By Daniel Friedman
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Ken Morrow probably had a better 1980 than you did.
In fact, that year was probably better for him than any year has ever been for any athlete.
Let me explain.
Ahead of the 36th anniversary of both the “Miracle on Ice” and the New York Islanders’ first Stanley Cup championship, I decided to sit down with Morrow, who played a big role in both.
Morrow, who is currently the director of professional scouting for the Islanders, said he had no idea he’d be leaving Lake Placid for Long Island. But what transpired was the stuff of dreams.
The following is the story of a great moment followed by a great career:
“I didn’t know I was going to join (the Islanders) until after one of the Olympic Games. I’d met with Bill Torrey just to say hello, and he mentioned that it looked like I’d be coming straight to Long Island afterwards, and that once the Olympics were over, I’d sign my professional contract. Going into Lake Placid, I didn’t know if I’d be going to their farm team,” Morrow said.
Friedman: So, was it because of the way you played during the Olympics that Torrey made that decision?
Morrow: “Well, we played over 60 games leading up to the Olympics. We played some NHL teams, we played college teams, we played international teams. So we played a variety of games leading up to Lake Placid. So I think they knew. They watched me all through college, they saw me four years at Bowling Green. I’m sure they had an idea of where I fit in. But the way our team played up at Lake Placid certainly helped.”
There were a handful of players who either went to the NHL or considered it before the Olympics. Was that ever a thought in your mind?
Morrow: “It wasn’t a thought at all. The Islanders didn’t want to rush me into being a pro and I certainly wanted to experience playing for my country. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a player. I can’t thank Bill Torrey and the Islanders enough for not pressuring me. The way everything worked out in the end couldn’t have been better for me.”
What thoughts were going through your mind before the game against the Soviets?
Morrow: “The truth is, we didn’t have any pressure on us, which was a good thing. We were expected to lose and lose big. I think during the game, the only thing I can remember at this stage is, after Mike Eruzione scored, I do remember looking up at the clock and seeing there were exactly 10 minutes to go. I just remember thinking to myself, ‘this is going to be the longest 10 minutes of your life.’ We were trying to protect a one-goal lead against a team that could score six or seven goals in 10 minutes.”
I feel like you were kind of robbed of a secondary assist on Mark Johnson’s first goal, don’t you think?
Morrow: “I was!”
Not that you cared about anything but tying the game in that moment, I’m sure.
Morrow: “Of course. I had dropped the puck back to Dave Silk. It was a play that, actually, we had worked on all year long. We did a lot of ‘regrouping,’ as we called it, where the defenseman would drop it back and either the other defenseman or a winger would swing behind and pick it up. So, it was just a play that came naturally because we’d been doing it all year long. I dropped it back to Dave, he skated up to the red line, fired a shot and Mark scored.”
So this wasn’t just a desperation attempt to throw the puck on net or get it out of the zone. You guys actually thought you could tie the game with seconds left on the clock?
Morrow: “Certainly Mark did (laughs). I know Mike Eruzione likes to describe that Mark seemed to be the only one on the ice who played right to the end. He didn’t give up on it at all, and he ended up scoring a huge goal.”
When you arrived on Long Island, what was the reaction in the locker room, considering what had occurred at Lake Placid?
Morrow: “There was a lot of nerves on my part. It was an eye-opening experience walking into the locker room that first day for practice. I give full credit to the players that were there. They all made me feel welcome, they all came up to me. Guys — and most of them were Canadian — were coming up to me and telling me what a great thing it was that we beat the Soviets, that they were all watching on TV. They were very welcoming and that was huge, because they didn’t have to be. At the end of the day, I was showing up late in the season and taking a job away from one of their teammates that had been there all year long.”
How did it feel to put on that Islanders jersey with the Lake Placid patch?
Morrow: “You know it’s funny you say that because whenever I see that hockey card or that patch on the jersey, it’s pretty cool.”
Did playing for Herb Brooks prepare you for Al Arbour’s style?
Morrow: “Yeah, it did. It certainly toughened me up. The one thing that really helped was the conditioning. I tell people to this day that was the best condition I was ever in, under Herb. It’s why we won the Olympic tournament. We came from behind in five of the seven games. That toughness and conditioning gave me a head-start in my pro career.”
Having beaten the Soviets, did you feel you would easily be able to handle playing against NHL talent?
Morrow: “It was certainly a big confidence builder, but it wasn’t to the point where I said ‘I’ve got this.’ The greatest players in the world were in the NHL at that time. The Soviets were considered the best team in the world, but that was strictly because of their distinct style.”
When Bob Nystrom scored the Cup-winning goal at 7:11 of overtime, at what point did it set in just how much you’d accomplish over a few months?
Morrow: “My first emotion wasn’t euphoria; it was relief. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a survival of the fittest, and every game is magnified from the one before it. If you look on the faces of the players those last two games, everybody looks beat up and tired. I remember when Bobby scored, I wasn’t on the ice. I was on the bench, bent over trying to catch my breath and get ready for the next shift. So, I didn’t see the goal, but I heard the crowd erupt. I literally leaped over the boards, and I knew I couldn’t do it before or since (laughs). Not until people told me did I realize how much I’d done and that I was the first player to win a gold medal and Stanley Cup in the same year. I’d say it was probably days later that somebody told me.”
So, what really happened between the Madison Square Garden game against the Soviets and the ‘Miracle’ game?
Morrow: “That game could probably have a book written about it. A lot of Soviet players have said years later that game hurt them a ton in terms of overconfidence. They even mention that we weren’t showing them anything, that we were playing sly like a fox. I’ve heard stories from people all these years later that Herb purposely scheduled that game knowing we were gonna get beat badly. There were people who told him he was crazy to play that game. I wish I knew the true story, but I guess looking back, you could say Herb was brilliant. He was a master psychologist. I was trying to win the game, and we weren’t told not to. I’d say the best thing that came out of that game for us was that it just got us on the ice with them. These were guys that we heard about but they were kinda rock stars of the hockey world, so it got all our nervous energy out.”
How did you convince Herb to let you keep your beard?
Morrow: “I don’t know (laughing), because he never asked me about it. I used to grow the beard in the summertime and shave it off before hockey season, but my coach at Bowling Green said I could keep it for my senior year in college. Throughout the Olympic process, a word was never said to me. It wasn’t until many years later that someone finally brought it up to Herb, and he said he thought I might turn pro if I asked him to shave it. I said if he’d ever asked me to shave it, I would’ve. It would’ve been as simple as that, but I’m glad he didn’t because it really became my trademark. And, the connection to the Islanders, of course, is that the first Stanley Cup year we all wore beards. Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin and myself started the beard thing.”
But you did it before it was cool.
Morrow: “Oh yeah, I’d had it for almost 10 years. I remember when I finally shaved it in ’88 or ’89, it took me several days just to get the courage to shave it off.”
Would you like to see the Olympics go back to the amateurs?
Morrow: “I think it will eventually go back, not because of me wanting it to, but because I think at some point the NHL will just say it’s not possible to do this. Will there ever be another ‘Miracle On Ice’? No. I think there were too many other factors; politically and in the world at that time that you could never replicate.”
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @bardownhowitzer