The long game The Jets knew Josh Morrissey was special when they drafted him in 2013, but it took the smooth-skating, quick-thinking D-man a while to start believing in himself

Like a lot of Canadian hockey players, Josh Morrissey figured he had his whole future mapped out at a very young age.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2019 (1070 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Like a lot of Canadian hockey players, Josh Morrissey figured he had his whole future mapped out at a very young age.

SUPPLIED Six-year-old Josh Morrissey played road hockey on his family's driveway anytime he wasn't on the ice.

“When he was five years old he used to say to me, ‘Dad, NHL,'” Tom Morrissey recalls with a laugh. “He didn’t really know what he was saying.”

Of course, it’s one thing to say it. It’s another to actually do it. Hockey Canada data suggests the chance your favourite Timbits, peewee or bantam player will ever make it to the greatest league in the world is, roughly, one in 4,000. Other studies suggest it’s even more remote than that.

Yet there was Tom Morrissey on a recent December night, standing outside the parents’ lounge at Bell MTS Place as his now 24-year-old son hit the ice with his Winnipeg Jets teammates.

It’s a scene the Calgary investment adviser will take in about 25 times a year at NHL rinks across North America. And it’s one that never gets old.

SUPPLIED Morrissey and his father, Tom. "It still doesn't really sink it, because I've coached him since he was six," says the proud father.

“It still doesn’t really sink it, because I’ve coached him since he was six,” says the proud father. “We still go on the ice every summer, we still talk after every game. He’ll ask ‘What did you see today?’ Obviously I don’t get into systems, but I’ll say “Did you think you had good jump in the first period?,’ that sort of thing. He likes that. I always tell him if you don’t want it, lemme know. But he always wants it.”

There’s been plenty to talk about this season. Training camp began with Morrissey and the Jets reaching an eight-year contract extension that will pay him US$50 million, an average of US$6.25 million per season. He’s taken on an even bigger role on the blue line as the pillar of a new-look defensive group that lost Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and, for now, Dustin Byfuglien. And he was asked to join the team’s leadership group as an alternate captain.

Not too shabby for that little kid who made his big dreams come true.

“There is always going to be a right fit for each guy. For me, obviously, I felt like it was a great fit; I love playing here,” Morrissey said as the ink was drying on his shiny new deal in September.

“The term excited me. The fact that I get to have that stability, but to be here and playing in Winnipeg, from Day 1, it’s what I’ve always said that I wanted to do.”

So how did we get here? How did Morrissey beat the long odds and make his bold prediction a reality? It’s a story of hard work, determination and sacrifice from a small army of supporters who believed in the skilled, soft-spoken defenceman who has become one of this organization’s greatest success stories.

“It’s a community that gets these kids there, it really is.” Tom Morrissey says. “It’s not just Dad or Mom or one coach, it’s a community.”

•••

He shot through the ranks of the Springbank Minor Hockey Association, turning heads at pretty much every level he played. The talent was obvious, but so was the drive.

SUPPLIED Morrissey was the only 13-year-old playing in Bantam AAA in Calgary.

At the age of 12, Morrissey represented his city in the prestigous 2007 Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. Just three years later, as a member of the Calgary Royals midget AAA team, he got his first taste of the Western Hockey League, playing a handful of games with the Prince Albert Raiders.

He had been selected in the first round, sixth overall, of the WHL Bantam draft that spring. Things really took off in 2011, when Morrissey helped lead Team Alberta to a bronze medal at the Canada Winter Games in Halifax. He also became a full-time member of the Raiders at the age of 16.

“For me, when I was coaching him, immediately what stood out to me is that you couldn’t intimidate him. Players would take a run at him. He would wait for those players and catch them with their head down, sometimes shifts later. So he has a great memory. For me, you noticed right away his level of compete,” says his junior coach, Dave Manson, who knows a thing or two about toughness.

The veteran NHL defenceman, who played more than 1,100 NHL games — including three seasons with Jets 1.0 before the team moved to Arizona, saw something special with Morrissey and quickly became one of his biggest fans.

And the feeling was definitely mutual.

