By Mike Miccoli
Hockey milestones are tempting, easy to get caught up in — first game, first goal, 100th assist, 300th win.
All special. All notable accomplishments. Hockey players and coaches more often than not take it one game at a time, not focused on an overarching personal goal.
That’s what Mark Morris did.
On a rare mid-morning weekday game in November, Morris’ Manchester Monarchs defeated the Norfolk Admirals, 3-1. It was Morris’ 300th professional win as a head coach in the AHL, all with the Monarchs.
The Monarchs’ victory marked the second time Morris has reached 300 wins as a head coach, the first coming at the collegiate level when he served as the bench boss for Clarkson University. He’s the only coach to have earned 300 wins with both Manchester and Clarkson, the only two hockey teams he’s been a head coach for.
“I think that as a young coach, oftentimes, you strive for milestones just to prove you’re somebody,” Morris said immediately following his 300th win. “In the end, I think it’s the relationships that you build, watching teams and watching individuals grow. That’s the most satisfying part.”
The list of the players that Morris has coached is expansive and quite impressive. Having been the head coach of the Monarchs since the 2006-07 season, Morris has seen some elite superstars go through the pipeline of the minor leagues to the NHL. Matt Moulson, Teddy Purcell, Brian Boyle (Hingham, Mass.), Slava Voynov, Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.) and Jonathan Bernier are some of the current NHLers who played for Morris. This season, the list continues to grow with the recent splash of Monarchs getting playing time with the Los Angeles Kings, most notably, Tyler Toffoli and Martin Jones.
“Watching those guys have success at the NHL level is pretty amazing,” Morris said. “We saw with Jordan Nolan in the playoffs being able to help the Kings win the Cup the year before. This year, there was a time where the Kings hit a rash of injuries and those guys were able to step up and fill in the holes and help those guys find a way to win.”
By late December, Toffoli had eight goals and seven assists in 20 games for Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Jones was just named NHL’s Second Star of the Week for Dec. 9-15 after recording a 3-0-0 record with one shutout, a 1.00 goals-against average and a .972 save percentage.
“When you see those guys and see where they started, how far they’ve come, and the accolades that they have over the last little while, it really is a gratifying thing for the people on our staff,” Morris said.
Morris is quick to deflect the attention to others, be it his players or staff. He’s been around long enough to understand the implications of hockey being a team sport. Though he has yet to win an AHL championship, Morris won three ECAC titles with Clarkson during his tenure between 1988 and 2001. Since his days as a college coach, Morris admits he’s learned a lot, most importantly how to think on your feet with an AHL roster that could look different by the day.
“Being a competitive guy, sometimes you need to accept the fact that it is what it is,” Morris said, referring to what he had learned since his 300th win as a head coach on the collegiate level. “You want to do what’s right for the city of Manchester but you understand, in the big scheme of things, it’s to help the big club win, and as they have success, we have success. We know in our hearts and in our minds that we’re able to do both.
“It’s not an easy thing some nights when Kings have injuries or we have injuries and guys are called up. Perhaps they’re called up to be there as an insurance policy, but they’re not even playing sometimes and you’re playing shorthanded with guys you just met, trying to figure out what their names are.”
It has been one of those seasons for the Monarchs, with three top players who started the season in Manchester now playing hockey across the country with their Los Angeles affiliate. Still, Morris’ squad has been doing more than just treading water.
Sitting atop the AHL’s Eastern Conference, the Monarchs’ 21-7-1-4 record gives them plenty of breathing room in their own division. Along with Toffoli and Jones, Tanner Pearson and Linden Vey’s performance in the early going for Manchester garnered the attention from the Kings once injuries struck. Now, players like Jordan Weal, Brandon Kozun and Nick Deslauriers are providing the Monarchs with the offense they need to remain successful. Morris is quick to credit the team as a whole for their success.
“We’ve relied heavily on guys like Jeff Schultz, Andrew Bodnarchuk and Andrew Campbell — three veteran D who give us stability,” Morris said. “When I look up front, everyone else is sharing duties and sharing responsibilities and picking up the scoring slack. Everybody is taking their turn sharing the roles and playing their system — that’s the way we have to be.
“We don’t have anyone in the top scorers in the league. We play on a scorer-by-committee system.”
The strategy is working, as Morris has never had a losing season with the Monarchs since his debut behind the bench in the 2006-07 season. However, Manchester was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round in the past three seasons. It’s something Morris believes he can change and it’s a path that the Monarchs are heading down this season, even with an ever-changing roster. Morris is used to it by now.
“You’re trying to develop and you’re trying to win,” Morris said of his two-fold duties as Manchester head coach. “There are nights where, because of the needs to develop, you’re not able to field your best roster.”
At 56 years old, Morris seems to just be getting started, even as an NHL dream job has so far eluded him.
“It’s obviously a personal goal but can’t really dwell on it too much,” Morris said. “I’d be lying if I wouldn’t want that opportunity.
“I think it’d be a nice way to put some icing on the cake when you look back at your career someday. It’d be nice to say you had that opportunity.”