,” said Morrison. “It’s a strong message sent by management and the coaching staff that they believe we can get the job done. We’ve been very successful in the regular season the last few seasons. We want to build off that. Our focus is to have a good regular season, but ultimately, we want to have success in the playoffs.”

When it comes to the handful of newcomers, Morrison likes what he’s seen from forwards Anson Carter and Richard Park and defenseman Steve McCarthy: “Anson has been a nice addition, playing with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. He’s a finisher. He can score goals, and he already got a few big goals for us early in the season. Richard brings another dimension to the lines he plays with. He’s very fast, and he challenges defenses with his speed. He’s got a good shot, and he’s good defensively. Steve adds depth back on the blueline as a power play guy with a good shot. They’ve all fit in really well.”

Morrison knows how to fit in too. Canucks coach Marc Crawford has frequently challenged the 5-11, 185-pound pivot to adapt his game since being acquired from New Jersey along with Denis Pederson in exchange for Alexander Mogilny in 2000. Crawford has clear expectations for the eight-year NHL veteran: “Offensively we want him to use his speed and take pucks to the net, especially on the power play. By drawing defenders to him, whether he’s coming from a low position or on the rush, he’s very important to his linemates. That opens up so much for them. For Brendan, defensively, the one word that jumps out for me is ‘alertness.’ He’s not a big guy, and he has to battle bigger guys all the time. He has to beat them with alertness and attention to detail.”

By and large, Morrison has met those expectations. You can make an interesting comparison between his statistics and those of New Jersey center Scott Gomez. (Just before Morrison was dealt to Vancouver, there was wide speculation the Devils would move either him or Gomez.) Even though Gomez has received more accolades and more hardware (the 2000 Calder Trophy and two Stanley Cups) with the Devils, his regular season points-per-game is roughly the same as Morrison’s over the four full seasons the latter has spent with Vancouver. Gomez scored 236 points in 312 games (0.76 PPG) from 2000-01 to 2003-04, while Morrison earned 252 points in 328 (0.77 PPG) games.

Playing in the right environment usually helps an athlete produce, and for Morrison, there’s truly no place like home. He was born and raised in the Vancouver suburb of Pitt Meadows. He started skating at age two, and by five he was playing minor hockey with the local Ridge Meadows club.

In most parts of Canada, budding stars have the chance to skate on frozen ponds or outdoor rinks in the winter. But growing up on the West Coast, Morrison wasn’t so fortunate. Snow and ice are rarities in this climate. That’s why they call it “Lotus Land.”

“When I was growing up in Pitt Meadows, there was only one arena,” Morrison recalled. “We only got ice one day a week, from the time I was five until 15. We had a lot of early morning practices. I remember our practice time was 5 a.m. Monday morning. If you wanted to practice, you had to be there then.”

The only other alternative was to ask the arena Zamboni driver to let him in with his buddies to play after midnight, which he sometimes did as a teenager. It paid off. In his last two years with Ridge Meadows, Morrison put up a staggering 420 points in 132 games. His boyhood dream of making the NHL looked more and more attainable after he enjoyed a 94-point campaign at age 17 with the Junior A Penticton Panthers of the BC Junior Hockey League. But then he faced the pressure of deciding which route he would take next, Canadian major junior or US college hockey.

The Portland Winter Hawks held Morrison’s rights and were eager for him to bring his talents to the Western Hockey League. But ultimately Morrison decided he would accept a scholarship offer from the University of Michigan, maximizing his education.

En route to an economics degree, the classy center improved in each of his four seasons at Michigan. Morrison won three straight CCHA scoring titles and notched the overtime winner versus Colorado College in 1996 as the Wolverines claimed the NCAA championship. In 1997, he captured the Hobey Baker Trophy as college hockey’s MVP. His Michigan teammates included future NHLers like John Madden, Marty Turco, and Blake Sloan.

“One of the biggest influences from Michigan was my coach, Red Berenson,” said Morrison. “He taught me a lot about the game of hockey, but also about life and growing up as a person and maturing. The whole coaching staff, including Mel Pearson and Billy Powers, was great. It’s a neat time when you go to school as a young guy of 18 and start living away from home. You create a tight bond with your classmates. I’m still the best of friends today with guys I went to school with. We talk on the phone every week.”

Drafted 39th overall by New Jersey in 1993, Morrison anticipated making a smooth transition to the NHL after graduating from college at 22. But instead, he only suited up 11 times for the Devils in his first NHL season. He spent most of 1997-98 with the Albany River Rats, where his 84 points placed him eighth in the AHL scoring derby.

“It really taught me to be patient,” said Morrison. “At times it was frustrating. But they have their own way of doing things in the Devils organization, and you just have to bide your time and wait for your moment.”