“I was very fortunate to have Dave as a coach. My first year in PA I was 16, so rookie year in junior, first time away from home, we’d started off pretty rough. Dave wasn’t really coaching at the time, but they brought him in to be a steadying presence,” says Morrissey.

“I’ve never met anyone who just seems to command a level of respect without being the loudest guy in the room or the most talkative guy. He proves that by showing up to work every day, doing his job and caring for people and being a good person. I really look up to Dave in all those regards. He was a huge influence over me for the 3 1/2 years I worked and played for him.”

FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Josh Morrissey celebrates Canada's 5-4 win over Russia during the gold medal game hockey action at the World Junior Championship in Toronto in 2015.

Morrissey got some valuable international experience when he helped lead Canada’s U18 team to gold at the 2013 World Championships. For countless reasons, Manson had no doubt Morrissey would one day blossom into an NHL star.

“He was the kind of kid to become an NHL player, with his professionalism and his approach to the game. He knew what he wanted to do with his life, and that was to be a hockey player in the NHL. He did everything he could to give himself the best chance he could to play in the NHL,” says Manson.

The door to the NHL was unlocked June 30, 2013 at the draft in Newark, N.J.

•••

It’s safe to say the Jets’ selection of Morrissey wasn’t exactly met with universal approval. And perhaps it never would have happened, if those wily Arizona Coyotes hadn’t selected forward Max Domi one pick earlier. Winnipeg was said to have their eye on the son of Tie, but the Coyotes swooped in and stole him away.

BILL KOSTROUN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Morrissey pulls on a Winnipeg Jets sweater after being chosen 13th overall in the first round of the NHL hockey draft in 2013.

And so, with the 13th-overall pick, Morrissey’s name was called out, a bit of a reach, considering Central Scouting had him ranked as just the 27th North American skater heading into the draft. This is how Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus described what Winnipeg was getting from Morrissey, who had just finished his second full season in the WHL with 15 goals and 32 assists in 70 games

“Morrissey is a dynamic offensive defenceman with a ton of plus skills. He has amassed a considerable number of points for a 1995 birthdate over his last two WHL seasons. His strongest tool is his skating, which is easily high end, if not better. He has a very graceful stride, and his footwork is precise in any direction. His top gear, agility, pivots, and gap control stand out in each game he plays. He is also a top-end puck mover, frequently making aware and accurate passes. He can run the point on a top power play unit, jump into the rush, make a good outlet, and flash a highlight reel play with the puck. His defensive awareness is solid, and he has killed penalties at times. Still, he faces a significant issue in his physicality. I would not describe him as soft, as he can make a quality hit at times, but he often is outmuscled for pucks. Coupling this aspect of his game with his undersized frame makes him a risk at the top level.”

There were several higher-rated defencemen still available at the time — including Manitoba product Ryan Pulock, who went two picks later to the New York Islanders — but the rather slight, six-foot Morrissey was obviously seen by Winnipeg’s scouting team as a longer-term project worth taking a chance on.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Morrissey at his first Jets development camp at the Bell MTS Iceplex.

Morrissey attended training camp with the Jets that fall, even being named the third star in a pre-season game against Washington, but was sent back to junior for more seasoning. And waiting for him in Prince Albert was the captaincy, a natural progression for a young man who was leading by example both on and off the ice.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Morrissey signs autographs after a team workout at the Bell MTS Iceplex in 2013.

“Josh has all the ability in the world. The best thing about Josh is he can play in every situation because he has such a high hockey IQ,” Manson says.

“As coaches, you try to add a few things here and there. But the big thing is, Josh has learned at every level — he’s a sponge, as far as information goes, he has the ability to apply what people are telling and showing him.”

•••

Morrissey got his first real taste of pro hockey in the spring of 2014, joining the St. John’s IceCaps for what would be a memorable playoff run all the way to the Calder Cup finals, once his junior season was over.

Keith McCambridge, the head coach of Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate at the time, couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“You could always see the skill level. It jumped off the page when we had him for that Calder Cup run. There were many nights he was the best player on the ice for both teams. There were other nights it wasn’t there for consistency,” says McCambridge.

