A unique road to the AHL

by Scott Powers

Imagine Kanye West sporting a Wayne Gretzky throwback jersey at the Grammy Awards.

Better yet, picture Gretzky bumping to Kanye’s beats in an NHL locker room.

Not there? It’s not surprising. The hip hop culture isn’t one often associated with the game of hockey. Jay-Z isn’t looking to buy an NHL team. Jaromir Jagr isn’t showing up in rap videos.

Put hip hop in the keyword search on the NHL’s official Web site and two pages are found. Do the same on NBA.com and there are 4,352 results. It’s a culture that’s been more embraced by the NBA, NFL and even Major League Baseball.

But ask Chicago Wolves right wing Justin Morrison what’s impacted his hockey career, and not too far after naming his parents, he’ll tell you hip hop.

Morrison, 26, knows it’s not the norm in hockey, but he’s used to being different. From his younger playing days to college to pro hockey, Morrison has never met another African-American player from Los Angeles.

He’s a minority in a minority. For that reason, he turned to hip hop to comfort him. If he slipped on his headphones and turned on Dr. Dre, he felt back at home and less isolated.

“I’ve used the hip hop culture to balance me out and carry me through awkward situations,” said Morrison, whose mother is white and dad is black. “As far as whether I was in school or living somewhere and playing hockey, I was one of only a few black people around. You kind of feel separated at times and lonely if you’re not around people that are like you. No matter where I went, I listened to music to keep me happy, keep me focused.

“I listen to everybody — Kanye West, Jay-Z, OutKast, J-Dilla, Dr. Dre. I can go on for days. I know East Coast, West Coast, South… ”

His hip hop knowledge is as diverse as where he grew up. His Los Angeles neighborhood, which is known as West L.A. or midcity, is a melting pot of African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic and Asian.

He had friends of all races. None of them played hockey, though. Morrison, himself, knew nothing about the game when he first saw people playing it at a local ice rink when he was 10. The only thing he was certain of was he wanted to try it.

“It looked like fun,” he said. “After that, that’s all I wanted to do. It became my first love.”

His parents also knew nothing of hockey, but they supported him and were there to drive him whatever distance he needed. For about three years, Morrison awoke at 4:30 a.m. every Thursday, had his mom drive him 45 minute to a rink, where he played for an hour, and then they sat in rush-hour traffic for 90 minutes on the way back home.

His friends ridiculed him at times for playing a game that had a stereotypical image of white and Canadian. At the same time, they also showed him respect for doing something different.

Morrison realized he was choosing an abnormal path for an African-American teenager from L.A. He liked that and it pushed him to want to succeed at it.

Looking back, he also understands now it saved him from the possibility of the streets taking him. It’s certainly not a threat most professional hockey players grow up with.

“Gangs were around,” Morrison said. “I’m happy I found hockey when I did. I had some family that went down the wrong path. My older cousins made sure I stayed away from that. I used to get harassed every now and then. In hockey, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew it wasn’t for me. I’m happy because a lot of kids didn’t have that outlet.”

Morrison is trying to change that. Some pro athletes avoid the role model image at all lengths. Morrison has accepted it and has taken it that next step.

When he returns to L.A. in the offseason, he often holds hockey camps to encourage the game to kids who are as clueless about it as he once was.

“I show kids that I’m from here and I’m born and raised here and I’m still able to play professional hockey,” said Morrison, who has 32 points in 48 games this season for the Wolves after playing the previous four years with the Manitoba Moose. “For them to see that first hand helps a lot. It’s good to show them I’m like you and I’m still able to make it.

“You think about how far you’ve come and about the people who didn’t think you’d make it this far. They try and hold you back, you know? One, I’m from California and I had to prove that. Two, I’m black and I play hockey. I tried to prove both. It puts a bit of a chip on your shoulder. To see where I’m at now and see where I’ve been over the years, it makes me happy; it makes me proud of how I far I’ve come.”

Scott Powers covers the Wolves and the AHL for the Daily Herald