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Backchecking: Morrow a main man for Miracle on Ice

Ken Morrow played 550 games in the NHL, all with the Islanders, scoring 17 goals and 105 points. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

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Ken Morrow played 550 games in the NHL, all with the Islanders, scoring 17 goals and 105 points. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

By Kevin Glew

Thirty years later, it’s still hard for Ken Morrow to believe in miracles.

In a packed arena in Lake Placid on Feb. 22, 1980, Morrow and 19 other amateurs comprising the U.S. Olympic team stunned the powerhouse Soviets 4-3 in what has become known as the Miracle on Ice.

Now 53, the laid-back Flint, Mich., native says he didn’t grasp how momentous the victory was at the time.

“I still pinch myself,” Morrow said. “I had hurt my shoulder earlier in the tournament, so I stayed behind after we beat the Soviets and I iced my shoulder down for probably an hour or so. Then I went out the back door and I got in a van. They had shuttle vans that were running the athletes back and forth. So I hopped into a van and we took the back streets, not knowing that there was a huge celebration going on down on main street.”

Morrow was a steady, shutdown defenseman on Herb Brooks’ squad. Playing in the Olympics was a dream come true for the 6-foot-4 defender who had grown up close enough to the Canadian border to watch Hockey Night in Canada. When he was six, he began playing on his backyard rink with big brother, Greg.

Morrow honed his skills and earned a scholarship to Bowling Green State University in 1975. Drafted by the New York Islanders the following year, Morrow had no intention of turning pro until he completed his four-year tenure at university. While at Bowling Green, the young blueliner was named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association player of the year in 1979.

Brooks coveted Morrow for the Olympic team, but his strict no-beards rule appeared to pose an obstacle. Even in college, Morrow fashioned his trademark facial hair. But the coaching legend never asked Morrow to shave, reportedly out of fear that his prized defenseman would turn pro. For his part, Morrow was unaware of Brooks’ no-beards policy until years later.

“I would’ve shaved my beard if he had asked me,” Morrow said with a chuckle.

Being a young kid from Michigan and playing on a grand stage for the first time, Morrow learned a lot playing for the legendary Brooks.

“Herb was a master psychologist,” Morrow explained. “He knew what made players tick. He knew how to get the best of a player, whether it was getting the player mad at him or whatever. So he was able to treat 20 guys differently and still get a great result.”
 
After recording four wins and a tie in the preliminary Olympic round, the USA faced the Soviets in the semifinal.

“We had the home crowd,” Morrow said. “We were the huge underdog. The pressure really wasn’t so much on us as it was on them.”

The U.S., team trailed 3-2 heading into the third period, before Mark Johnson and Mike Eruzione scored to put the Americans ahead. Eruzione’s tally came with 10 minutes remaining.

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“I got to play a lot out of the last 10 minutes and I was actually on the ice for the last minute-and-a-half,” Morrow said. “That’s where you want to be as a player, you don’t want to be sitting on the bench.”

What’s often forgotten is that the team still had to beat Finland two days later to win the gold medal. When team members reported for practice the day after the Soviet game in a celebratory mood, Brooks quickly laid down the law, at one point telling his players a loss to Finland would be so devastating they would take it to their graves. Though the Americans trailed 2-1 after two periods, they rallied to beat the Finns 4-2 and capture the gold medal.

Six days later, Morrow was playing in the NHL for the Islanders. His steady defensive efforts helped New York secure its first championship. In the process, Morrow became the first player to win Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup ring in the same season. It was the first of four consecutive championships Morrow won with the Islanders.

“I think the biggest thing for me was my timing,” Morrow said. “I came to the team right when they were on the verge of going on this great run. There were so many character guys and so many eventual Hall of Famers on the team.”

Sixteen Islanders played on all four Stanley Cup winners. Keeping this core group together helped the team win 19 consecutive playoff rounds, a professional sports record.

“I don’t think that record will ever be broken,” Morrow said. “I think you can put that in the books with the Joe DiMaggio 56-game hitting streak. In today’s world, that would take a team winning five Stanley Cups in a row.”

In total, Morrow played 10 seasons for the Islanders before a knee injury forced him to retire. After his playing days, he coached the International League’s Kansas City Blades in 1990-91 and has since settled in the city. He now serves as the director of pro scouting for the Islanders.

In recent years, he has participated in a series of Miracle on Ice reunions. The team was chosen to light the Olympic flame at Salt Lake City in 2002. Morrow also walked the red carpet with his teammates in Los Angeles for the premiere of Miracle, a movie about the team that was released in 2004.

The Flint native still gets letters almost daily asking him about that storied game against the Soviets.

“The Miracle on Ice resonated with everybody,” Morrow said. “Even people who aren’t hockey fans, when they find out that I played on that team, they know about it. They want to talk about it.”

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