The IceCaps lost to the Texas Stars in a hard-fought final, but Morrissey had arrived. He had two goals and seven assists in 20 playoff games, which were eye-popping numbers for a defenceman who had just turned 19 playing on the biggest non-NHL stage.

However, the road to full-time work isn’t always a straight line, and the Jets ultimately made the call to return Morrissey to junior for one final year in fall 2014.

LIAM RICHARDS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Morrissey receives the Scholastic Player of the Year Trophy during the 2012-13 CHL Awards Ceremony.

“There’s days where (the NHL) seemed like a long way away. I think when you’re playing in the minors, for me being a first-round pick, obviously each year you go to camp you want to make the team, especially turning pro, you want to make that jump right away,” admits Morrissey.

It wasn’t for naught. He made his first of two straight appearances on Team Canada in the World Junior Championships, winning a gold medal in 2015. He was traded mid-season to the Kelowna Rockets, where younger brother Jake was a goaltender, and made it to the 2015 Memorial Cup final, falling to the Oshawa Generals.

He was also named the WHL’s scholastic player of the year, for combining excellent play with high marks. In his case, a 94 per cent average.

“First and foremost, my parents (Tom and his mother Bev Jarvis) always maintained school was very important for my brother and I from the time we were kids. Once sports and hockey started to take over, they made sure the school didn’t slide, the marks didn’t slide,” says Morrissey.

“Sometimes it was a bit unorthodox the way you’re doing assignments on the bus, doing tests at another time; it takes a lot of accommodation for a lot of people, people going out of their way. It meant a lot for me to achieve that, and it was something — I know, talking to my parents — they were just as proud of that as anything else I had done. It was definitely an honour.”

•••

Morrissey turned pro that summer, but was sent to the Moose — just relocated to Winnipeg from St. John’s — out of training camp in the fall. The Jets were being extremely patient with their top defensive prospect.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Josh Morrissey (right) and Scott Kosmachuk at a Moose practice in January 2016.

“There was definitely a learning curve with Josh. When you look at Josh and the approach we took with him, it was to develop him and work with him. It wasn’t just on the ice. We wanted to sit down and talk with him about the pressures of being a first-round pick. How he was dealing with that, the pressures that come along with it,” recalls McCambridge.

Morrissey tackled the challenges head-on, although there were some early bumps along the way. The Moose were a young, inexperienced team that struggled to a 26-41-9 record, and Morrissey looked overwhelmed at times.

“Young defencemen come into the AHL and it’s a real hard league to showcase yourself. People aren’t in the place consistently where they need to be in the American League, and it’s hard to showcase your talent and put yourself in a light. I’ve seen that a lot over the years. That was part of it with Josh. It’s a hard league as a defencemen to have those outlet passes, those things you were known for to jump off the page. It took time and obviously it got better,” says McCambridge.

Naturally, in a world of immediate judgment, that had some declaring him a first-round bust.

“It is a marathon, it’s not a sprint, you’re going to have ups and downs, it’s going to take some time. When I started to look at it like that, all of a sudden I started to relax and had a newfound sense of confidence.”– Josh Morrissey

“It was difficult, especially for the first half of the year, the adjustment to first-time pro game. We had a pretty young team. Apart from anything I did on the ice to improve that year, probably in between the years was the biggest change for me. You sort of start to develop a different mentality. I’ve always cared a lot about what I was doing. I’d want to do everything perfect,” says Morrissey.

He finished with three goals and 19 assists in 57 AHL games, then went to Jets camp in the fall of 2016 with an entirely different approach.

“Going into camps — I wouldn’t say I was afraid to make a mistake, but I always put so much pressure on myself to make the team. I had worked extremely hard, I knew that I did the work but also my mindset kind of became I believe I’m good enough to play and I’m going to go out in training camp and give it everything I’ve got and just leave it all out there. And if it happens this year, perfect. If it takes more time, that’s just part of your career path,” he says.

“I guess, by sort of looking at it that way, it is a marathon, it’s not a sprint, you’re going to have ups and downs, it’s going to take some time. When I started to look at it like that, all of a sudden I started to relax and had a newfound sense of confidence. More than anything, it was between the ears, and helped me make the team.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

•••

CHRIS CARLSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey, right, checks Anaheim Ducks right wing Carter Rowney during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., Friday, Nov. 29, 2019.

