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Remembering a young Morrow

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
Prior to Saturday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, Ken Morrow will be inducted into the Islanders Hall of Fame. An integral part of the Islanders four Stanley Cups, Morrow became the first player to win the Olympic gold medal and Stanley Cup in the same year. But what most people fail to look back upon is how Morrow became that essential part of the Islanders defensive core throughout the 1980s.

Ron Mason, in town to be at the induction ceremony, is the man who recruited Morrow to play college hockey for him at Bowling Green State University. Mason, who was just breaking into the coaching scene when Morrow arrived for his freshman campaign in 1975-76, went on to coach his teams to 924 NCAA wins over a 36-year period, for which he still holds the winning record today.

From Lake Superior State, to Bowling Green to retiring as head coach from Michigan State in 2002, Mason has made an influential mark on the college hockey scene as it exists today. Thus, there’s no one better to talk about the budding career of a now United States Hockey Hall of Famer than the man who helped mold Morrow into the defenseman he became.

Q: What was it like coaching Ken?
A: The neat part was, when I was recruiting him from his junior team in Detroit, I got to appreciate the kind of player he was. When we got together and he agreed to come to Michigan State, I had a chance to go up and actually sign him to a National Letter of Intent to Bowling Green. Getting to know his father, a little better than I ever did before, spending a little time there, I remember it to this day. When he came to campus, he is like he is today. He is very low key. He was a good solid citizen. He was a good student and turned out to be a coach’s dream. I knew he was a good player and they (Detroit) were actually playing him a little bit forward as well as defense and when I saw how he could move with his feet up front, I said, this guy is basically a defenseman, but he really solidified the fact that he could really play. He turned out to be even better than I thought initially and a lot better than a lot of other people thought, because what he accomplished was unbelievable.

Ken Morrow #3 of the USA skates with the puck during the 1980 Winter Olympics Hockey Tournament in February 1980 in Lake Placid, New York. The USA won the Gold Medal. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Q: What kind of player was he?
A: He was a great, steady defenseman. He was somebody that never made any mistakes, never got beat one-on-one, always made the right outlet pass, could play 30-minutes a game, stayed out of the penalty box unless he had to defend himself and was just one of those players that every bit of success he had was something he deserved.

Q: When did your relationship change from coach to friend?
A: After they won the gold medal. They came to Lansing. I had left Bowling Green and went to Michigan State. When they came back after winning the gold medal, the legislature had them there and presented them with things. It was a huge thing. That win was huge across the country. It was huge in the state of Michigan. I had coached the only two players from the state of Michigan on that gold medal team, but now I was at Michigan State. So I invited them to come back to my house for lunch. We had to keep every damn reporter we could see away from the area and we got to talk more like friends than we did when I was coaching him.

Q: How has that friendship evolved?
A: It’s never gone away, although we never really talk that much. Last year at the CCHA championships at Joe Louis Arena, he was at the game and I was at the game. We had a real nice chat. When you talk to somebody like that, it’s like you talk to them every week. We had a great chat. It’s just kind of ironic that this takes place now because I had talked to him not that long ago.

Q: What does it mean to you that Ken thought to invite you to his Hall of Fame induction ceremony?
A: I told my wife Marion, this is a heck of an honor. To think here is a young man who was 18-years-old or whatever he was when he came to Bowling Green, to put his playing career in my hands to begin with and then to never forget and have me here for this, that spans a lifetime almost. It’s really something special.

Q: What are some of your best memories of coaching Ken?
A: One of the things that was kind of funny about him, well two things. He would always do up his laces at the last second to go on the ice for the game or warmup even. It used to bug me. I’d say, “You have to be ready. You have to get your skates on. You have to be ready to go.” So we’d go back and forth a little bit, and it was never a question of whether he was going to play well, but this skate thing really bugged me. Finally, he changed it a little bit so that he did have them done up just tie them enough I didn’t worry about it anymore.

Secondly, he wanted to wear a beard. Hardly anybody in college hockey had a beard on and I was pretty strict with how the kids dressed and looked and everything like that. So I said, “You know, that beard looks good on you.
Dale Hunter #32 of the Quebec Nordiques skates with the puck as Ken Morrow #6 and John Tonelli #27 of the New York Islanders defend during an Eastern Conference Finals playoff game in April, 1982 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)
You make sure you keep that thing all trimmed up and you can keep it.” So he was one of the very few players who ever played for me that had a beard. It was one of those things, as a coach, you have to make certain decisions for certain people and I said, as long as he keeps it trimmed, it looked good on him.

Q: Did you know that Ken would have such a long and successful career?
A: It started with the Olympics. Herb Brooks asked me, “What about Morrow?” And I said, “Look, he’s a real solid player that can play on your team and can help you.” I remember talking to Herb later. He said, “You never told me how good Morrow really was, did you?” I said, “I told you he was a good player.” Herb was really impressed with him and the way that he was Steady Eddie and did everything without any rhyme or reason. From that Olympics alone, playing on that team, who knew what those guys could do after that? That was such an emotional roller coaster.

When he came here (to Long Island), I didn’t know if he’d be able to step in and play right away or he couldn’t, but the one thing about it was, he had Al Arbour as a coach. And Al Arbour was a defenseman, and Al Arbour played a little bit like Ken Morrow. I think without even going back to think about it, that’s something that I think really helped Ken. You’d have to ask him that question, but I’m assuming it helped him a lot. I remember talking to Al in Detroit when the team came there to play and he said, “Boy Ron, Kenny Morrow is one heck of a hockey player.”

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