Wednesday, December 3, 2008
George Morrison, hockey player (1948-2008)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 2, 2008
George Morrison knew triumph on the ice of a hockey arena. He won a championship in college before forging a professional career lasting seven seasons. He also enjoyed the honour of having his stick requested by the Hockey Hall of Fame.
For all that, a certain segment of hockey fans preferred to remember him for an odd incident involving an untimely hunger pang, a hot dog, and an on-ice collision.
The skinny left-winger — he carried just 170 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame — first won notice as a fleet skater and flashy sniper with the University of Denver. He seemed too callow to be playing so rough a sport. “Morrison has the fresh-scrubbed look and haystack haircut of a farm kid who should be carrying a pitchfork instead of a curved stick,” Sports Illustrated magazine noted.
The Pioneers were a dominant power in American college hockey under the guidance of Murray Armstrong. The Saskatchewan-born coach was seeking his second consecutive national title and fifth overall when Mr. Morrison joined the Colorado school’s team as a freshman for the 1968-69 season.
The Pioneers registered 26 wins against just six defeats. Mr. Morrison recorded 40 goals and 18 assists on a roster including such future National Hockey League players as defenceman Keith Magnuson and forward Craig Patrick.
In the final game of the championship tournament, the Pioneers faced Cornell University and star goaltender Ken Dryden, who would go on to become one of the greatest NHL goalies with the Montreal Canadiens. On this day, however, Denver persevered 4-3, with Mr. Morrison scoring his team’s second goal.
The Pioneers did not repeat as champs in 1969-70, although Mr. Morrison scored 57 points in 32 games in his sophomore campaign. He was dubbed Super Soph.
“He is at his best around the crease,” Sports Illustrated reported. “When traffic gets heavy he looks like Plastic Man, bending and twisting away from big, menacing defenders.”
In his brief university career, he was twice named a Western Collegiate Hockey Association first-team all-star and he was twice named an All-American. He led his association in scoring in both seasons.
Perhaps because of his pacific nature — he earned just 24 penalty minutes in two seasons of collegiate hockey — Mr. Morrison went unselected in the NHL amateur draft. Despite the initial lack of interest, the St. Louis Blues signed him as a free agent days before the puck dropped to start of the 1970-71 season.
His rookie campaign got a boost late in the season when St. Louis acquired Garry Unger from Detroit, where general manager Ned Harkness (obituary, Sept. 30) objected to the young player’s refusal to trim his hair. Mr. Unger centred a line with Mr. Morrison and Wayne Connelly, contributing to a strong 7-2-3 finish to the season.
Mr. Morrison scored 15 goals and added 10 assists. He was named the club’s rookie of the year.
His production lagged the following season and he ran afoul of the Blues’ management. The team traded him to the Buffalo Sabres and, when he refused to report to their minor-league team at Rochester, N.Y., he was suspended.
He sat out the remainder of the season rather than ride the bus around the American Hockey League circuit.
Meanwhile, a group of businessmen, frustrated by the cartel-like operations of the NHL, launched a rival major league. The World Hockey Association began raiding NHL rosters, offering players better salaries and freedom from the whims of managerial edicts about personal grooming.
The Minnesota Fighting Saints signed Mr. Morrison as the club’s eighth player in June, 1972. His former teammate, Mr. Connelly, had earlier signed with Minnesota. Both men were represented by Morden Lazarus, a lawyer who at the time said he was brushing up on his knowledge of contract and anti-trust law because NHL owners were threatening legal action to retain their contracted employees.
On Jan. 7, 1973, a WHA record crowd and a television audience watching on CBS witnessed the national debut of the new St. Paul Civic Center, a $23-million arena notable for dasher boards of clear acrylic. The Sunday afternoon game opened with a goal by Mr. Morrison against Winnipeg’s Joe Daley.
Mr. Morrison delivered the greatest single-game performance of his career in the final game of the 1973-74 regular season. The victims were the visiting Vancouver Blazers, much to the delight of an appreciative hometown crowd.
At 15:42 of the second period, he scored on a powerplay to give the Fighting Saints a 5-0 lead. Fourteen seconds later, he split the Vancouver defence before snapping a shot high over the shoulder of netminder George Gardner (obituary, Dec. 4, 2006). A third goal came at 16:25, the hat-trick in 43 seconds setting a WHA record. All three goals were assisted by Mr. Connelly and Bob MacMillan.
(Bill Mosienko of the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks established the major-league record by notching three goals in 21 seconds against the New York Rangers on March 23, 1952.)
Nor was Mr. Morrison’s work for the night complete. He pushed yet another puck past the hapless Blazer goalie in the third period for his fourth marker of the night. It was also his 40th goal of the season. Mr. Morrison had never before scored more than two goals in a pro game.
The stick he used for the feat wound up in the collection of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
After another productive season, the Saints traded him to the Calgary Cowboys in a multi-player deal in which they acquired Johnny (Pieface) McKenzie, a one-time rodeo rider from Alberta.
Mr. Morrison spent his final two seasons as a pro in Calgary, scoring 36 goals.
A respectable career as a journeyman with one brilliant campaign has mostly been ignored. However, his role in a bizarre bit of hockey lore has been retold in such trivia books as Floyd Connor’s “Hockey’s Most Wanted” and on such Websites as Joe Pelletier’s GreatestHockeyLegends.com.
While playing with the Blues in his rookie season, Mr. Morrison found himself riding the bench as the clock ticked down in a game against the Los Angeles Kings. Figuring his work was done for the night, he sent an usher in search of a hot dog, surreptitiously swapping one of his sticks for the snack.
He snuck a bite whenever the play took the coach’s attention away from his direction.
He was still chewing when coach Scotty Bowman unexpectedly ordered him onto the ice. Not wishing to be discovered violating an unwritten rule of hockey etiquette by eating on the bench, he shoved the remnants of the sausage down the cuff of one of his hockey gloves.
He was not on the ice for long before being bodychecked by an opposing player. The collision sent flying bits of bun, splashes of condiment, and a half-eaten hot dog.
Mr. Morrison was involved in sports management after leaving hockey. In 2003, he helped bring the Alberta Classic golf tournament to Calgary as a Nationwide Tour event.
Midway through last season, he offered his services as a volunteer coach for the Dutchwoman at Union College at Schenectady, N.Y.
An inoperable brain tumour was diagnosed before the start of this season. His sudden decline and death stunned the team.
“He was everything to our team — a leader, a mentor, a teacher, a father figure and a coach,” said head coach Claudia Asano.
The Dutchwomen held a moment of silence before the puck dropped against visiting Qunnipiac in a game played just two days after Mr. Morrison’s death. The hush was followed by a stirring round of applause.
George Harold Morrison was born in Toronto on Christmas Eve, 1948. He died on Nov. 12 at his home at Schenectady, N.Y. He was 59. He leaves his partner, Ellen Johnston; daughters, Sloane Junge and Keri Lauxman, both of Kansas City, Mo.; parents Harold and Margaret Morrison, of Fort Erie, Ont.; brother Robert Morrison and sister Cathy Gaglia, both of Toronto.