By Bart Wright
The Greenville News
GREENVILLE, S.C. – After a year without hockey at the highest level of the sport, coaches and general managers throughout the NHL knew they would be in for some surprises when training camp opened for the 2005-06 season.
In the camp of the Edmonton Oilers, Mike Morrison gave them something to consider that the franchise still hasn’t figured out.
What to do with three goalies ready to play in the Big Show?
“I guarantee you they didn’t anticipate what they saw from him at camp,” said Greenville coach John Marks. “He was a minor league guy, he shows up and he’s the best goalie in their training camp — they were asking themselves, ‘Now what do we do?'”
Goalies in hockey have a similar impact on their teams as pitchers do in baseball, with the added bonus of being able to play almost every game. Great goalies are as indispensable as great pitchers, only Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens can’t pitch three times a week.
Goalies need to play to stay sharp, so, to extend the analogy, three goalies on a hockey team are about as common as three catchers on a baseball team. Buffalo has been carrying three goalies this season in hopes of trading one, but here we are in the new year and so far, no takers.
Edmonton decided to send Morrison to Greenville to begin the season, but after an injury to Oilers goalie Ty Conklin, Morrison got the call to the NHL on Oct. 24. Two weeks later, after backing up Jussi Markkanen, he was in the nets in Denver at the end of an Oilers road trip, playing against the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s what you dream about,” Morrison said Tuesday before starting his fourth game for the Grrrowl on a two-week trip back to the ECHL. “We were about to land in Denver after losing the next-to-last game on the road trip in Chicago, the boys were tired, we were all ready to go home when Coach (Craig McTavish) asked me if I was ready to play.
“I told him, ‘I’ve been waiting ever since I got here,'” Morrison said. “He said, ‘You’re starting, good luck.'”
Morrison made a call to Boston and arranged a flight for his parents to Denver to see him play his first game, an Oilers victory over the Avalanche.
He was 5-1 for Edmonton, off to a good start this season with a chance to move into second place in the Northwest Division Tuesday night when it hosted Pittsburgh.
“The atmosphere there is fantastic,” Morrison said. “They sell out every night, they have a tremendous, diehard fan base and I know it’s a huge confidence builder to know the fans care so much.”
Morrison fit right in, but when Conklin was pronounced healthy, the Oilers decided to send Morrison out on a two-week “rehabilitation” stint. Conklin and Markkanen are both 6-foot-0, with similar styles, while Morrison is 6-3 and has a different style.
His ability and stylistic difference has prompted all sorts of rumors about Edmonton seeking a trade for either Conklin or Markkanen to make room for Morrison as a full-time backup.
“I look at the stuff,” Morrison said of the rumors, “there’s some crazy things people are saying. I’m the guy causing the problem and to be honest with you, I don’t really care if they carry five goalies, as long as I’m one of them.”
When it was time to go some place for two weeks, Morrison, who played 26 games here last year, got online and saw Greenville had a heavy schedule, so he asked to be sent here.
“It surprised them,” he said, “because guys usually want to go to the American Hockey League. My thing was, I could get seven games in and be ready when they bring me back.”
He played three times last weekend — all wins — and didn’t absorb his first defeat until Tuesday when first-place Gwinnett scored twice in the final six minutes to top an offensively punchless Grrrowl team, 2-1.
Because of a weather-induced schedule quirk, the same teams play three games in a row and Morrison will likely start in all three, plus two more before he heads back to Edmonton next week.
It’s good to stay sharp in Greenville, but it’s even better to solve a problem for management in Edmonton.