Mark Morris, the Head Coach of the Kings American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, had a cumbersome burden on his shoulders last fall when addressing the media at his first press conference as the Monarchs’ coach.
One of the main questions amidst all the commotion of hiring of a new head coach was ““is this coach going to break the tradition of the Monarchs’ first-round woes?”
Coaches put pressure on themselves to help guide the team through the regular season and “win it all” in the post season. Morris did the same, but also had the extra pressure from the fans and media to break a five-year standing tradition of Manchester being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
No easy task for a veteran coach, let alone a coach entering their rookie season in the AHL.
Ironically, Morris was actually property of the Kings in the early 80’s, signing with the organization on July 8, 1981, playing with the New Heaven Nighthawks for three years as a defenseman, scoring 9-33=42 in 156 games. Though he never got called up to the Kings, he parlayed his playing experience into the coaching ranks.
Most recently, Morris worked at Northwood School in Lake Placid, NY., as the Director of Boy’s Hockey, the Boy’s Junior Hockey Coach and as an administrator in Admissions and Advancement. He also served as the Special Assistant Coach/Interim Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Vancouver Canucks from February 2003 to April 2003 under Kings Head Coach Marc Crawford. In addition, Morris coached the Clarkson University Golden Knights to 10 consecutive 20-plus win seasons during his 14-year rein starting in 1988.
The question remained, however, despite all of his experience and vast knowledge of the game, “is this coach going to break the tradition of the Monarchs’ first-round woes?”
The stress of coaching a new team aside, the toughest burden facing Morris and his decision to join the Monarchs organization was leaving his family behind. Originating from Massena, NY., he and his wife Cecily have four kids – three of which are in college – with the youngest just entering his teenage years.
“What is toughest is leaving my youngest son Kevin. My oldest three grew up with a complete family, but Kevin has had to go through the past few years without a father,” Morris said.
“It is one of the sacrifices I had to make when stepping up to this knew challenge, but the support of my wife and that my family provides has made this year as smooth as I could have hoped for.”
One other obstacle facing Morris was the youth and inexperience of this year’s Monarchs teams, as unlike Manchester teams in the past, this year’s squad boasts 21-of-32 players aged 24 or younger.
“Watching players improve is the most gratifying aspect of my job,” Morris said. “It drives a coach to stay in the business and watch guys make strides in all aspects of the game and their lives.”
Tied greatly to the success and growth of the Monarchs’ young players, has been the team chemistry, which Morris finds extremely important. The team is made up of a wealth of young players and some seasoned veterans, creating a unique chemistry.
“Most of the guys aren’t married so they spend a lot of time together. There is playful fun in the locker room and during practice, a healthy camaraderie that keeps the guys honest,” Morris explained.
The most challenging part of coaching for Morris, especially with a young team, is assuming too much.
“The basics like skating, shooting and passing build a firm base for growth and sometimes I get ahead of myself and forget to come back and make sure the players have the basics mastered,” said Morris. “The simple things can bring the most pleasure.”
For Morris, he enjoys the daily routine of coming to the arena, viewing tapes, practicing with the team in the quest of improving on a daily basis and seeing the camaraderie of the players as they joke around in the locker room. Those perks of the job keep him coming back to the rink every day and inspires Morris to work harder for his guys as they put everything on the line for him.
So back to the original question, “is this coach going to break the tradition of the Monarchs’ first-round woes?”
The answer, an unequivocal YES!
On the strength of a 3-2 double overtime win in game six, the Monarchs advanced to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs with a 4-2 series win over the Worcester Sharks. The Monarchs advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after dispatching the Providence Bruins in six games. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hershey Bears swept the Monarchs, ending the best season in franchise history.
-By Nathan Harker, special to LAKings.com