Mark Morris, former head coach of the Manchester Monarchs, speaks about his tenure with the LA Kings’ then-AHL affiliate.
Looking back on the LA Kings‘ Stanley Cup-winning seasons of 2012 and 2014, there are so many involved who deserve credit for turning this once hard-luck franchise into a championship winner. But, this was by no means an overnight success as the Kings, led by general manager Dean Lombardi, invested heavily in their farm system. With that, the silver-and-black underlined the importance of developing future talent at the AHL level. For this, Mark Morris played an integral part in preparing the LA Kings’ future talent for the NHL and, ultimately, for the Stanley Cup.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Mark Morris, former Manchester Monarchs head coach, who shared his experiences with the club, including his hand in developing future NHL and Stanley Cup-winning talent.
After retiring from a brief playing career — most notably with the Kings’ then-AHL affiliate, the New Haven Nighthawks — Morris began his coaching career in 1985, joining the St. Lawrence University men’s hockey staff as an assistant coach. He then spent 14 seasons at Clarkson University as their head coach before making brief stints in the NHL and OHL. Then, in 2006, after two years at Northwood Prep, Morris received an offer which led to becoming the new bench boss in Manchester.
“I was very excited,” Morris remembered. “You know, it kind of happened in a strange way. I was coaching Northwood Prep, and [then-Kings executive] Ron Hextall‘s son became available, so I recruited him. And I guess Hexie liked the way that I ran the team up in Northwood, and he had asked me one day, he said he was going to join Dean Lombardi out in LA [and if] I’d like to just go to their development camp, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to.'”
What was already a great offer, though, became even greater for Morris.
“And while I was out there, he asked me if I’d like to apply for the American League job in Manchester, and I said, ‘Where do I sign up for that?'” he added with a chuckle.
While he did enjoy his career at Northwood Prep and his life in picturesque Lake Placid, Morris was ready for a new challenge.
“I interviewed and got the job, and it was just unreal to have that experience of being able to work with high-caliber players and high-caliber coaches,” beamed Morris. “As a college coach, it’s about developing the whole person, and that was right up my alley, which was what they were looking for us to do in Manchester.”
Having just been hired by the Kings a few months earlier, Dean Lombardi was about to embark on a rebuild that started from the ground up. So, with a five-year plan to contend for hockey’s Holiest prize, Lombardi was confident that the Kings could reach the top. However, an abundance of patience was essential for this rebuild. For Morris, it was up to him to guide and develop the club’s future talent — and he took the ball and ran with it, so to speak.
In his eight seasons with the Monarchs, Morris went 338-224-39, guiding the club to its first division title in franchise history in 2007 and their first ticket past the first round. As important as on-ice success was, though, the legacy for Massena, New York, native came in the form of turning his players into NHL stars, such as Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli, and 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick.
“Really, it was neat watching those guys come along,” Morris fondly reflected. “Each of them developed at a different pace, and that’s something that I learned especially dealing with guys from various leagues and places from around the globe.
“To see these young guys that learned how to play defense for the first time to guys that were reliable NHLers, and ultimately achieved one of the most remarkable trophies in sport, it was surreal watching them as it all unfolded. I was fortunate enough in 2012 to be out there and follow the team back and forth coast-to-coast, watch them play in those series and, you know, to see them play at the highest level and to perform under pressure was a real treat for not only me but the entire Monarchs organization.”
As much credit as he deserves for his role, though, Morris was quick to deflect that praise onto others.
“Working with the development team and my assistants — both [Monarchs’ assistant coaches] Scott Pellerin and Freddy Meyer, [Monarchs Director of Hockey Operations] Hubie McDonough, the support group around them; from the Kings, who were constantly monitoring us and guys like [Kings Director of Player Development] Mike O’Connell and then [Kings’ goaltending coach] Billy Ranford and [Kings’ goalie development coach] Kim Dillabaugh for the goaltenders, there was just such a great support group,” he added.
As for the aforementioned Jonathan Quick, those who have followed the LA Kings since 2008-09 know just how invaluable the netminder was — and is — to the franchise. His aforementioned Conn Smythe win in 2012 was the bookend on a miraculous — not to mention, unprecedented — season that saw the netminder carry a team, ranked second-worst in offense in the entire NHL, into the playoffs before knocking out the top three conference seeds. They, of course, capped off their unchartered run by winning the Stanley Cup in six games. But, the road to the NHL was anything but easy for Quick.
Taken in the third round (72nd overall) by the Kings in 2005, Quick’s work was already cut out for him. However, it was a recurring habit, of all things, that almost curbed the netminder’s NHL career. Fortunately for the native of Milford, Conn., his head coach in Manchester was there to help.
“Well, I might be speaking a little bit out of school, but I’ll share it with you,” an amused Morris began. “Quickie was a notoriously heavy sleeper and was constantly being prodded to be early for the bus rides and departures and things of that nature, and I saw it firsthand. We were actually in an airport, and our flight had been delayed. So, guys were huddled up on the seats and sitting around and growing tired of being in the airport all day, and Quickie, he was out. Like, he was sleeping then. Then, the announcement was made for him to– well, for the flight to leave, and we couldn’t wake him up. We were literally shaking him. And so, I witnessed his heavy sleeping, and prior to that, he actually got sent down to [the Kings’ then-ECHL affiliate in] Reading for that exact reason: that he was late for a few buses and so forth. I remember calling Hexie and saying, ‘Look, this is the second or third time this has happened. What do I do?’ And so, a booster from Reading drove up as his replacement, and Quickie got sent down for a couple of weeks to play in the [East] Coast [League]. Unfortunately, I was the guy that had to help him learn that lesson, but not one that I really wanted to do. He was such an exceptional talent. He and Jonathan Bernier were pushing each other back and forth in the early going when they were both with us in Manchester, and that was a treat to watch — the internal competition. Ultimately, Quickie got the nod [in Los Angeles] before Bernier did.”
The Manchester Monarchs won the Calder Cup in 2015 before relocating to Ontario, California. While he moved on from the organization the previous year, Mark Morris’s contributions to the Manchester Monarchs’ success — and the LA Kings’ as a whole — are no less revered regardless if he physically hoisted the AHL’s championship trophy.
Whether at the AHL, NCAA, or high school level, Mark Morris left his mark on generations of players determined to be the best players they could possibly be. Morris not only recognized the talent that entered his team’s dressing room but helped develop that talent to unimaginable heights. Heck, Jake Muzzin and the aforementioned Alec Martinez are just two examples of this — players who, for all intents and purposes, were not destined to become NHL-calibre defensemen. Not only are they NHL defensemen today but elite ones at that. That is thanks, in significant part, to Morris.
As we look back on the championship success of the LA Kings, we would be remiss if we failed to mention Mark Morris. A kid from small-town New York who had a passion for hockey turned out to be an integral figure in a long-suffering organization’s ultimate ascension to the top of the hockey world — and that’s naming just one of his achievements in the sport.
Morris has since returned to Northwood Prep in picturesque Lake Placid where he hopes to develop more talent for the professional ranks. So, here is to Mr. Morris and the plethora of success he brought to the Manchester Monarchs and the LA Kings.