Brendan Morrison played 934 regular season games in the NHL from 1997-2012. During that time, he played for seven different franchises but is most commonly known for his stint with the Vancouver Canucks where he was part of one of the most dominant lines in NHL history, the West Coast Express. In this interview, he details some of the lesser-known parts of his career, including choosing college over the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), his time in Europe and which former teammate he believes was the most skilled.
Choosing The NCAA Over The CHL
Players in Canada have a tough choice to make when it comes to where they want to start their hockey journey. They can play for one of the three leagues in the CHL, or they can play in a league like the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and hope they get a scholarship to play for a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) team. In Morrison’s case, he took the latter despite having an opportunity to play in the Western Hockey League (WHL).
“I always wanted to get an education. When I was making my decision, my rights were owned by the Portland Winter Hawks, and I had discussions with them about coming in and playing for that team, but at that time, which would have been 1992-93 when I played for the Penticton Panthers, it seemed like there were more and more guys making the jump from school into the NHL and starting to have an impact so I figured it would buy me a little bit of time to get stronger and mature physically. If I went to school and got a degree and hockey didn’t work out for any reason, that would be a great thing to have in my pocket.”
After playing one season with what was then called the British Columbia Junior Hockey League (BCJHL), Morrison attended the University of Michigan. The decision ended up being the right one, as during his time with the Wolverines, he won a National Championship in 1996, won the Hobey Baker Award in 1997 and was named captain for two seasons while recording 284 points in 155 games. While he had a ton of fun on the ice, he also enjoyed his experience off of it, living life as a student.
“I was very fortunate to be able to go to Michigan. All four of my years, we had a chance to win the National Championship. We had a very competitive team, and I played with a lot of guys who went on to play pro hockey and also a lot of guys who went on to be lawyers and doctors. I played with two guys that went on to be brain surgeons and investment bankers, so a lot of successful guys from my four years there. The atmosphere was incredible. It was a great institution academically, and I have a ton of respect for them. Athletically, going to a football game where there were 110,000 people in the stands or getting to watch a basketball game or all the other sports they had there. It really was the whole package.”
Lately, NHL teams have been more engaged in the NCAA free-agent market. Organizations are understanding the value that these older prospects have and are even getting into bidding wars trying to find a diamond in the rough. As Morrison explains, this is not surprising as the players coming out of the college system are usually more developed and closer to NHL-ready.
“I think you are seeing more and more players making the jump from NCAA hockey to the NHL. If you compare the two leagues between major junior and US college, US college is a much older league, where you are playing against guys who are physically stronger and more mature. I think you are seeing a trend with NHL teams signing some of these guys who have not been drafted because they are so mature and physically strong and can step in right away. I think just the maturity of the NCAA is a huge attraction to people.”
Morrison’s Time In Vancouver
Morrison spent the majority of his career in Vancouver, playing 543 of his 934 regular season games for his hometown Canucks. During that time, he gave the fans plenty to cheer about as he scored 257 goals and recorded 393 points while helping form one of the greatest lines in Canucks history, the West Coast Express. Looking back, he was able to share some of his favourite memories from his time in Vancouver.
“I think my first game. I scored in my first game in Vancouver after I was traded there from New Jersey. That kind of sticks out on a personal note. I guess the teams we had where we were able to win the Northwest Division, so team success is obviously at the top of the list. Another goal that would stick out would be the triple overtime goal against Calgary in the playoffs that sent the series to Game 7. I just think of all the great people I played with and was fortunate to meet and cross paths with; it was just a great group of guys.”
As mentioned, the West Coast Express line, which was made up of Morrison, Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, dominated the NHL in the early 2000s. While they still had to talk to the media every day, social media sites were not as popular, meaning the team did not have to deal with the everyday scrutiny from the fans that current players must deal with now. While having online accounts criticize everything you do, the former Canuck thinks that if social media was around during the West Coast Express’ peak, it would have been a positive based on the way they played.
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“We didn’t have to deal with so much social media, that’s for certain. We still had quite a bit of media coverage in a Canadian market in Vancouver, but I think it would have created even more of a buzz about our team in Vancouver because, in the early to mid-2000s, I was fortunate to be part of some very entertaining teams. We played a brand of hockey that people enjoyed to watch. We never seemed to be out of a game due to our ability to score goals, and I think with the speed and skill of the game, those teams would have done pretty well in today’s game.”
