Q & A: From New Haven to 2012, Mark Morris Is Truly an Unsung King
Mark Morris on why Bernie Nicholls got mad at him, the time Mike Stothers's whole team wanted to fight him, Dean Lombardi's "Moneyball" approach, how Jake Muzzin gained confidence
Jewels from the Crown: You played with the New Haven Nighthawks from 1981-84. Back then, New Haven was the Kings' AHL team. Were you signed with the Kings or Nighthawks?
Mark Morris: The Kings. I went to Colgate University. I signed a three-way contract. And I stuck in the AHL. Halfway through [1981-82], I got put on loan to the [Central Hockey League's] Dallas Black Hawks. And I was crushed. It was a very tough time knowing that I had gone through all the trials and tribulations of being a young player trying to make it in the American League, and then I found out that I was being moved halfway through the season. I was put on loan because of some injuries that they had in the Vancouver organization (JFTC note: Dallas was a Canucks affiliate in 1981-82). So I ended up in Dallas and then came back for the next two seasons with the Nighthawks.
JFTC: What was it like participating in Kings training camps back then? Seeing guys like Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor?
MM: It was awesome. It was a big thrill for me. And Dave Taylor was my boyhood idol, growing up. Massena, New York—Clarkson was nearby. So being able to go to training camp and be rubbing elbows with those guys was kind of neat. We were up in Victoria, and he took me to have dinner with Marcel Dionne and Jerry Korab and Mario Lessard. There were a bunch of guys. Dean Hopkins. It was quite a thrill for me.
JFTC: Was that your fondest memory from your time with New Haven?
MM: I think just playoff hockey. Late in the season. Just being able to line up against Peter Mahovlich or Pierre Bouchard or guys like that were kind of on their way out. Or getting to know guys that you'd watched as a kid. So it was quite a thrill for me to be on the ice with those guys.
JFTC: Did you ever find out why Dean Kennedy took your sticks to the NHL?
MM: (laughs) I guess he was looking for a new pattern? And he tried mine and liked them. We were going on a road trip. I went to the stick room to get my sticks. And they were all gone. He had just been sent down on a conditioning assignment. My sticks ended up getting called up, but I never did.
JFTC: And did you ever get your sticks back?
MM: No. (laughs)
JFTC: In New Haven, you played with notable Kings alumni Bernie Nicholls and Daryl Evans. In the following years, both guys became well known for their gregarious personalities. Any good Bernie or Daryl stories?
MM: Brian MacClellan was there as well. The one thing I remembered was back then there was initiation. And I recall a time when certain guys would get designated as the next guy to go through it. If you went through it, you got to pick the next guy. Bernie was laughing at it. Well, I chose him as the next guy. I remember in practice, he knew he was going to be the next guy, and he didn't like it much. And he shot a puck at me. We had a little scuffle of some sort that I recall. (laughs) But he turned into a pretty darn good player. We never really crossed paths after that, other than to say hello after a Kings game or something.
JFTC: What was this initiation?
MM: Well, I don't think we'd want to print that.
JFTC: For Kings fans, the names Doug Keans, Jim Rutherford, Mike Blake, Paul Pageau, Markus Mattsson, Darren Eliot, Gary Laskoski, and Mario Lessard represent a dark, revolving door in team goaltending history. You played with all of them in New Haven. Do any of those names stand out to you and for what reason?
MM: Mike Blake sticks out in my mind because he was my roommate. A great guy, he also came from the college game. Ohio State. And when I went to training camp, the very first guy I met was Mike Blake. I heard the door shut across the hallway, and I gotten there early for training camp. So I knocked on the door and introduced myself. We became fast friends. He was a great guy. He was a lot of fun.
Tell you another funny story. Years later, when I was coaching at Clarkson University, I got a resume from Doug Keans. He was looking to be an assistant coach. Or applying to be an assistant coach. But there was no letter. And I told my wife, I said, "Keano sent me his resume. No letter saying hello or anything. What should I do?" She said, "Well, send him your resume." (laughs)
But yeah, Mike Blake was the closest to me. We had lots of fun...on and off the ice. Just a real good friend, a real solid guy.
