By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007
VICTORIA, British Columbia – It’s a long, sorry saga and Mark Morrison knows Victoria fans feel as if they have been pummeled senseless over the years by the hockey gods.
That’s what drives him to bring hockey happiness back on ice in the B.C. capital and why he signed a new two-year deal to continue as head coach of the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL. Details of the contract were not revealed.
“The city needs it [winning hockey] and I like the challenge of coaching in my own town and trying to bring success back here,” said Morrison.
He remembers what it was like before the Victoria Cougars’ dark slide to WHL oblivion — or at least to Prince George — when he was the all-time franchise scoring leader with 394 points in 191 games. Morrison recently reawakened the echoes in this moribund hockey town when midway into his second season as Salmon Kings assistant coach, he was elevated to the head coaching position on Dec. 28, 2006, after the dismissal of Tony MacAulay and rallied the former ECHL doormat S-Kings to a 27-15-3 record and a first-ever playoff berth.
“When I started this [in December] I didn’t have an individual goal in mind, like climbing the coaching ladder to the AHL or NHL, but I just wanted to bring hockey success back to Victoria,” said Morrison.
“If any town deserves that, it’s this one because there have been so many ups and downs. For me, it’s the challenge of having a good regular season right from the start this time around and getting to the Kelly Cup and I’ve been given two years to achieve that goal. It’s a good fit for me. It feels right.”
And he didn’t waste any time. With his new deal signed late Sunday after meeting with GM Dan Belisle, Morrison spent yesterday recruiting in-between his several media interviews. He was burning the phone lines to people such as WHL Tri City Americans head coach Don Nachbaur and former Victoria Cougars junior and University of Alberta head coach Eric Thurston.
“Hockey is a small world and I’ve played with or against many of the coaches now in the business and you use all those connections in recruiting and obtaining player information,” said Morrison.
That’s evident in the Vancouver Canucks minor-pro chain, which has former Team Canada world junior gold-medalist teammates Morrison and Scott Arniel behind the benches of their ECHL and AHL farm teams.
“Scott and Craig [Manitoba Moose head coach Arniel and GM Craig Heisinger] have been so supportive and helped me out a ton. They’re always on the phone with us and have been a big help,” said Morrison.
Perhaps it is because he was a former player — a Rangers draft pick of considerable brilliance but little size who flitted around the edges of the NHL — that the Salmon Kings players connected with Morrison when he became head coach. He related to them and their pro hockey quests.
“I think there’s something to that,” mused Morrison. “I clicked with this group of players. When a coach recruits a player, he doesn’t know what that guy is really like. It takes awhile, but you have to be in their lives.”
Morrison knows coaching provides the crucial difference at the developmental level of pro hockey. Alaska, Las Vegas, Bakersfield and Idaho are good every year in the National Conference because they have the best coaches. Among coaches who have used the ECHL to springboard to the NHL are Peter Laviolette, who guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup, and Calgary Flames head coach and Morrison’s former roommate Jim Playfair.
“The ECHL is very system-run and very system-oriented,” noted Morrison. “With young, developmental players, the most successful teams are the ones who are most disciplined in their systems.”
Morrison said disciplined doesn’t mean boring.
“I want my guys to have speed and know how to handle the puck and pass,” he said.
A scoring genius as a player, Morrison obviously knows offence. That’s why he is looking for more of a defensive specialist when he hires his assistant coach.
“If I’m weak in one area, it’s that one. I’ll be looking to address defence when I hire my assistant coach. I have a stack of resumes already on my desk,” he said.
Morrison fell into coaching when the Fife Flyers of the British National League found themselves coach-less in 1993-94. The club turned to its best player to take on the dual coaching-playing role. That led to an 11-year run at Fife and three British coach-of-the-year awards.
In Fife, and with his .682 victory percentage in half a season as Victoria’s bench boss, Morrison showed he knows how to coach winning hockey.
“The work ethic will be there for the Salmon Kings,” said Morrison. “There will not be any more of the bad times.”