BY MARK BURNS
Published March 30, 2011
He was a betting man. There was no getting around that. When he arrived at the office, he threw everything on the table.
The stakes were always high because that’s how he wanted them to be. It didn’t matter if he was competing in an exhibition contest or playing in the 1996 national title game against Colorado College.
He put the pressure on himself to perform.
Except he wasn’t betting with chips like people normally do.
No, he bet using the tools of the trade — the soft wrister that couldn’t break a pane of glass; the not-so-pretty stride that couldn't beat some opposing players in a footrace; the physical presence that couldn’t intimidate an eighth grader.
He bet on himself.
None of it mattered. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t exceptionally gifted in any of those facets of the game.
The expectations of Brendan Morrison were high because Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson demanded more.
“(Morrison's) expectations were he was going to be a leading scorer,” assistant coach Billy Powers said. “He was going to be a point producer. He wanted to be on the ice at the pivotal 5-on-5 shift where we needed a goal.
“His expectations have always been, ‘I’m going to get the goal or make the play that’s going to help us.’”
He came to the rink every day with his pockets turned up and an empty wallet for four long seasons. He was all in, all the time.
For four years, former Hobey Baker winner Brendan Morrison made a name for himself at 1016 South State St.
“When he needed to perform, and when the chips were on the table, his game was unbelievable,” former teammate and linemate Bill Muckalt said.
Every day, Brendan Morrison was cashing in on one of the most successful careers in Michigan hockey history.
Billy Powers had his eyes fixed on the "Brendan Morrison Shrine" in the Michigan hockey coaches’ lounge.
Fifteen seconds had slowly come and gone.
The Hobey Baker award and a shadow box housing Morrison's No. 9 Michigan jersey sit along one of the walls. Two pictures of Morrison — one by himself on the ice and another with him alongside Berenson accepting the Hobey Baker in 1997 — complete the mural.
It had been a half-minute since I asked Powers the final question of our 10-minute interview: How would you sum up Brendan Morrison in one word, phrase or sentence?
Every 10 seconds, Powers’ eyes darted from the television to the shrine. Finally, he couldn’t remove himself from the tribute to Morrison — evidence of a coach perplexed by the impact of a player who accomplished more than any other Wolverine during his collegiate career.
His silence was evidence of a player who was impossible to describe in a few measly words almost 15 years after his exit from Yost Ice Arena.
A full minute.
As the seconds passed without a response from Powers, others’ answers to the exact same question came to mind.
“Brendan was just a first-class human being,” associate head coach Mel Pearson said. “If you had a mold of a type of kid, not only for Michigan hockey, but as a Michigan athlete, he’d be it.”
“First class,” equipment manager Ian Hume iterated.
“He was a class act,” said 1994 graduate and former teammate Brian Wiseman.
One hundred and five seconds.
It had been easy for some and harder for others, but Powers finally had an answer to the complex question.
It wasn’t surprising in the least bit — instead, it was expected.
“Classy,” Powers said. “That’s how I’d describe Brendan.”
People associated with the program realized the special character Morrison exhibited during his stay at Michigan.
His exceptional play and his off-ice demeanor commanded respect.
On March 30, 1996, following the Wolverines’ victory over Colorado College in the title game, fans at the Riverfront Coliseum were all witnesses to what Berenson and the Michigan coaching staff already knew for quite some time: This kid was special. Damn special. And he was unlike any player that had come through the program during Berenson's then-13-year career.
As if on cue, with the No. 1 label attached to him and his program, Morrison finally declared in front of everybody: “This is for all the (Michigan) guys who never had a chance to win it.”
He had just scored the game-winning goal — a wide-open shot on Tiger goaltender Ryan Bach and arguably one of the easiest of his career — to clinch Michigan’s eighth national championship.
And all he could think about was the past: the Wolverines’ failures in the NCAA Tournament, the overtime losses, the upsets.
Former Wolverines like Mike Knuble, David Harlock and Aaron Ward, who preceded Morrison and didn’t have the opportunity to win a national title — this was for them.
The program's 32-year championship drought was over, and Morrison knew who he had scored for.
“He put that moment — that was a special moment for him — but he had the wherewithal to acknowledge those people that fell a little short who came before him,” Wiseman said. “That says it all about the kind of guy he is.”
Even to this day, Morrison is in a class all by himself.
“He epitomizes the Michigan hockey program,” Berenson said. “If you met him, you would have thought he was a fourth-line player.”
Morrison had only witnessed a few hockey games, a gymnastics meet and the infamous Fab Five during his first recruiting trip to Ann Arbor.
He was “blown away by the atmosphere and the whole magnitude of Michigan.”
But that was all before he stepped into the office of legendary player and coach Red Berenson, the trendsetter in transitioning college players to the National Hockey League.
Needless to say, the extracurricular activities were an afterthought following the meeting with the former NHL Coach of the Year.
“I guess you could say I went through the ringer with him a little bit,” Morrison now jokes. “He doesn't beat around the bush at all. He tells you the way things are, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him because of that quality.”
While some coaches reverted to wining and dining potential recruits, Berenson flipped the equation, asking hopeful Wolverines what they could do for Michigan.
Once fall rolled around for the start of the 1993-1994 campaign, a boyish 18-year-old Morrison walked into the locker room. Berenson soon found out what the Pitt Meadows, British Columbia native was going to do for the program — and him.
