In his fourth season of coaching the Manchester Monarchs, Mark Morris has his team off to the best start he’s had since he took the reigns on August 4, 2006. Just 24 games into the season, the Monarchs lead the Atlantic Division with a record of 15-6-1-2 for 33 points and sit in third place in the America Hockey League. So what makes the 2009-10 season different than the three previous years?
"We’ve had outstanding goaltending from both of our goalies," said Morris. "I think the familiarity we have with returning players coupled with the offensive play making ability of the newcomers has given us a more complete group of defenseman at the blueline with a nice balance of grit and skill."
The Monarchs have always had talented hockey players playing for the club and one of the more memorable seasons was when Morris was a rookie bench boss and led Manchester to the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2007 Calder Cup playoffs. Totaling up the team’s record 24 games into the 2006-07 season, we find a record of 10-8-5-1. However, that team surged into the playoffs with 12 wins in their last 15 games.
In Manchester’s nine year history, this season’s record has only been bested in two other seasons. Jim Hughes led the Monarchs to a 16-4-1-3 record during the 2005-06 season and Bruce Boudreau guided the team a 21-3-1-0 record during the lockout season of 2004-05.
Manchester has a young team but this year many players have at least a year of professional experience under their belts.
Morris commented, "The hard lessons we’ve learned (from last season) have paid dividends for this group. We’ve seen fewer nights where we’ve been our worst enemy and more nights of finding ways to win close games."
Injuries are part of professional sports but this season, four top prospects will be sidelined for three to four months.
"We’re up against a wall," said Morris on the numerous injuries. "Our line-up is paper thin. It’s been scoring by committee and that’s what’s got to happen when you’re shorthanded. We’re going to just have to be very resourceful in finding ways to manufacture goals.
"The message is to continue to play hard and look at these holes in our line-up as opportunities for the guys that are in uniform. It’s an honor to step on the ice as a professional hockey player and a great opportunity to showcase your talents."
Aside from the number of injuries that are plaguing the Monarchs right now, every player’s dream is to play in the National Hockey League. Even though they want to be with the Kings right now, this year’s team knows they have a job to do in Manchester.
"I’m sure there’s disappointment knowing that there are guys here that could be filling some slots for the big team. But at the same time, I think our guys have taken a real mature approach to handle business here. Those decisions are out of their hands and they just have to be ready for the opportunities that they’re presented with here." said Coach Morris about a difference in attitude he sees in this year’s team.
"You have to take care of business here first, and when that door of opportunity opens, you have to step through it and don’t look back."
Even though players are coming and going to Los Angeles and Ontario, the team continues to bond inside the walls of the locker room.
"The camaraderie is extremely impressive," exclaimed Morris. "These guys genuinely care for one another and they are a tight knit bunch away from the rink. They really enjoy one another’s company and the mood has always been upbeat and positive. They’re very supportive of one another."
With 24 games of the season in the books, what should we expect to see in the remaining 56 games?
"These guys perform at a very high level against stacked odds," explained Morris. "We’ve been resilient during a real tough time. Our biggest challenges will be scoring goals."
The first quarter of the season has been entertaining and this team is proving to Manchester and the hockey community that nothing can knock them down.