Naslund, as well as Henrik and Daniel Sedin, are considered three of the greatest players to ever wear a Canucks jersey. All three have had their jersey retired by the franchise, while the Sedins were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Morrison had the opportunity to play with all three and watch them develop into the leaders they became on and off the ice.
“I got to play with Markus when he was in his prime and was, I think, an underrated hockey player. Just a phenomenal hockey player with the way he could score, move the puck and set up plays as well. I think he was underappreciated in his career. And then seeing the evolution of Daniel and Henrik right from day one. A lot of expectations were on them, and they took quite a lot of criticism, but just watching how they evolved, their work ethic and compete level, they are just great human beings. Seeing how they continued to improve every single year, they deserve everything they got; it was a special time to be around those guys.”
2004-2005 Lockout Season
In the middle of his Canucks career, the NHL experienced a lockout forcing players to travel to Europe in order to play. For Morrison, he chose to head over to the Elitserien (SHL) and play for a team called Linköping HC. The reason he chose to play there, though, is an interesting story that goes back to his days at the University of Michigan.
“It was a combination of a couple of things. One, the general manager of the team in Linköping, was a graduate from the University of Michigan; his name was Mike Helber. Mike Knuble, who was my teammate at the University of Michigan and linemate for two years, and Mike Helber were roommates when Mike Helber was a senior and Mike Knuble a freshman, so that is where we had the initial contact. Mike Knuble and I had the same agent in Kurt Overhardt, so we reached out to Mike Helber and asked if both of us could come over there, and he said absolutely, so that is how we facilitated that whole setup.”
That season, Morrison finished second on Linköping HC with 44 points and just six points behind Henrik Zetterberg for the league lead. His team finished with the second-best record in the league but was upset in the first round by Södertälje SK, who featured NHL talent, including Olli Jokinen, Mikael Samuelsson and Anže Kopitar, who had yet to be drafted. While skating on a different ice surface than the one in North America was an adjustment, it was an experience he enjoyed and won’t forget.
“Yeah, there is a little bit of an adjustment period for sure. It is a lot more of a perimeter game and a lot more puck possession. You would think there would be more scoring chances because of the bigger ice, but I thought it actually worked the opposite and that there were less scoring chances. On the smaller ice, everything happens quicker. We had a really good team over there in Linköping. We had Kristian Huselius and Henrik Tallinder, so we had one of the top teams in the league that year, so it was a fun year.”
During that season, Morrison was also invited to play for Team Canada at the World Championship. In total, he played three times for Canada at the yearly tournament, winning gold in 2004 and silver in 2005. While the team fell in the Gold Medal Game during the lockout year, it was a great opportunity for him to play alongside some of the best Canadian players in the world.
“A lot of guys were playing in Europe that year because of the lockout. Some of those guys we added to the team were high-end guys, so we had a great team. The World Championships, there are two ways to look at it. That year it was great, but playing in it usually means you are out of the playoffs, so it’s a bit of a catch-22 because you still want to be playing in the playoffs. To go over there and compete against countries who had their best rosters, that was a lot of fun.”
NHL Career Outside Vancouver
In total, Morrison played for six other franchises during his career, including the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and Calgary Flames. During that time, he played with some of the best players in the NHL, including Alexander Ovechkin and Jarome Iginla. While he played with quite a few current a future Hall of Famers, it was surprising to hear who he thought was the most skilled player he had ever played with.
“I played with Ovi, and he was like a traveling rock show everywhere we went on that team in Washington. Played with Jarome in Calgary, and just the way he would demand respect not only through his goalscoring and playmaking ability but how physical he could be at times. I’ve been spoiled with all the guys I have played with, but the one guy who may be the most skilled guy I ever played with but never hit his potential was Alex Semin. You would watch this guy in practice, just the way he could shoot the puck, hang onto the puck, pass the puck; his skill level was elite, but he just did not care about playing hockey.”
Morrison finished his career as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2011-12 season. His final goal came on April 19, 2012, when he scored the Blackhawks’ only goal in a 2-1 OT loss against the Arizona Coyotes in the playoffs. While it was hard to walk away from the sport, he knew it was time, playing his last game on April 23, 2012.
