Mark Morris: An Open Door
Accolades have been pouring in for Manchester Monarchs head coach Mark Morris, who on Wednesday, November 13 became the first coach to record 300 career wins at both the collegiate and professional level when the AHL-leading Monarchs dispatched the Norfolk Admirals, 3-1.
It’s not only the length of the 55-year-old’s run within the sport that’s remarkable – it’s that his 306 NCAA wins were all recorded at Clarkson University, and that his 303 AHL wins have all been recorded with Manchester, the Kings’ top affiliate. Save for an assistant coaching position at St. Lawrence shortly after his playing days were over, and a four year stretch in junior and high school hockey, and a one-year spell as a Vancouver Canucks coach, he has sustained a remarkable run of longevity without breaking his coaching stays up into multiple tiers, as the trajectory of hockey careers often dictates.
Clarkson strung together a run of 10 consecutive 20-win seasons under Morris’ stewardship, a period that allowed him to help shape the future NHL careers of players such as Erik Cole and Craig Conroy.
There’s also a recollection of Willie Mitchell from his days at Clarkson from 1997-99, one that might contrast with the approachable veteran-slash-foodie that serves as the elder statesman in the Kings’ room. At the time, Mitchell was coming off a season in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in which he recorded 227 penalty minutes over 64 games with the Melfort Mustangs.
“Willie was a strong-willed guy, very confident in his abilities. He had a quick temper, and when he arrived on his recruiting trip, he showed up with his fight tapes.”
Though it may sound obvious due to the nature of a head coaching position, Morris credits much of his success as a head coach to an open stream of communication between himself, the coaching staff, and the players. And there isn’t a stark difference between the way he communicated to college players and the way he offers an open door policy to members of the Monarchs.
“Truth be told, most of the guys that I coached at the collegiate level were older,” he noted.
“I think at every level, that’s the whole crux to being effective, is making sure you’re getting through to your players and have an open relationship with them so that they feel free to converse with you or your assistants, or however you choose to manage your club.”
Skill development and refining a player’s successful habits – a challenge for players coming out of junior or college hockey – are assets Morris has been able to further, according to one of his former players.
“I think Mark does a good job down there,” said Alec Martinez, who played for Morris through parts of three seasons from 2008-11.
“I think that the Kings in general, and Mark, relays that there is a lot of the American League skill development and working on the little things, because that’s what you learn pretty quickly, is that the good players in this league, the great players, they do the little things right all the time, so I think that’s one thing he’s good at.”
For Tyler Toffoli, there were some early growing pains as the then-20-year-old adjusted to the professional game during what eventually developed into a rookie of the year campaign in 2012-13.
“I just think he let me play my game, but at the same time he was hard on me. Definitely at the start of last season, I think it was a bit of a transition. I mean, I still did well, but at the same time obviously my ice time what I wanted it to be at the start of the season, which is normal for every first year pro. That was a little bit of a transition,” Toffoli said.
There exists a natural push and pull in coaching, one in which Morris is “constantly making adjustments to fit not only within the systems, but to design a game plan that’s going to work for that particular player,” as he put it.
“That’s what keeps coaching very challenging, is that there are so many different personalities and agendas you’re trying to balance as best you can.”
For Toffoli, there was that balance between the friendly, open door of communication, and the push to constantly challenge him to improve day-by-day.
“He definitely made me earn everything that I got – my ice time, my power play and penalty kill. He just made sure he was on me all the time, and it was just trying to get me better every day.”
“He tries to make everybody feel comfortable. He always has a really young team, and I think he has a core group of guys that have been there. I think the players definitely help out and are always there for each other if you need anything, but at the same time he’s always there to talk to. Obviously he’s got to be hard on everyone, so he kind of plays both sides.”
The level of success at which he has gotten through to his players is reflected by the number of former Monarchs – and Clarkson Golden Eagles – on NHL rosters. 13 different Kings, a number that includes Kyle Clifford, who played in seven playoff games with the Monarchs in 2010, along with Dwight King, Trevor Lewis, Jordan Nolan, Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov, Martin Jones, Jonathan Quick, Tanner Pearson, Linden Vey, Toffoli and Mitchell, were at one point coached by Morris. There are also the talented players that populate other NHL rosters that have used their own inherent ability, backed by Morris’ coaching and communication, that have found immense success at the highest level. Matt Moulson. Michael Cammalleri. Teddy Purcell.
“When you see where a young fellow started, and where he’s gotten to, it gives you a sense of validation for what we do here in the American League,” Morris said. “Obviously we take pride in watching all those payers, whether they’re in the Kings organization or other places. To play at that level is something really special. There are only so many jobs to go around, and to see them land one and keep it, and watch their careers go is very, very rewarding. I think once of the best things as a coach is to see former players that you might have had a hand in their development, watching them grow and do good things. It’s something that really makes me proud, and I know it does all the other guys that I’ve worked with, whether that’s (former Manchester assistant coach; current AHL-Bridgeport head coach) Scott Pellerin or (Manchester assistant coach) Freddie Meyer or (Manchester Director of Hockey Operations) Hubie McDonough.”
“We all love to see that. It’s those relationships that you build with them and watching their progress that really warms your heart.”