Heart of a Champion, Part 1: Ken Morrow

BC ISLEMANContributor IIJune 22, 2010

OTTAWA, ON - JUNE 20: Ken Morrow of the New York Islanders photographed during the 2008 NHL Entry Draft at Scotiabank Place on June 20, 2008 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

(There will be many talented players chosen in this draft. A relative few will become regular NHL players. Fewer still will be known by that very special appellation: Champion. What separates the Champions from the good and the very good?

To answer this question I will  profile NY Islanders Director of Scouting, Olympic Gold medalist and four time Stanley Cup champion Ken Morrow as well as Kingston Frontenacs defense man Erik Gudbranson and Portland Winterhawks forward Nino Niederreiter, two players Morrow and the NY Islander brain trust are considering for selection with their number five pick. A fourth segment will consider the importance of character in professional sports.)

Arlington. For nearly a century and a half, the name has been synonymous in America with extraordinary courage and sacrifice.

It is also literally the middle name of a man whose NHL career embodied those characteristics as well or better than anyone in the league's history. Arlington may simply be a name in Ken Morrow's family tree or perhaps it is significant of a family member honored with interment there. Either way, the name fits.

Given Morrow's achievements, abilities, and character, one might wonder why he isn't better known. In fact, when I asked a colleague to guide me to some good sources, he drew a blank as well. There wasn't even much about Morrow in several books about the Islanders.

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A quick look at interviews of him both then and now reveals at least part of the answer to his relative anonymity. He may be one of the softest spoken, humblest, and most self-deprecatory professional athletes of whom I have ever been aware. But then real heroes rarely blow their own horns.

How good was Morrow? He was the only player on the 1980 Olympic team allowed to retain his facial hair. Typically, Morrow has averred that it would have been no problem for him to shave his beard if Herb Brooks had asked.

Brooks did not want to risk losing his best defensive player--who he would rely on to shut down the top Soviet line--to the NHL. The Soviets scored about 10 goals a game throughout the rest of the Olympics but Morrow and his teammates held them to just three.

How good was Morrow? The Islanders patiently waited for him to finish all four years at Bowling Green University.

When Morrow finally did join the team after the Olympics, GM Bill Torrey felt confident enough in his ability to trade Dave Lewis--second best defensive asset after Denis Potvin--to the LA Kings along with Billy Harris for Butch Goring.

The acquisition of Goring to center the Islanders' second line is generally considered to be the move that finally launched the team on its run of four straight Stanley Cups and five Stanley Cup Finals appearances. 

The common assumption is that Morrow was fortunate to win a gold medal and four Cups. The more I think about it, however, I really believe that Morrow's ability as a defense man and his strength of character were key ingredients in the successes of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team and the NY Islanders dynasty.

Islander fans tend to recall Morrow's crucial playoff winning goals and assists. These include an overtime game winner against LA in 1980, a series clinching empty net goal that sealed the Islanders' last Stanley Cup win against Edmonton, and a series clinching overtime winner against the Rangers in 1984.

This is odd since Morrow rarely scored and was known mainly for his superb shutdown abilities. What is less well known is the intestinal fortitude Morrow exhibited in willing his team to win through a series of painful injuries both on the gold medal winning team and on Islander dynasty teams.

After the spectacular win against the Soviets where was Morrow? Spending a full hour icing down a shoulder injury that he had played through. Of course, he still had a game to play against the Finns.

During the 1980 and 1983 playoffs, Morrow had arthroscopic surgeries performed to his knees, and played only days afterward, often having fluid drained from his knees between games. In between periods, he could scarcely walk until a cortisone shot was administered, but he never missed a shift on the ice.

Dr. Eddie O'Connor, an expert in sports psychology wrote:

"You cannot perform at a high level and not experience pain.  Comfort and performance excellence are mutually exclusive.  You cannot have them both.  Prior to exercise, decide how much pain you are willing to experience to achieve your goals.  When pain shows up, be willing to feel it fully as part of your experience.  Let your pain be in service of your greater goal.  You may be surprised to find your pain suffering will be lessened when you allow pain to be a part of sport," said Eddie O'Connor, an expert in sports psychology.

Dr. O'Connor might simply have said, "Take a look at Ken Morrow. That's how you overcome pain and achieve excellence in sports."

In his Legends of Hockey video, Phil Esposito claimed that his Boston Bruins could have and should have won four or five Stanley Cups. His comment was an obvious reference to the Canadien and Islander teams he competed against.

Espo concluded that the only reason that he, Bobby Orr, and the other Bruins failed to achieve that level of success was that they liked to have too much fun. In other words, if Espo, Orr, and the boys had just partied less, they would have matched the Islanders' success.

Sorry Espo, but there's more to it than that. Just ask Kenneth Arlington Morrow.