By Nicholas Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat Archive
Charlotte Checkers head coach Mark Morris has carved out quite the career up to this point.
He is currently in his ninth season behind an American Hockey League bench and entered this weekend tied for seventh in AHL history with 362 wins. So what has been the key to his ongoing success?
“I’ve just used the experience that I’ve gained over time to try and do what I think is best for the group,” said Morris. “I try to keep my ears open and be a good listener and at the same time try and establish a culture where there are expectations and certain standards that we’re going to live with and try to hold guys accountable. I think that that’s the whole key to anything you do, to follow up and make sure the guys know what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”
Morris employs a somewhat unique coaching style, at least for this level. Players have noted his affinity for motivational quotes, which adorn the Checkers’ locker room at Bojangles’ Coliseum, and his signature level of intensity.
“He gives these intense pep talks,” said Kyle Hagel. “Sometimes he points to you and says, ‘You got it’ and you’ll have to fire the team up. Or he’ll point to you and ask you what you need to do tonight or he’ll ask you what the guy next to you needs to do tonight. He’s really passionate and he cares about the guys.”
That style likely comes from Morris’ long history with college hockey. He played four seasons at Colgate University and was the head coach at Clarkson University for 13 years.
“I think that a lot of these guys haven’t really been afforded an opportunity to go to university,” said Morris. “Some have but a lot of them haven’t. I think that a lot of guys, their only focus has been to get to the National Hockey League. But there’s a bigger world out there. So when you get the chance to read a good book or find something that motivates you or touches your heartstrings, then use every resource. Especially for guys who are trying to figure life out. Whatever we can do to get them to see the big picture is somewhat our responsibility.”
Morris, who is the only head coach to record 300 victories at both the collegiate and pro levels, understands that there may be some hesitation in accepting his methods, and is still growing in his techniques.
“I hope that some of the stuff that I throw out there sticks with them,” said Morris. “It’s not all going to resonate with every individual. Some guys may snicker at it, but some guys may find it really interesting. It’s there if they need it. If they want to use it, that’s great, if they don’t, that’s great too.
“I’m probably one of those guys that over-coaches. There’s a degree where you have to let the guys play and kind of let go of the reins once in a while and let your horses run. I’ve had to learn that over time.”
After molding a career in the NCAA and AHL, Morris took on a new challenge last season, joining the Florida Panthers as an assistant coach. But after the one season he returned to the AHL. Having obtained some experience, Morris uses that to help his players simplify their games and let their hard work push them to the next level.
“There are a lot of amenities that are afforded to guys in the NHL that you don’t see here at the AHL level,” said Morris. “So just to try and let the guys know that if they keep a good focus and concentrate on the ice, all that fluff and everything else that you see at the NHL level, in the end it all boils down to how you play and how you make those around you better. You can’t get caught up in all the glitz and glitter because if you’re playing with passion, it shows. I just want to reinforce that with our guys and keep their heads and their hearts in the right places.”
Morris is one of five active coaches on the AHL’s top 10 wins list and, alongside Hartford coach Ken Gernander, has the fewest seasons coached on that list. He has never finished below .500 as an AHL coach and has made the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons. Morris has been a picture of consistent success at this level, and he has Charlotte on its best stretch in years.
Throughout his impressive career, Morris has picked up many lessons and experiences, but sticking to the tried and true methods is what has brought him success in the past, and hopefully in the future with the Checkers.
“There’s a lot of things that I use as my compass,” said Morris. “I like the stuff that I read about [college football coach] Lou Holtz, [Duke basketball] coach Krzyzewski, [UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden and the way they simplified things. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. Those are guys that are proven in their business and often times if you teach good fundamental skills and structure, success follows.
“You can’t play by the seat of your pants and expect to have consistent success. To try and emulate their style and their things that are time-tested has worked well thus far. You throw your own personal things in with the foundation that guys like that have laid out so simply and then it becomes your own.”