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Derek Morris had help reaching 1,000-game mark

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Derek Morris steps on the ice at Arena on Sunday to play in his 1,000th NHL game, there will be a lot of milestone moments to reflect upon – his first game with Calgary in 1997 his first playoff game with Colorado in 2002 and his first game as a Phoenix Coyote in 2004.

There will also be thoughts of all those who helped along the way – his wife and sons, parents, friends, coaches and teammates who influenced the player and person he has become at age 33.

That is when the guy they call "Mo" will think of the guy they called "The Beast."

Growing up as a boy in Alberta, Morris rooted for the Oilers and idolized Paul Coffey. But he also respected and followed the Calgary Flames and a tough customer on their blue line, Brad McCrimmon – who helped the Flames to their only Stanley Cup title in 1989.

As a young player in Calgary, Morris relied on athletic ability to carry the day -- he put up more than 100 points in his first three seasons. But he was also losing games to injury and not in top shape until McCrimmon returned to Calgary as an assistant coach and made Morris his pet project.

"Early in my career I didn't train the way I was supposed to and I was fortunate I was in good shape," Morris said, "But I was grilled at a young age by Brad McCrimmon, a guy I speak pretty highly of, to train harder and harder. And I'm here, playing 1,000 games and still contributing because he taught me what it takes to have longevity in this game."

McCrimmon squeezed 18 years and 1,222 games in the NHL out of his 5-foot-11, 190-pound body -- and spend one off-season in Calgary with Morris showing him what it would take to play the game he loves for as long as he can.

 "I respected him watching him play in Calgary when I was a kid and he was one of those guys who was in tremendous shape," Morris said. "When I got to the League, I didn't realize how hard you had to work to be prepared and he really instilled that in me and he stayed on me all summer. He found me a guy in Calgary to train with made sure I was doing what I needed to do to lengthen my career. 

"I owe a lot to him because he was hard on me and didn't take no for an answer. I did what he said and when I did I found that the bumps and bruises didn't last as long."

Morris had 11 goals and 48 points playing with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg in Colorado in 2002-03, but his role has changed from an offensive defenseman to a defensive-minded puck mover who deals punishment in front of the net to keep the area clear.

It requires him to keep in top shape to survive. He has the respect of the dressing room for his work ethic and stand-up nature – what captain Shane Doan refers to as "a man's man."

"He's a guy that puts in a lot of time off the ice he's always in incredible condition," said Doan, who is closing in on 1,200 games himself. "I know how hard it is to play 1,000 games, and he's playing it at a young age (33) so, he's got plenty of games left in him. Everyone jokes about the "man's man" thing, but he really is. He loves to play the game hard. He loves sheer physicality of it all. He's been huge for us.

"He doesn't get the credit offensively for the talent he has because he concentrates on the defense now, but he had 30- and 40-point seasons in his younger days. He accepted a different role 5-6 years ago, and he's really turned into a solid player we can count on. I'm glad he's on our team."

It has been a tough season for Morris. He was a healthy scratch at times in a very deep and talented Coyotes blue line and missed more than a month of the season due to the illness of a close family member.

Then there was this past summer, when good friend and former NHL defenseman Wade Belak passed away before McCrimmon, living out his dream of becoming a head coach by talking a job with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in Russia, was killed along with his entire team in a tragic plane crash.

"We didn't talk a lot in the last few years," Morris said. "But when he would come into as an assistant with Detroit or the other teams he would always be eyeing me up, making sure I was in shape. That was his thing.

"I haven't thought a lot about 1,000 games personally. My kids think it's a big thing. But you do think of all the people who helped you get there and were big along the way. Adam Foote and Joe Sakic from Colorado are close friends. Doaner and all the great teammates we have here and the great atmosphere of our room. And you think of the people who aren't here anymore.

"I knew Wade very well, and Brad is another guy who really stuck out. It was one of those summers that you want to forget. But they live in us and when you're working out one day, they just pop into your head and you say a little ‘thank you.'  And I'm sure it will happen again on Sunday."
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