“It’s not easy; I’ll tell you that. The mind, at times, still believes it can perform at its highest level, but the body doesn’t allow you to. I think that is the toughest thing. Mentally, you can do it, but physically, you can’t, so that’s the difficult thing. For a lot of guys, it’s what they have known all their lives. They have had a focus and a passion for playing this game, turned it into a career, and it’s tough to replace that rush. I always tell people there is no better work environment in the world than coming into the dressing room and guys are ribbing each other, the music is cranked up, and you all are working towards the same common goal. It’s a pretty unique place to be, and there is nothing really that can replicate that. I always tell people that you need to find another passion. I have four kids so that occupied a lot of my time when I retired, but finding another passion really helps with the transition.”
Life After Hockey
Over a decade after his final NHL game, Morrison still enjoys watching hockey and seeing what the next generation of NHLers are able to do. He also understands how much time and effort goes into making the NHL and is impressed with how much skill draft-eligible players possess. While the teams he played for provided some jaw-dropping moments, it is hard to compare with what some of the NHL’s best are doing now.
“There is a ton of skill in the guys now that come up. On average, the skill level is so much higher than when I played. These guys all have skill coaches at young ages, they have personal trainers, and there is a lot more focus on skill. The game is like a track meet out there, and I think the game is in really good hands right now.”
This year, broadcaster Scott Rintoul created a podcast called UNREEL: West Coast Express that looked at the success the West Coast Express had during their time in Vancouver. This gave Morrison, as well as his teammates, a chance to reminisce about their time with the Canucks and how they made every Vancouver game must-watch television. When looking back at the success the organization had and how much the team meant to the city, it makes him proud that he could be part of such a special time in Canucks history.
“I think proud would be a word to use. I was put in a good situation early on in my career with Vancouver, where I had a chance to mature and develop. There were also a lot of guys in a similar situation as me in guys that were traded to Vancouver and given a second lease on life. Myself, Todd (Bertuzzi), Markus (Naslund), Ed Jovanovski, Dan Cloutier and a bunch of guys who came to Vancouver were dealt there, and we were all around the same age, so we kind of grew up together. It was really fun being a part of that group, and I think when you talk to people now about the (UNREEL) podcast, and they talk about how it brought back so many memories and that it was maybe their favourite time being a Canucks fan, it’s a pretty humbling thing.”
The podcast and conversation with fans have also allowed Morrison to look back and really appreciate what he was able to do over his career. Whether it was being named to the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Rookie Team in 1998, being a second-round draft pick of the Devils, or playing almost 1,000 NHL games, he is grateful that he had the opportunity to experience life as a pro hockey player. He also enjoys hearing from old teammates or those in the community about how the teams he played for affected them years later.
“It’s a little bit surreal. When you are playing, and in the moment, you don’t really have a chance to think about those things. You go in with the mindset that you have a job to do night in a night out. You try to do the best you can for your team, your teammates and the city, but I think as time has passed here and we got to go through this podcast/documentary, it was a lot of fun. Getting to hear other people’s perspectives and their take on that time frame, you never have those conversations while it’s happening, so to hear what other people have to say and realize we had an impact on different people is pretty neat.”
As for today, Morrison keeps himself plenty busy. He hosts a fishing show called Reel West Coast, is involved in real estate and, of course, spends plenty of time with his family. He also occasionally attends collectible events where he gets to sign autographs and interact with fans who reminisce about his playing days.
“It’s fun, to be honest; I haven’t done a ton of them, but the ones that I have done, it’s always nice to engage with people that are familiar with your career and the teams you played on. It’s like a step back in time and reliving certain memories that people bring up about teammates and your games, so it’s always a fun thing to do.”
Morrison Remains An Important Figure In Canucks History
The pride of Pitt Meadows lived up to the hype and provided fans in British Columbia with plenty of memories throughout his NHL career. Looking back on the impact that Morrison had on the Canucks market, it is fair to say his contributions are often overlooked. He may never have been a point-per-game player in Vancouver or the NHL, but his consistency and two-way game made him one of the most effective players in Canucks history.