JFTC: More stories that we can't print?
MM: Uh, yeah, there's a a few.
JFTC: While at New Haven, you probably encountered Maine's Mike Stothers. Any memories of Stuts from back then?
MM: Actually, yes. I recall one game where we were playing in the New Haven Coliseum. I think I had three shifts in a row: First time, I came across the ice and I hit some guy and he got a little woozy. He left the game. The next time, I went in the corner. I hit a guy, and he impaled himself with his stick. And he went down. Well, the next shift, Stuttsy was coming down the ice, and he banged up his knee. I stepped up, and I think I caught him kind of funny. So at the end of the game, the clock was ticking down. And I remember the whole Maine Mariners bench coming after me. And I was standing back, holding my stick like a bayonet. And our whole bench was coming. And I'm thinking to myself, "I might die here."
JFTC: It sounds like something out of "Slapshot."
MM: It was. If you look at the names on that Maine Mariner team, there was some heavy-duty tough guys. Thank goodness we had a few ourselves.
JFTC: I would've guessed any story involving Stuts would have a fight of some sort in it.
MM: He was a young guy. Might've even been his first year, I'm not sure. But he was a good player, and he was a really tough character.
JFTC: So tell me more about this New Haven-Maine bench-clearing brawl.
MM: I just remember a guy by the name of Mel Hewitt taking a leap from the goal line, and he crashed over my head. They had Dave Brown. I want to say Daryl Stanley. (JFTC: The year was 1982-83; that season, Brown had 418 PIMs.)
The Flyers played just the way that Stuttsy's got the Ontario team playing. When I watch his team play, I have fond memories of the way those Mariner teams played. They play for keeps.
JFTC: As you mentioned, eventually you landed at Dave Taylor's alma mater, Clarkson University. At Clarkson, you coached Kings favorite Willie Mitchell, who was a terrific player for you. But was he as much a locker room leader for you in college as he's proven to be in Los Angeles and Florida? Or did he grow into the role?
MM: You know, we only had Willie for two years. But he was a great player. One of the things I remember about Willie is he actually shot a puck through the glass. And it left a hole in the glass. I'd never seen that before. But he was a big, strong kid. He scored a memorable goal from center ice that dropped about three feet and eventually led to our ECAC championship. He and Erik Cole were great friends...those two guys have remained good friends. And Willie may be the godfather for Collie's daughter.
It was kind of neat, being my age, and seeing all those guys go on. Todd Marchant. Todd White. Craig Conroy. There's a long list of guys who really had great careers. Right now, Chris Clark and Todd Marchant are doing player development. And Jarmo Kekäläinen also played for me...That was my first year as head coach. That was an interesting time for me too.
JFTC: So for Willie, the leadership came later then?
MM: The neatest thing about Willie is that he held the Cup when I drank out of it. I have a picture of Marc-Andre Cliche, who was my captain [in Manchester], who was up as a Black Ace, pouring champagne on my head and Willie was holding the Cup. So to think that a guy you recruited to come to your school ended up holding the Stanley Cup for you to have a sip? It's pretty cool.
JFTC: After Clarkson, you took over the Manchester Monarchs in 2006. In your eight seasons in the LA organization, you dealt with three Kings head coaches, Marc Crawford, Terry Murray, and Darryl Sutter. Of course, as the AHL coach, you had to tailor your systems to the guy in the NHL. Murray is credited with instilling a disciplined defensive structure in Los Angeles. What was different between Crawford and Murray's systems?
MM: There were subtle differences. But Terry's main emphasis was on the defensive side of things. And Terry really instilled our guys with a sense of purpose for playing good, solid, sound defense. So I remember we showed up at camp, and he had painted five [circles in the shape of home plate] in front of the net. And taught everybody from the front of the net out.
And Terry, he was just so thorough. And he had such a calm demeanor. Just the polar opposite of a guy [like me] that came from the college game, where it was all rah-rah. Lots of coaching, where you over-coach. He could really articulate and do it in a calm manner. He's a real pro. A real gentleman.