Associate head coach Mel Pearson had seen similar body types as Morrison’s, who looked more like he should be entering high school rather than the storied University of Michigan hockey program.
“He had that look to him, he just looked so young,” Pearson said of Morrison. “He looked like he was 12 years old, and he shouldn’t be in college.”
Regardless of how he may not have been able to grow a modern prototypical-Matt Rust beard in a week, it was Morrison’s on-ice presence that really caught the attention of the Michigan coaching staff, as well as teammates such as then-senior Brian Wiseman.
“We were in awe in regards to his talent level coming in as a freshman,” Wiseman said of his first impressions of Morrison. “You knew he had something special that we were going to see at some point in time in his career.”
Wiseman and other seniors like goaltender Steve Shields were overwhelmed by the freshman's abilities. Morrison’s uncanny knack for locating teammates on the ice was a quality uncharacteristic of players so young in their Division-I career.
But everything Morrison accomplished was expected of him, even if he was only a freshman.
Morrison had a dynamic '92 campaign with the British Columbia Hockey League's Penticton Panthers, with whom he tallied 35 goals and 59 assists.
"He came in with a lot of accolades, and it wasn't too long before everybody knew that he was as good as advertised,” Hume said.
Michigan was fortunate that Morrison made the decision to eventually open an account in Ann Arbor.
Brendan Morrison would wait, wait and wait some more. He’d hold onto the puck for as long he could until finally pulling the trigger and making crisp cross-ice passes heading out of the zone.
But it wouldn’t be without raising coach Red Berenson’s blood pressure a few notches, as the 27-year coach jokes years later.
“We’d be on the bench. ‘Move it, move it,’ ” Berenson remembered. “And he would be holding it, and then he’d make a great play. Then you’d say, ‘Well, what a great play.’ In the meantime, he’d have you on the edge of your seat.”
Assistant coaches Mel Pearson and Billy Powers both said Morrison was arguably the smartest player they’ve seen come through the University’s program.
“When a game started, he had a magical way about him where he could make things happen on the ice,” Pearson said.
But the magic started long before Morrison even touched the ice.
It started in the locker room before the game, with the mental preparation and the visualization of what plays he was going to execute.
It began at a young age when Morrison started playing organized hockey in British Columbia, where he realized he had the natural-born instincts of knowing where to be on the ice at precisely the right time.
Like a movie director that pieces together frame after frame to complete a motion picture, Morrison slowed down the game to where it felt that he was the only one in control, eventually pressing the fast forward button to make an impossible play look routine.
“His hockey IQ was off the charts,” Muckalt said.
Yet just having superb vision on the ice wasn't going to amount to much without something more: the X-factor that some only dream of possessing.
While some kids faked it, Morrison lived it.
But according to former Lake Superior State coach and current Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson, without the will to compete, Morrison would have just been a good Division-I player.
Instead, Jackson called Morrison great — “as good a college player” he has seen during his 25 years behind the bench.
“There's a lot of kids out there who are pretty skilled, but he had the competitiveness and competitive drive to dominate a game,” Jackson added.
No one could testify more to that statement than captain Brian Wiseman, who could look across the Michigan hockey locker room and know that Morrison was there “for all the right reasons.”
The fear had been instilled in Morrison long before his arrival at Michigan.
The fear of letting down his teammates, coaching staff or University. The fear of performing at any level other than his best. The fear of failing.
To do so would be unacceptable in the player’s eyes. He cherished the opportunity to contribute to the success of the team and to help in any way possible.
Killing late penalties, scoring game-winning goals, you name it: Brendan Morrison was the “ultimate team player” in Berenson’s opinion.
16, 9 and 19
The chase was on in the team’s celebration of the ’96 championship.
The only question that remained was who was going to catch Morrison first.
As Morrison rounded the net to greet his teammates, he collided with defenseman Harold Schock, sending him to the ice in a whirlwind.
A few seconds later, Morrison was pounced on by two familiar faces following the biggest goal of his illustrious collegiate career.
Take a closer look at that picture — No. 19 Jason Botterill and No. 16 Bill Muckalt piled on top of Morrison — and the season behind it: 88 goals and 99 assists totaled among them. The following year, they outdid themselves, tallying 94 lamplighters and 119 assists.
“At that time, they might have been the best line in college hockey,” former Lake Superior State coach and current Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “They were that good.”
Sitting in his New Mexico office last week, Muckalt would still put his line during his sophomore and junior seasons up against any line in the country.
They were impressive. Scary good.
“They made it look so easy,” Berenson said. “You couldn’t stop them.”
The line had the sniper in Muckalt, the player who eventually hoisted the Wolverines on his back during the ’98 national title season following the graduations of Morrison and Botterill.
There was Botterill: the big power forward who could finish from in close and whose physical presence and leadership were integral pieces to the most dominant line during the Berenson era.
And finally, Morrison: the centerpiece of the line, the player who seemed to have eyes in the back of his head.
No, actually he did.
Muckalt, who played with Morrison for the better part of three years as a Wolverine, knew that firsthand.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to play with somebody who knew where you were at without even looking,” Muckalt said. “We didn’t even have to call for the puck. He always knew where the open ice was, and then as a player playing with him, you just had to go to those areas to get the puck.”
For more about Brendan Morrison and where he is today, read Fifteen years after Yost, Morrison still embodies Michigan hockey.