At age 17, that was what Kenney Morrison thought his future might hold.
After all, playing midget hockey at the time in Lloydminster, Alberta, with his high school buddies, that's how the story typically goes for small town kids. You graduate from high school, go and learn a trade, then start playing junior B or senior hockey on the side.
Instead, six years later, he's playing pro hockey having signed a two-year entry level contract with Calgary in March. This week at WinSport, wearing the No. 53 last spotted on the back of Johnny Gaudreau, the defenceman is participating in his first development camp with the Flames.
The Dream That Wasn’t Even a Dream
Morrison's draft season was 2010. The NHL draft that year was held in Los Angeles where hundreds of the world's best 17 and 18-year-old hockey players flocked to the Staples Center, anxious to live out their lifelong dream of hearing their name get called.
Morrison, however, was not one of them. Not even close.
Heck, he wasn't even watching it on TV. He said the only thing on his mind that weekend was his fishing trip.
“Zero chance. Zero,” said Morrison emphatically when asked if back then he thought there was even the slightest chance he would get drafted.
The definitive late bloomer, Morrison almost didn't bloom at all. The 6-foot-2, 205 pounder admits he pondered giving up high-level hockey in grade 11 and switching out of AAA. But in a defining moment, instead he decided to take hockey a little bit more seriously and in his final year, he earned some tryouts and was able to catch on with a Junior A team in Port Alberni, British Columbia.
After a decent season there, Morrison did get drafted that next summer – just not by the NHL. He got selected by Omaha in the USHL draft, a league that he confesses he had never heard of before. Nonetheless, he flew down to Nebraska to check it out and have a look around. While he came away impressed with the city, the rink and the whole set-up, what really caught his attention was their scholarship rate.
“When I was there, 18 of 20 guys were going to division one so it was kind of hard to say no,” Morrison says. “So I went there and got a scholarship to Western Michigan within a month.”
Morrison has fond memories of his one year playing hockey in the U.S. Midwest.
“The housing parents were great, the coach treated me well,” said Morrison. “It worked out well and it was a good decision. I met some really good friends that I keep in touch with today."
As for the hockey, it was surprisingly intense with very supportive fans.
“Omaha and Lincoln are only 40 minutes away so we had a big rivalry with them. Lincoln had a tough and mean team and had a dungeon for a barn so it was pretty dark but they had a good light show,” said Morrison, with a chuckle. “We had a line brawl one time that year. It was a pretty good rivalry and a fun place to play.”
Choosing Western Michigan
Morrison says he had a few options for colleges, but what stood out in choosing Western Michigan was the opportunity to play for Andy Murray.
“It's hard to say no to a coach that's been to all the places he's been," Morrison said about Murray, now 64, who in addition to coaching collegiately and internationally, also coached in the NHL for 20 seasons. His NHL time included 10 years as head coach split between the Kings and the Blues. Over that span, he won 333 NHL games. In 2009, Murray was runner-up for the Jack Adams.
“Being a Canadian kid, hockey is on SportsCenter 28 of the 30 minutes so you hear all about the World Championships and the playoffs. I remember hearing a lot about his intensity on the bench,” said Morrison. “When I went there for my visit, he treated me really well and he said nothing but good things about the school and the hockey.
“He said if you want to play pro hockey, then come here and that's what we'll do for you.”
NHL Dream Finally Awakens
Even after arriving at Western Michigan, the NHL was still not on Morrison’s radar.
“I was thinking I’d play some college hockey, get some schooling, then go back home and work. But I went there and ended up doing pretty well for myself. We had a good team that freshman year so that helped a lot. We had Danny DeKeyser and (Tampa Bay draft pick) Luke Witkowski."
Morrison figures teams started noticing him when they were there to scout DeKeyser.
“A lot of teams were in to see DeKeyser because he was the big free agent. So they would go there to watch him and they had to watch the whole game, they can't just watch his shifts. So they saw me on the ice and I caught some eyes and that's when it became a little more real that I could be playing pro.”
But still, it seemed like a longshot.
After his first year of college, he did attend a development camp with the Edmonton Oilers. Last July after his second season, he went to another one put on by the Los Angeles Kings. It was that spring when his adviser, former Flames right-winger Ed Ward, popped the question.
“He asked if I would want to leave school after this year. I said ‘Leave? To go where?’ He said, ''To play in the NHL!"
He said it was a bit shocking to hear those words, but suddenly and for the first time, the possibility of playing pro hockey felt real.
Morrison admits he did have a chance to turn pro and sign a contract with an NHL team last summer. He wouldn't say specifically with which team(s), although when I asked if one was Edmonton, he smiled and said, “They were in talks.”
However, despite the temptation, he figured a third year at college was best for him.
“It was a tough decision but I thought it would be best to stay for my junior year, get a little stronger, bigger, and faster and get another year of schooling out of the way,” said Morrison, who is majoring in business management.
Continued Progression in Year Three
The NHL-wide interest in Morrison really ramped up in his third year, leaving him with many destinations to pick from. He chose Calgary.
“Close to home. Great scouting staff. They treated me good since day one. (Flames NCAA scout) Frank Anzalone was always at my games, talking to me. He was a great guy, helped me out along the way,” said Morrison. “They never pressured me at all. They said if you want to come here, this is what we have to offer. We're not going to BS you. They've been good to their word since and I don't have any regrets on it, for sure.”
Worth noting is that the contract Morrison signed was a two-year deal that didn't begin until 2015-16. Typically, highly-touted college kids that leave school before the NHL regular season is over will negotiate for a deal that kicks in immediately, thus 'burning' the first year of that first contract.
“Calgary had a pretty good playoff run going. They said this is what we're doing. If you want to come here, we won't be able to (burn the first year),” said Morrison. “But all the other things added up quite nice. Plus this way gives you a little extra sense of security that you have two years instead of one.”
Another factor in choosing Calgary was the depth chart on the blue-line and the opportunities that could exist in in the near future for a solid two-way defenceman with a heavy right-handed shot.
“If you're a top defenceman, you're not going to go to a team, who has 15 defencemen in their system. So you sit down with your adviser and he says this is what they have, this is what this team has and this is what this team has. I think it would be best for you to go here, here or here, but you have to make the decision,” said Morrison.
Successful Sip of Coffee in the AHL
While his contract did not begin until this season, Morrison was still able to head to the AHL for the final month of the season on a pro try-out. In 10 games, he impressed racking up two goals and four assists.
“Was it a big jump? Yes, but a lot of the players you play with are also better so it kind of made the game easier in a way,” said Morrison. “But it's definitely a step up, for sure.”
For those 10 games, Morrison was paired up with minor league veteran Dustin Stevenson, which he enjoyed.
“He was a good guy. He took me under his wing and I went fishing with him a few times also, so that was good.”
One thing that's clear is Morrison enjoys his fishing. While the 23-year-old says his favourite place to go is Northern Saskatchewan, if his hockey career stays on the same trajectory as it's been on lately, he might soon find himself fishing on Calgary's Bow River instead. And I think he'd be just fine with that.
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