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Heart And Soul

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Had the Dallas Stars not missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and for just the third time since relocating from Minnesota in 1993, it’s very likely that captain Brenden Morrow would be back in the lineup by now.

Of course, the sad irony is that the Stars probably would have qualified for the post-season if they’d had a healthy Morrow all along.

Morrow suffered a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, one of the primary stabilizers of the knee) in his right knee on Nov. 20, underwent reconstructive surgery on Dec. 2 and has been working hard on his rehabilitation ever since. He had been skating for several weeks, pushing and strengthening his knee, when the Stars were eliminated from the playoff chase the final week of the regular season. 

“I was preparing to play in the first round,” said Morrow, who cemented his reputation as a clutch player with an outstanding post-season performance last spring. “I probably would have had to wrestle with the team physician on it. I’d been skating for two weeks.  I wasn’t limited on the ice other than battle drills, so had there been a playoff in the future, I probably would have pushed a little harder and done a little more on the ice, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Already missing Morrow and veteran defenseman Sergei Zubov, the Stars suffered a rash of injuries down the stretch to other key performers, including center Brad Richards, that doomed their season. It was a disappointing ending for all involved, but Morrow, who never got a chance to help the cause, seemed to have more of a philosophical outlook.

“Injuries are a big part of the game, other teams go through them,” noted Morrow, who collected five goals and 15 points in the 18 games he played before the injury. “But when you look at Colorado (who lost Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny for long stretches) and ourselves, when you have long-term injuries to key guys like that, it’s a lot to make up.”

As he continued to work hard in rehab to make it back, Morrow maintained a fairly visible presence around the team the last couple of months, accompanying them on road trips and working out and skating with them at their practice facility at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco.

“He’s been here every day, we see him every day,” center Mike Ribeiro said back in February. “He’s been coming on the road with us. I think he wants to be around the guys, he wants to get ready and make sure the guys want to push and win games so he could come back and then help the team win. You can feel that he’s itching, that he wishes he can be here and help the team right now, but you could see, too, that his work ethic is still there and he wants to make a comeback as soon as possible and come help his team.”

It’s that display of leadership, beyond his actual contributions on the ice, that has established Morrow as such an indispensible component - indeed, the heart and soul - of the Stars. Unfortunately, the club’s slow start to the season, which saw them occupying last place in the Western Conference for much of November back when Morrow was still in the lineup, ended up costing them dearly. 

“Had we started off the season better and got on a bit of a roll and then had those injuries, maybe we could have sustained it a little bit better,” Morrow stated, “but when you start slow and you lose those guys for that long, it’s a lot to ask young guys to take the charge and lead the way. They did a great job, almost got us into the playoffs, it just wasn’t enough.”

Looking back even now, Morrow had difficulty explaining just what went wrong at the beginning of the season, when the Stars were coming off a triumphant trip to the Western Conference Finals.

“No, I can’t pinpoint it,” said Morrow, who scored nine goals, including two overtime game-winners, and 15 points in 18 playoff contests last spring. “We didn’t win the Stanley Cup, so it wasn’t a Stanley Cup hangover. We can’t really put our finger on it. We went through it at the beginning of the season trying to pinpoint what the problems were. We just weren’t sharp. I don’t know if we just expected things to be easier because we were a successful team the year before, but every team, when they start the season fresh, they’ve got zeroes across the board and nothing’s given to you for free. That could have been it. We all, going through it, thought we were putting the work in, maybe we expected a little bit better.”

Morrow acknowledged that no one associated with the club ever expected them to be cleaning out their lockers while eight other Western Conference squads faced off in the first round, an experience he’s endured just once before over the course of his NHL career.

‘The nine years I’ve been here, we missed one time and that was quite a few years ago, so we’ve had a pretty good run and a lot of success,” said Morrow, who skated in 21 playoff games as a rookie in 2000, when the Stars lost to New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Final. “Coming off last year, expectations were high like they always have been and should be, and we’re going to come into training camp with the same mindset and we’re going to push forward and make sure that we’re not here at the same time next year.”

Because of the bitter feeling the Stars are left with now, Morrow believes they will be sharper and more determined by the time they return to work next September.

“We’re hoping for a big year next year,” said Morrow, who will be 30 when next season starts. “It’s going to be an extra long summer, we’re all going to be hungry when the season comes around. It’s a matter of coming in, everyone healthy, everyone in shape and all buying in right away to getting us off to a good start, coming in with a good mind frame. That’s what it’s going to take. Everyone’s different over the summer, what they need for a break, mentally, physically, but when training camp comes, everyone needs to be ready.” 

Since he never did quite get back into the lineup before time ran out, Morrow’s usual off-season routine will be altered a bit this summer. The first step is to return to full health and then jump back into training to bring himself up to peak condition in time for next fall’s training camp.

“I think I’m going to be 100 percent when summer training starts, I’m just not going to wait as long,” said the 5-foot-11, 207-pound native of Carlyle, Saskatchewan, who was the Stars’ first-round selection (25th overall) in the 1997 Entry Draft. “Usually I take about a month off and let the body heal, but the body had a lot of healing this year. I’m probably going to have a week or two where I take things easy, relax, and then get ready for, hopefully, a little bit of hockey in the summer time and then training camp.”

And with a healthy Brenden Morrow once again leading the way, the Stars should be just fine.

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