Now in his fourth full season with the Jets, Morrissey has all the poise of a cagey veteran. He formed one of the NHL’s most effective shutdown pairs with Trouba for the two seasons before this one, as Winnipeg made back-to-back playoff appearances, including a run to the Western Conference final in the spring of 2018.

He also got to learn about the business side of the sport in the fall of 2018 when he missed the first few days of training camp while a two-year bridge contract was hashed out between his agent and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff — one that would pave the way for his long-term extension this past fall.

Now, with the salary-cap crunch forcing plenty of roster turnover, Morrissey is serving as a mentor to defencemen such as his current partner, Tucker Poolman.

“He’s so steady and just such a good player. Easy to play with in terms of his positioning and where he’s at. He seems to be always be in the right place at the right time. It’s been great for me,” says Poolman.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Mark Scheifele (left) and Morrissey read to the students at R.F. Morrison School in 2017.

Morrissey is also embracing being part of the leadership group, along with captain Blake Wheeler and fellow alternate Mark Scheifele.

“You look around the league, there’s not many guys wearing that letter in the NHL. You’re immediately in a pretty exclusive group and it’s a huge responsibility,” he says.

“I learned from Dave Manson, and the way he carried himself, the type of professionalism he had, the way he treated others in the organization, the people around him, other players, other coaches. That’s what I try to do on an individual level. I’m not a ‘rah-rah’ guy or the most vocal, but to be a good leader you have to do all the things that you’re going to be talking about first. I try to take care of my business first and make sure I’m checking all the boxes. And that’s kind of my leadership style.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Morrissey helps out on the ice during the second annual Mark Scheifele Hockey Camp in support of KidSport Winnipeg.

Morrissey loves life in a Canadian market like Winnipeg, which made committing long term to the city and franchise a no-brainer. He’s also heavily involved in many charitable ventures in the community, which is why those who deal with Morrissey almost always describe him as a terrific human being, first and foremost.

“I was really fortunate, my parents really emphasized being a good person first, and obviously everything comes after that with hockey. In my opinion, when you have the platform that we have in professional sports and in Winnipeg here, where the Jets are A1 all the time, I feel it comes with a responsibility as well to try and use that,” he says.

“Everyone can make a difference in the world and in people’s lives. When you have a platform, you can raise more awareness because you have that opportunity. It’s something I enjoy, too. As much as you want to try to make other people feel good, realistically it’s amazing how good you feel after you do something nice like that. It’s been important to me and something I enjoy.”

SUPPLIED Deanna Curran has been Morrissey's power skating instructor since he was six. They still work together during the summers.

On the ice, Morrissey is on pace to obliterate his previous career-high of 31 points, set last season; he has three goals and 20 assists through 35 games this season.

Morrissey’s junior coach believes his young protege is only scratching the surface of his ultimate potential.

“Josh deserves a lot of credit for what he’s accomplished so far in his young career. His professionalism, his attention to detail,” says Manson.

“He hasn’t hit his ceiling. That’s the great thing about the NHL, you’re learning something every day. Josh is a sponge, so I just expect his game to keep getting better and better. To go along with the other qualities he has, I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.”

SHANNON VANRAES / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS "He wants a Norris Trophy and wants to win the first Stanley Cup here," Tom Morrissey says.

And the man who knows Morrissey best doesn’t expect the lofty new contract to change anything. Tom Morrissey hearkens back to a sign they used to have hanging up in the family home, saying the simple message it carried has become a living motto for his son.

“The garage was kind of our mecca. We had lockers in there like the Calgary Flames. You weren’t allowed to bring your stuff in the house. We had signs around, one of them was: ‘When you think you’re good, you’re done,'” he says.

“I think it’ll just make him work harder. He wants a Norris Trophy (as the best defenceman in the NHL) and wants to win the first Stanley Cup here. I can tell you — Wheeler, Scheifele, Copp, Helly — all that core group, they want to win that first Cup and they’re determined to do it. And now that they’ve got long-term contracts, they’re committed to doing it. For Josh, he just wants to be a better player every day.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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