JFTC: You mentioned that you learned "structure and fun" from Murray and the entire Kings development staff. Can you clarify what you meant by "fun"?
MM: Winning is fun. (laughs) But honestly, I think when you watch what Dean built...And having been a big Dave Taylor fan. I really marveled at the fact that Dave Taylor was still in the room when we would still sit there in meetings. And this was an organization that he ran. He was accepting of all the different views of people that were basically trying to re-boot [his work].
JFTC: This was the first year after Dean Lombardi took over for him? How long did Taylor remain with the Kings?
MM: A year or two. Before he moved onto Dallas. But what a classy move. To be able to sit in there and watch people kind of treading on things that were sacred to you. The way he handled himself was awesome.
And credit Dean for his vision. He kind of took the "Moneyball" approach. Made it more specific to what he saw. Looking back on the experience, I think that he really, having come from the Philly organization, really thought highly of Bobby Clarke, Hexy, a lot of those players had that same mentality of really serious about playing a hard game. It came to fruition, so kudos to them. And he was the architect of putting all those pieces together. To watch that was pretty cool.
JFTC: What was "Moneyball" about Dean's approach?
MM: You know, guys had talked about it. But actually watching it unfold. His concept of a development team. And to have gone to his development camps. Participated with the other coaches. And the expertise that they brought. It was inclusive of a lot of different hockey minds. Being able to sit there and listen to them and learn from them was quite an awesome experience.
It was basically studying the game. And squeezing out every ounce of talent that he could with what you had to work with. The patience that he had to let those kids develop and to put them through their paces. It was so inspirational to watch. When the Stanley Cup was enfolding and watch his vision come to fruition was incredible, it was almost an out-of-body experience.
JFTC: And what were the tweaks between Murray and Sutter's systems?
MM: Darryl brings a very simplistic approach. He's very demanding. I think the biggest difference for me was watching how he simplified the game. He didn't make it complicated. Job needed to be done, you do it. He made guys accountable to really play hard, play physical. And also, it didn't matter whether you're a top-line guy or the last cut, he made sure everybody walked the walk. He had no problem sitting like Mike Richards or somebody like that.
JFTC: As somebody who has specialized in developing defensemen, tell me about Jake Muzzin's growth from day one in Manchester in 2010 to now, where he's mentioned in the same breath with the league's top defenders.
MM: I'd love to take credit for it...Muzz was a really interesting guy. Confidence is such a big part of the game. Mike O'Connell worked a lot with the D. And so did Freddy Meyer. And so did Scott Pellerin. I had my time with him as well. A couple weeks before he got called up [in 2012-13], truth be known, we didn't know if we could dress him. You know, he lost his confidence, he lost his way. There were a lot of people talking to him. He had people on the development team, some of the management, we were certainly...Everybody thought they were trying to help.
Right before he got called up, I was skating around with him. I was trying to say, "Hey Muzz, you gotta..." He said, "I wish people would just stop talking to me." He says, "I'm hearing too many voices." And it's true.
But to his credit, soon as he got up, he and Drew Doughty hit it right off. And I mean, he had instant chemistry there with Drew. And he started getting pucks to the net like I've never seen before, where it seemed like everything he touched was turning into goals. He had moments of brilliance with us. He also had a lot of time where he was learning how to defend better and how to play a grittier game. The potential was there. Consistency wasn't.
But soon as he got called up, I think because the NHL is a little bit more organized and it's less confusing when you're making a lot of different reads, even though it's quicker...playing in [the AHL] is a hard thing. You're dealing with a lot of guys that maybe haven't refined all the intricacies of the position. It's very confusing. And it's harder to play sometimes is what people say all the time. It's harder to play in the American League sometimes, trying to figure things out. But the NHL is the NHL, and guys are bigger, stronger, and faster. But it's way more organized for a guy that is trying to make good reads. And defense is a hard position to learn. But he certainly didn't waste any time when he got called up to really find his way.
JFTC: Muzzin was also called up for a few games to begin 2010-11.