You could say that moment arrived on March 14, 2000 when Morrison, who’d fallen out of favor with the Devils coaching staff, got word he’d been traded to Vancouver. He still remembers that day in vivid detail.

“I was out for lunch in New York City with my wife, her sister, and her husband Daryl Reaugh, the color commentator for the Dallas Stars. Daryl was on his cell phone guesting on a Toronto radio show, and he asked the other panelists if they’d heard any more rumors. They said, ‘Yeah, we just heard about a deal involving Vancouver, with Mogilny going to New Jersey for Morrison and Pederson.’ He said: ‘Oh really? I’m sitting with Morrison right now and he hasn’t heard anything.’ They said: ‘Well, they’re announcing it on TV right now.’ Then a couple of my buddies called me and said, ‘Yeah, you’re coming home!’ And I had no idea about this. The deadline was at 3 Eastern, and I got home at 4 Eastern. My phone rang and it was the secretary for the Devils telling me that Lou Lamoriello wanted to talk to me. So then I knew it was officially done.”

Unfortunately, Morrison’s parents weren’t able to attend his first game in Canuck colors at GM Place. His father works for Atco, a company that constructs modular buildings, and had been transferred to Budapest, Hungary a couple of years earlier. But Morrison hasn’t had reason to complain since then: “They’ve had a chance to see me play a fair amount. They get back at Christmas and a couple other times throughout the year. I still have my sister here in town and she’s a big supporter. And I have a lot of other family here, aunts and uncles, plus all my friends that I grew up with.”

Morrison has had a taste of the European lifestyle himself over the last two years. He represented Canada at the 2004 and 2005 IIHF World Championships, winning gold and silver medals respectively. Last season he hooked up with former Michigan teammate Mike Knuble and Swedish sniper Kristian Huselius on Linkoping of Sweden’s Elite League, finishing sixth in the scoring race with 44 points. He enjoyed the cultural experience with his family, as well as the taste of Swedish meatballs and the friendly, low-key approach of Linkoping coach Roger Melin.

But Morrison is overjoyed to return to the NHL for 2005-06, centering the “West Coast Express” again with Naslund and Bertuzzi. He’s in a city that hungers for Stanley Cup glory. When the Canucks made first-round exits against the Avalanche in 2001 and the Wings in 2002, fans applauded their valiant efforts. But losing to Minnesota in the second round in 2003 and Calgary in the first round in 2004 didn’t sit so well. That’s because Vancouverites believe this team now has the potential to go all the way.

“I think we’ve gained even more experience since the last time we played and lost to Calgary,” said Morrison. “You just realize how good you need to be every single night, and you need contributions from every player. Calgary’s a prime example. Last year nobody would have picked the Flames to make the run that they did, but they got contributions and timely goals from guys throughout their whole roster. I think experience is a big thing.”

That’s coming from a man noted for his durability. Entering the 2005-06 season, Morrison had the NHL’s second-longest ironman streak with 348 consecutive games played, trailing only Colorado’s Karlis Skrastins (351).

Yet it’s not as if the Canuck assistant captain has led a pain-free hockey existence. In February 2003, he needed dental surgery after Detroit’s Brendan Shanahan knocked out all of his upper front teeth with a high stick. According to Morrison, it was even more painful when he dislocated his shoulder three times in one college season, which also put him under the knife.

When Morrison needs a break from the pounding, he likes to relax with a fishing rod in his hands. “In the summer I get up to the Queen Charlotte Islands. It’s like heaven up there. It’s just beautiful. I won a fishing derby there a couple of years ago. With half an hour to go, I caught a 45-pound salmon. On my honeymoon, my wife and I were in Bora Bora, and I fought a 700-pound blue marlin for two and a half hours until the line snapped. I’ve tried a lot of local rivers around Vancouver as well and done some sturgeon fishing and fly fishing. I like all aspects of fishing. Just getting out there is a bonus.”

Much like his best friend on the team, defenseman Ed Jovanovski, Morrison devotes a great deal of time to his young family: his wife Erin, his son Brayden, and his two daughters, Makenna and Kailyn. This model NHL citizen has helped his kids develop a love of reading. In fact, he was the poster boy for the Vancouver Sun’s 2005 Raise-a-Reader Campaign. (It’s no surprise he’s read and enjoyed Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.)

“Education was always important in our household when I was growing up. Our parents made sure we stayed on top of it. I’ve tried to pass that down to our kids. We read to them every single night, and they enjoy it a lot. I think it’s a good way of stimulating them to learn about letters, numbers, and colors.”

The color that interests Morrison most, naturally, is the silver glint of Lord Stanley’s mug. Whether or not he exceeds his personal high of 71 points from 2002-03 is simply not as important as making a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. If Morrison can help Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi take their games to the next level when it counts most, he just might earn recognition as one of hockey’s elite centermen. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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