Morris reflects on his road to Manchester

by Mark Morris || AHL On The Beat Archive

Little did I know back in 1970 that attending a hockey school in Lake Placid, N.Y., would lead me to a career in the coaching business. It was called the Northwood Hockey School and it was held for six weeks. The price tag was $125 for the locals.

I billeted for six weeks with the Strack family who lived a few blocks away from the 1932 rink, just down the hill from the oval in front of Lake Placid High School. Rick Strack, my boyhood friend, became an All-American goalie for Plattsburgh State and later played in net for the New York Rangers organization.

Ironically, he was [current St. Anselm College coach] Ed Seney’s goaltender throughout his minor hockey and high school days. Ed Seney also attended the same hockey school. The three coaches running the school all became legendary college coaches: Sid Watson (Bowdoin College), Duke Nelson (Middlebury College) and Charlie Holt (University of New Hampshire).

As a 13-year-old hockey player, I guess I did not realize who these men were but they obviously helped instill a love and understanding of the game that led me down the path I chose which has become my life’s work. All three men were great teachers, they were family oriented and they were highly successful at their respective institutions.

Most importantly, these coaches impacted the lives of thousands of people by being great role models for others to follow.

I would be remiss if I forgot to mention I also played for a great coach at Massena High School by the name of Stan Moore, Sr. I had the pleasure of presenting him with the John McGinnis Award at the American Hockey Coach Association convention for his service to amateur hockey. His love and dedication to the game was very influential in my development as a player and as a coach.

So who is this Mark Morris character anyway? Where did he come from? How did he end up in Manchester? I grew up in Massena, N.Y., a stone’s throw from Cornwall, Ont. Massena is an industrial town situated about an hour and a half from Montreal and an hour and a half from Ottawa.

Hockey in my hometown was a natural fit for most of us because of the cold winters in northern New York and its close proximity to the Canadian border, along the St. Lawrence River. Finding good teams to play for was never an issue. Throughout our minor hockey days, we traveled by caravan up and down Highway 401 and the 40 from Toronto to Montreal. Our parents took turns piling us in cars and going wherever we could to play the best teams.

Much of my youth was spent playing hockey on outdoor rinks and on the creek down the road from my parents’ home. It wasn’t until 1973 that Massena got its first indoor arena. Some of my fondest memories are the countless hours my friends and I had shoveling my backyard rink and pretending we were Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Stan Mikita, Gerry Cheevers, Phil Esposito or the many hockey great from that era.

Watching Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night meant you’d have to go out in the freezing, snowy weather to adjust the antenna so the picture on the black and white TV would come in clear. Mom and Dad would make popcorn and it was a big deal to stay up until the game was over. Sometimes we had to watch the French broadcasts. With six teams in the NHL back then, you had no problem learning each team inside and out.

Growing up near the border gave me an opportunity to see the Cornwall Royals play major junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. It was a great league and it produced a lot of future NHL stars. I also saw college hockey on a regular basis with St. Lawrence University and Clarkson College just down the road. I had the best of both worlds.

Making the travel team was a big deal for a kid those days. During the week you skated for a house league team. The most talented kids were divided up among the house league teams and then the All-Star team players got to play on the same team on the weekends. Some of the house league games were opportunities for the better players to go head-to-head so there was a healthy in-house competition among the local talent.

Oddly enough, I met my wife Cecily for the first time on a road trip to Berlin, N.H., when I was a Bantam. She is one of nine children and five of her brothers were hockey players from Massena. I’m not quite sure what she saw in me, but we became friends and by senior year when the Catholic High School in Massena closed, she began attending the public school that I went to. We began dating at that time and we have been together ever since.

High-school hockey in my home town was very strong in the ’70s and into the ’80s. That was before prep school and junior teams lured away some of the most talented athletes. My high school teams had some heated rivalries. Most notable was Lake Placid High School versus Massena Central. The epic battles were played in front of packed arenas. To this day, there remains some bitterness among the two villages due to hostilities from those wars on the ice.

I played college hockey at Colgate University for the late Terry Slater. Within a few years, he had turned that program around and by my senior season, we made the NCAA tournament and played at the famed Boston Garden. Following the final game, I was informed by a player agent that there were a few NHL teams who might be interested in my services as a player.

I spent a majority of my professional playing days in the AHL with the New Haven Nighthawks. Part of my first season, I was loaned to the Dallas Blackhawks, the farm team for the Vancouver Canucks, where we played against the Indianapolis Checkers for the Finals of the Central Hockey League. In Dallas, they took our ice out for a rodeo and so we had to play all the final games in Indy. At one point, we practiced at the Prestonwood Mall with tennis balls so we could get some ice before going to play in the Finals.

As a defensive defenseman at the pro level, I learned the importance of playing consistent, reliable hockey. I gained an appreciation for role players who contribute in ways which never show up on a scoresheet. My final pro game was during the 1984 season in Portland against the Maine Mariners.

A serious shoulder injury caused me to retire from hockey and luckily the next summer I landed a job as an assistant coach at Union College working with the late Charlie Morrison. That season we won the league championship and we hosted the NCAA tournament. The following summer, I was working for a hockey school at St. Lawrence University (SLU). Mike McShane (UNH) had just accepted the Providence job and the new coach, Joe Marsh (UNH), asked me if I’d like to be his assistant coach.

Within three seasons at SLU, we had great success winning the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) regular-season and playoff titles. My final season at SLU was 1988. We lost to Lake Superior State University in the NCAA title game in double overtime, a game I’ll never forget.

When Cap Raeder (UNH) left Clarkson to join Robbie Ftorek, I was hired to replace him. I spent 14 seasons at Clarkson and left there as the winningest coach in the school’s history. We won eight titles. I’m extremely proud of the things we achieved during my tenure there. Many of my former players have gone on to be excellent pro players, Olympians and successful businessmen. It was a great ride.

From there, I joined the Vancouver Canucks staff on an interim basis. My friend Marc Crawford gave me a great opportunity and gave me a chance to see what life in pro hockey was all about. Following that year, I spent part of a season helping Moe Mantha in Saginaw with a young Ontario Hockey League team. For the next two years, I coached at my alma mater, Northwood School. As fate would have it, I coached Ron Hextall’s son, Brett.

I had never met Ron before that time. His son was a great leader as my captain and our team enjoyed the best season Northwood School has ever had with a record of 40-8. I was invited to attend the Los Angeles Kings’ development camp last summer, which ultimately led to this opportunity here in Manchester. It’s everything I heard it would be and more.

It’s funny how everything goes full circle. It all started at Northwood. With all this said, what I’m most proud of is my family. My wife Cecily is a successful lawyer and an unbelievable mother of four children. My son Michael is a senior hockey player at Geneseo, near Rochester, N.Y. My daughter Emily is a junior at Wisconsin (NCAA women’s hockey champions 2006). My daughter Leah is a freshman art major at Boston University, and my son Kevin is a great young student athlete. He plays hockey for the county team in St. Lawrence County.

How my wife and children make it work for us as a family says volumes about the sacrifices everyone is willing to make to have a dad who is a hockey coach. They are my strength and my source of inspiration.

Mark Morris is the first-year head coach of the Manchester Monarchs