MM: I will say that's something Dean had the luxury of doing. Once his stable was built up to the point where he could...I remember specifically Vey, Toffoli, and Pearson were a line I had. He would bring one up, send him back. Bring another one up, send him back. Bring another one up, send him back. And it was a test. Well, some other organizations don't have that luxury. They have to throw them right in. And until you establish your stable and get your draft picks in place, you don't have that luxury. He had a good enough team, and he had the luxury to be able to do that. And I think that is the right way...guys can get thrust into a role prematurely.
JFTC: When you and the Kings organization parted ways in 2014, Dean Lombardi stated that you wanted to move to the NHL. But a week later, I read that you were interested in the then-vacant Hershey Bears head coaching position. Now, after a season as assistant coach with the Florida Panthers, you're back in the AHL with Charlotte. For clarity's sake, why did you and the Kings part ways?
MM: Well, I didn't know. And I guess the next logical step for me was try to get an NHL job that hadn't opened up yet. And Hershey obviously is a great organization that wins. When I talked to Dean...I think everything has a shelf life. And truth be known, with my family being East, I wasn't sure I wanted to make the move here to Ontario. [The move] was uncertain, but a pretty good likelihood that it might unfold. So that was something that weighed...
I had spoken to him. And he said, "I understand you're interested in being in the National Hockey League, is that what you want to do?" He said, "Well, we're going to move on." I said, "Well, if that's what needed to happen, I guess..."
But I have nothing but great things to be thankful for. The opportunity that I had at Manchester...it was a city that I just adored. I loved that community. They treated me extremely well. Couldn't have landed in a better spot in the American League at that time.
JFTC: You've said that you returned to Charlotte and the AHL because you missed being a head coach. Comparing the assistant and head coaching positions, what specifically did you miss about being in charge?
MM: Being in a role where you're actually making the decisions about what's going on in the game. When you've been a head coach like myself, it's often difficult just to remove yourself when you're used to being in the fray. And I'm grateful for that opportunity. It was really neat to see the NHL up close and personal. But finding something that was meaningful to me professionally, it was a challenge. And I appreciate the opportunity, but I feel like my experience is utilized best at this level right now. And timing is everything in this business.
JFTC: Finally, a month ago in Charlotte, you saw guys who played for you in your last Manchester season like Dowd, Mersch, LoVerde, Backman, Crescenzi, Sabourin, Schultz, and Gravel. These guys, except Mersch who's in the NHL, are now the leaders of a strong Reign squad. From Manchester then to Ontario now, did anybody's evolution stand out to you in particular?
MM: Vinny LoVerde. Such a character guy. We brought him up from the [ECHL's] Ontario Reign. And to watch his work ethic. His class. For me, that team that went on to win it all...brought a lot of pride knowing where he had come from, what he was able to do with the opportunities that he was given. He's a real solid guy. Somebody you want on your team everyday.
And then, looking at a guy like Jeff Schultz and what he brings...another classy guy. Stabilizes a lot of the success that they've had here...[both] will continue that because of the character and the experience that they bring.
JFTC: Thank you for the time, Coach! Good luck on being the first coach to get to 300 college, 300 AHL, and hopefully soon, 300 NHL wins!
A couple days later, I asked LoVerde to share his thoughts about Morris.
JFTC: Mark Morris said this of you, "Such a character guy...somebody you want on your team everyday." And he mentioned how proud he was of you, coming from the ECHL's Reign to captaining last year's Calder Cup champ. What are your thoughts about Morris?
Vincent LoVerde: Mark was very important in my career. He's the first one who really gave me a chance in the AHL, gave me an opportunity. I'm forever grateful for that. He was a great coach. He helped me develop, and kind of become the player that I am today. So yeah, that really means a lot coming from him. Obviously, he's had success at all levels of coaching. Definitely means a lot to me, coming from him.
JFTC: Besides playing time, in what other ways did he help grow your game?
VL: Just my skills as a player. He had an assistant coach there, when I was there, Freddy Meyer, who helped me as well. He was a D coach.
Just understanding the game and learning the game. He did a multitude of things for me, in terms of developing me as a player and as a person. So yeah, like I said, forever grateful for that.