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Morgan’s long road going through Hershey

A teammate snickered in the background of the Hershey Bears’ dressing room at Giant Center as Gavin Morgan described adjusting to the bus-first approach to transportation in the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.

The Hershey forward’s transition to life with the Bears has proceeded smoothly for the first half of this season. But four seasons with the Utah Grizzlies failed to prepare Morgan for life on the bus. Morgan, who flew regularly with the Grizzlies, found the adjustment to bus trips to Norfolk, to Albany, to other locales on the AHL map, a bit unpleasant.

“I had never ridden a bus in pro,” Morgan said. “Now I get on the bus and ride for seven hours.”

“It’s criminal,” Morgan laughed, as teammates more accustomed to the bus-riding lifestyle smirked in his direction.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’d rather sit in an airport. The bus is a tough go.”

While his teammates may question Morgan’s fortitude for the bussing lifestyle, the center’s on-ice grit is not up for debate.

Morgan slogged it out to the tune of an average of 211 penalty minutes annually for four seasons in the Dallas Stars organization before arriving in Hershey, never once an invite to Texas being sent his way.

How Morgan came to Hershey and then went on to Dallas for a spell is a bit of story itself.

This season, when some roster machinations detoured Morgan from the Grizzlies to Hershey, Morgan seemed to be on the outs with Dallas.

Morgan arrived in Hershey this past September still a member of the Dallas organization after the Stars agreed to loan him to the Bears in exchange for defenseman Tim Wedderburn.

Loaning a player out can accomplish a number of objectives — both for team and player — but over the years, such a move has tended to mean a player’s days with his National Hockey League organization are numbered.

“Coming to Hershey, I kind of thought I was done with [Dallas],” Morgan admitted. “I was mystified when the whole thing happened.”

Morgan welcomed the change. A new team, a fresh start and a chance to set up shop in one of the American Hockey League’s premier locales appealed to the 5-11 center from St. Catharines, Ont.

Regardless, off to Hershey went Morgan this fall to skate for head coach Paul Fixter‘s Bears. Morgan has played his nasty brand of hockey and adapted to his new surroundings, doing so under the no-nonsense Fixter.

Still, when Dallas plucked Morgan off the Fixter’s roster on Dec. 2, taking a player who no longer seemed to be on the Stars’ radar, the move was a bit unconventional.

Even to Morgan, finally given a go with the NHL at age 27.

“It was definitely odd because I didn’t go to training camp [with Dallas].”

Morgan spent 15 days with Dallas, living the NHL lifestyle and loving it, putting up 21 penalty minutes in six contests while a Star.

“It was great, a dream come true. I worked hard to get there. Just to be given the chance was amazing. I’ve lived the dream, and now it’s the goal. I thank them for giving me a shot and allowing me to live a dream.”

Morgan learned that he may not be as far from the NHL as he thought before his two weeks in the NHL.

“It makes me really hungry. It makes me know I can play up there. I went up there and tried to prove myself, and the response up there was that I did do my job.”

Back in Hershey, Morgan continues to do his job, chipping in 5-10-15 numbers to go with 81 penalty minutes in 33 games through January 7.

“I love the town and the organization. Everything is first-class here.”

He’s straight-ahead in his play, but a bit more verbose in a scouting report on himself.

“I’ve always been a feisty type guy. Kind of no-nonsense. It’s just the way I am in nature. I think I get it from my father. It’s just I play with my heart, and I play to win. I want to win. I got rings from everywhere but pro.”

“My role is the same as in Utah. My role is to be feisty and penalty-kill. I add a little offense every once in a while. I’m not going to be a first-line scorer. I provide grit and heart, and I give them a spark. That’s my job.”

That feistiness means Morgan walks a fine line with AHL referees familiar with his on-ice disposition. If he doesn’t walk that line, Fixter will make him.

“You have to play your role,” Morgan began, “but you have to do it with the team’s best interests in mind. If you don’t do it, you’re going to sit on the bench.”

And Morgan has missed some shifts with the Bears after taking a bad penalty.

“Before I went to Dallas, he sat me out for 10 minutes because I got a stupid penalty.”

Fixter’s demanding ways aside, Morgan relates well to his first-year head coach. Morgan got his start with Idaho of the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League. Fixter built his resume from the bottom up as well, starting the ladder-climb as a player at the University of Windsor.

“I can relate [to Fixter], Morgan said. “You have to work hard. I started at the bottom of pro hockey. It’s great to see him coaching well and getting his chance, because this is his dream.”

“Fixy is possibly the best coach I’ve had at the pro level. He knows how to handle different levels of players, different talents. It’s fun to play for him. Even when you play bad and he sits you out, you’re not upset with him. You know he’s going to give you another shot. He’s just a great coach.”

Those long dead-of-the-night trips on I-81, I-95 and the rest of the AHL’s highways and byways still do not please Morgan. Life in Hershey does.

“It’s an amazing place to play hockey.”