by Stephen Meserve || AHL On The Beat Archive
Five years ago, Texas Stars center Travis Morin had just five games and a single career assist to his name in the American Hockey League.
As this month begins, he leads the league in points and is the Stars’ franchise leader in points and assists, having just played his 300th career AHL game last weekend.
“I didn’t know if I would ever get a chance to prove myself in the AHL,” said Morin. “I thought I had shown that I could play in the ECHL and should get a chance in the AHL.”
At the same time on the other side of the country, the Texas Stars’ inaugural head coach, Glen Gulutzan, was coming off a successful stint in the ECHL himself as he prepared for the Stars’ opening season in Cedar Park. Six years with the Las Vegas Wranglers had taught him that the ECHL was an excellent place for players to develop for the next level, and Morin had just finished third in league scoring with 88 points in 71 games for the South Carolina Stingrays.
“It was Coach Gulutzan who called me,” continued Morin. “He was talking to me and telling me that he knew the ECHL and came from there. He told me that he didn’t discount what I did there and knew I could play. He was basically the one who talked me into coming here and gave me the chance to turn a tryout into a contract.”
Morin and his wife had just had their first child two weeks before he signed the tryout and headed to Texas. After a successful training camp, his family followed him to Cedar Park with all three staying in a hotel for a month with a newborn son, uncertain of Travis’s future with the organization.
“It was a bit of an adventure,” said Morin, laughing as he recalled the overcrowded hotel accommodations.
After just seven games, the Morins were able to move to more permanent housing with the Stars’ signing him to a full-year contract.
Texas Stars general manager Scott White also had ECHL connections and knew they’d found a special player in Morin.
“We heard he was a guy in the Washington system that just never got a chance but was the best player in the ECHL, bottom line. When our peers from that level say that he’s the best, we respect that.”
‘You want to keep this guy in your system’
As the Texas Stars started to build momentum in their first season, Morin did as well. He collected his first AHL goal in a 3-1 win over the Houston Aeros on Nov. 1, 2009 — assisted by his current linemate Colton Sceviour.
“I got a lot more comfortable with the speed up here, knew that I could play here, and started to play my own game.”
In total, Morin would pot 21 goals that regular season and add four more in the playoffs as the Stars marched to the Calder Cup Finals against his former team, the Hershey Bears. One of those four goals was especially memorable for Morin: Despite the series ending in a Bears’ title, his game-winning goal in Game 2 at Giant Center with less than a minute left in regulation stands out to him.
“Obviously the way the series ended wasn’t great, but for me at the time, exacting a bit of revenge felt good.”
His play in the back half of the season put him on Dallas’s radar as they looked to build on the momentum of their farm team’s inaugural year success. Morin was a key part of the equation moving forward for White and the Texas Stars. Dallas offered him a one-year, two-way contract for 2010-11.
“If you look around the AHL, all the teams have these players like Morin under NHL contracts,” said White. “If the player is very important on the AHL team, he doesn’t have a chance to go to the NHL without a contract. You have to pay the piper when you want to keep the guy in your system.”
Within a few months, Morin was prepping for his first NHL game against Edmonton, ultimately getting into three that season.
“Obviously the first time it’s a dream come true,” said Morin. “It’s something you dream about when you’re a kid and something you have worked all this time for.”
In a radio interview at the time, Scott White recounted the phone call to tell Morin about the call-up.
“When I called Travis to tell him he was going to NHL, Travis is one of those guys, his blood pressure doesn’t rise very high. He sort of said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ but deep down, he knows it’s been a long journey.”
Balancing team success and individual achievements
Even with Morin setting career highs in goals and assists in Texas’s third season, the Stars missed the playoffs for the first time as a franchise, finishing last in the conference. Morin was the setup man for one of the league’s top goal scorers that season, Matt Fraser.
“We had a little bit of change in philosophy [that] year. We tried a lot of things. That just might have been the fact that we were losing. You’re going to look for other things when you’re losing.”
Heading into his fourth year in Texas, he re-doubled his efforts to become more responsible defensively as new head coach Willie Desjardins worked to put new systems in place.
“Coach Desjardins came in last year and got us playing a certain way. Everyone bought into a system, and it really worked for us. I knew coming in I wasn’t going to put up the same point totals as [the prior] year. That’s fine because team success is what matters.”
Team success followed as that system took Morin and his teammates to a first-place finish in the Western Conference and a playoff berth that felt all the more satisfying after missing out the prior season.
A ‘simple moment’ that changed everything
An off-season trade saw Morin’s goal-scoring machine of a linemate, Matt Fraser, sent to the Boston Bruins organization. Desjardins very quickly settled on rookie Curtis McKenzie to supplement a top line already featuring Morin and Colton Sceviour.
Any concerns about a production drop-off from Morin this season have been set to rest with his early campaign. He has 29 points in just 19 games so far, both dishing out assists with 18 and finding twine himself with 11 goals.
It wasn’t a two-game fluke or a 10-game streak; Morin is having a career year so far. Ever since he started lighting up the scoreboard, everyone is asking what’s different about this season. The chemistry he shares with Sceviour is apparent, but he also had good chemistry with Fraser. The system is successful, but it’s the same one that the Stars played last year.
“In the past, I was a player who would sometimes sit back a bit and let [the game] come to me,” Morin said. “Now I’m trying to move my feet a lot more, make plays happen instead of waiting for them to happen.”
“When I got sent down from training camp, they told me that I needed to make plays quicker and make things happen just a little faster. I got down here the first day, and we were doing a drill in practice. [Coach Desjardins] called me over and said, ‘That’s what they’re talking about right there. Get your feet moving when you get the puck.’”
Seven years into his pro career, something clicked for Morin in that split second on the ice. Desjardins and the Dallas staff had put a new wrinkle into his game.
“It’s a simple moment, but really ever since then I’ve been trying to incorporate that into my game and in practice,” Morin said. “Obviously, with the linemates I have and our power play working well, it all adds up to some success.”
His success has earned him two call-ups to Dallas so far this season. It also garnered some league recognition in the CCM/AHL Player of the Month award for October.
“It’s obviously nice to be recognized,” Morin said. “It’s not what you’re aiming for as long as the wins are coming. It’s a little added bonus on top of that.”
Building something in Texas
Five years on, Morin and his family have built a life in Cedar Park. With their son turning four this past summer, he and his wife are expecting another child very soon.
“We’ve grown to love the area. That’s one thing when contracts are up and you look at re-signing and if you want to go somewhere else… We really like it here. It’s a good place, and that’s a big thing for me. My family likes it, and we really enjoy it here.”
Likewise, the area has grown to love Morin and the team.
“We have a solid following, and they are passionate about our team. We do pretty well in attendance. We have a great following and fans that supports us through thick and thin.”
Standing in the hallway leading to the Stars’ locker room at the Cedar Park Center, Morin even gets a bit wistful thinking about what the team has built and his part in it.
“We’ve got a group of us in there, four of us now (Morin, Sceviour, Francis Wathier and Maxime Fortunus), that have been here all five years. It’s grown quite a bit from that first year. It is something nice to see and nice to know that even when we’re gone and when we leave this place, it’s something that we helped build: the tradition of Texas Stars hockey.
“Hopefully it will keep going for a long time.”