In a sport with its share of quirky characters, there might not be a baseball player quite like Nyjer Morgan.
In his first season with the Milwaukee Brewers, the center fielder established a number of career highs during the regular season, then became a hero in his first trip to the postseason when his 10th-inning single scored the winning run in the Brewers' 3-2 Game 5 win over Arizona, moving Milwaukee into the National League Championship Series.
He's had fun doing it, too, giving some of sport's most colorful post-game interviews and adopting nicknames like Tony Plush and Tony Tombstone. But before any of these alter-egos existed in baseball, Morgan was a junior hockey player known as "Flash."
"I was Flash Morgan," he told NHL.com. "Skating around, I was fast, so everybody called me Flash Morgan."
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That's right -- one of baseball's great eccentrics got his start in hockey. Growing up in Northern California, he watched the 1988 Olympic hockey tournament and immediately fell in love with the game. Within days, he was playing on one of the Bay Area's few local rinks at that time.
"I was already playing before the Sharks were even out there," Morgan said. "As soon as I touched the ice I was already in love with it. When I touched the ice, it just felt like everything was complete."
Playing in a number of tournaments across the United States and Canada, Morgan was recruited by the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League shortly after turning 16. Upon arriving in Canada, Morgan established the quirky persona that would follow him to Major League Baseball.
"I've always been that type of person. A high-energy person," Morgan said. "When I step between the lines, I play hard for whomever I'm playing for. Just like that little pest on the ice, going around and giving people the business, like Sean Avery
. Just going around and being that little pest but still being able to play your game and get a 'W' for your boys."
A boisterous and easy-going personality in the locker room, Morgan didn't have any trouble making friends in Vernon, among them Dallas Stars
forward Eric Godard
, who was a classmate of Morgan's at the local high school.
"Everybody I seem to meet is always the tough guy. I've always liked to hang out with dudes who are 6-4, 6-5," said Morgan. "But I was always the lippy guy out of all of them."
By the time the trash-talking Morgan graduated to the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, he immediately established himself among some of the world's best junior-hockey players. After scoring 2 goals in his first game with the Pats, Morgan became a popular presence among teammates, including a massive 16-year-old named Derek Boogaard
Morgan was shocked by Boogaard's untimely death over the summer and had nothing but pleasant memories of the towering kid from Saskatchewan.
"Me and Boogaard were on the same line. Nobody really messed around with us. He was only 16 at the time, but he ended up turning into a pretty good little scrapper," Morgan said. "For that short little stint that we had, we were cool. He was quiet. Just a gentle giant, a really chill individual. For what I remember, we had fun. We always joked around."
Despite the great start with the Pats in the 1999-2000 season, Morgan failed to register another point with Regina and was released after just seven games. Feeling he was not given a proper chance to thrive in Regina and with his passion for hockey cooled, Morgan returned to the Bay Area. By the time he got involved in baseball, stories had circulated about his short-lived hockey career.
"I started getting that Canadian accent a little bit," Morgan said. "Everybody was busting my chops because I started dropping 'eh's' on people. After that, I missed the game but I still follow it and still see a couple of the guys I played with or against. Now I'm just a die-hard hockey fan."
More than a decade after his unlikely hockey career came to an end, Morgan has taken the energy he brought to the rink and channeled it onto the baseball diamond. Now one of his sport's most colorful characters, it is that passion that has helped the man once known as "Flash" establish himself in the big leagues.
"I was a little guy but I still tried to play like I was 6-5," Morgan said of his hockey career. "That's what I try to bring out to the ball field, too."