Thursday, September 02, 2010

Morgan's fighting spirit a product of his hockey days

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

The twist on the old joke about uncharacteristic violence erupting at a sporting event took on new meaning Wednesday night. For the 18,326 who attended the Nationals-Marlins tilt in South Florida, they went to a baseball game and a hockey fight broke out.

Leading the charge in Florida's 16-10 shellacking of DC's diamond dogs was volatile Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan, who charged the mound after Fish hurler Chris Volstad threw behind him in the sixth inning.

The slender San Francisco native fearlessly charged the mound, landing a roundhouse punch to the side of Volstad's face before being consumed by the tidal wave of flesh and emotion that travels to the epicenter of any bench-clearing melee.

Listening to Nationals broadcasts and national talking heads since Morgan made it to the big leagues, several adjectives have come to the forefront: fearless, aggressive, emotional, reckless, impulsive...and that's before he's complimented for his skill and speed.

They all love the way Morgan charges after deep fly balls to his post in center, sensing that he doesn't possess an ounce of fear for collisions with those big roadblocks in front of the outfield stands. They don't love his emotional outbursts on and off the field, and often question whether he has the maturity to exist in the most reserved of the four major sports.

For Morgan, though, competition is to be experienced with the very same qualities others believe will be his downfall. He learned them as a hockey player.

A young Morgan was taken with the sport after watching the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, and pestered his parents to play the game until he was able to snag a tryout with the British Columbia Hockey League's Vernon Vipers as a 16-year-old.

He didn't make the team, but bounced around several other clubs in the low Canadian minors until hooking on with the Regina Pats of the famed Western Canadian Hockey League in 1999.

Even now, the WCHL carries with it a reputation of making the tough players tougher and weeding out the rest. Morgan was no exception. He not only had to fight to keep his spot on the team, but also had to fend off cuture shock and prejudice; after all, he was trying to make his way in a sport that is predominantly Caucasian, in a league that is primarily Canadian, and in Regina, Saskatchewan -- a bastion of lily-whiteness in the most lily-white of Canadian regions: the Prairies.

The Regina Pats also carry with them a tradition of sending cementheads to the pros, guys who at one time might have been able to make a mark playing the game, but who were molded at this step into enforcers. Garth Butcher, Lyndon Byers, Stu Grimson are retired punchers with bona-fide NHL careers whose names stick out, but Morgan's equal might have been the diminutive Nevin Markwart.

A 1983 draft pick of the Bruins, Markwart was 5-foot-10, 180 pounds but never shied away from conflict. He racked up more than 20 fights in his career and topped out at 207 penalty minutes in 65 games in 1985-86, then followed up with 225 in 64 games the next season.

Morgan, like Markwart, had a truncated hockey career.

After scoring twice in his debut, the nascent baseball player skated in just six more games before being released and leaving the sport for good. Rumors from several sources that have popped up in the wake of Morgan's recent antics have suggested everything from his "combative attitude" to a mysterious marijuana bust by Pats coaches to a pregnant girlfriend, caused his exit from the game.

Nonetheless, the time spent prowling the ice has clearly made an impact on Morgan's professional demeanor. Sometimes the cliches are true. Hockey is a game played at full speed, on the emotional edge, requiring constant vigilance and reaction, which is governed by an unwritten code and contested in what is a glorified corral.

That spirit is clearly in Morgan's blood and drives his competitiveness. The game does leave that much of an imprint.

That's why it should come as any surprise to any baseball fan who knows the game of hockey that the Morgan-Volstad meeting which sparked the brawl played out the way it did. Though clearly at a size disadvantage, Morgan faced bigger and more motivated kids in Moose Jaw and Red Deer than Volstad, so, of course he wasn't going to back down.

He came in with elbows up and right hand cocked in battle position, like smaller players are taught when facing a fight. So what if he didn't land it the way he wanted? He got the only shot in. He took care of the situation the way he was trained.

Did it matter that Morgan has left quite a paper trail of trouble since his big-league debut, and that he's currently appealing a seven-game ban from Major League Baseball for allegedly beaning a Phillies fan during a game two Saturdays ago in Philadelphia?

Did it ever matter to Tie Domi, or Bob Probert, or P.J. Stock, or any other scrappy kid trying to make it past players who are bigger and stronger and more talented? What always mattered was that business needed to be taken care of -- and quickly -- then was taken care of in the most direct manner possible.

But all of that doesn't fly in the genteel, reserved and quietly prejudiced ways of the former American pastime. I read this morning that because of the brawl, Morgan somehow "makes Milton Bradley look normal" or some such nonsense.

The next time you're tempted to place Morgan in that category of "angry/crazy African-American guy" remember that his personality was forged in an atmosphere completely different from where he exists now.

His heart and mind may belong to baseball, but hockey is coursing through his blood.
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