WINNIPEG – The Josh Morrissey story begins in a familiar place: an outdoor rink in the western part of Calgary.
Those countless hours spent honing his craft culminated in his first NHL All-Star berth, as Morrissey is representing the Winnipeg Jets on the Central Division team along with goalie Connor Hellebuyck this weekend in Sunrise, Fla.
“I fell in love with the game playing on the backyard rink,” Morrissey recalled in a one-on-one conversation earlier this week. “We had a big space in the backyard and, I don’t know, my first year of ‘organized’ hockey, I was five. ‘Organized,’ in quotations. That year, we had an outdoor rink and my mom wasn’t working at the time. It’s kind of funny because she never played hockey, never skated, other than what a normal Canadian kid does, I guess.
“After school and stuff like that, I would be out there with my mom. She got all the gear so she could come out, so we could pass (the puck) around. When my dad came home, he would come out, and my mom would go in and warm up. It wasn’t her first passion to be out there, but those times on the outdoor rink were the best. We got a hockey net for Christmas. Waking up and going out there and seeing that on the ice, those were sort of the most fun, enjoyable memories where I just got that real love for the game, and it just kind of grew from there.”
That growth is undeniable, fostered by hours of shooting in the basement on his younger brother, Jake.
“I don’t know how he still loved to play goal,” the Jets defenceman said. “We would go in the basement and play ball hockey and my mom would always tell stories that almost on cue, every five minutes, Jake would run up the stairs crying because his older brother shot it too hard. I would be (responding with) ‘I won’t raise it again,‘ and five minutes later, the same thing would happen.
“Once the tears were gone each time, he would put the scrambled gear that was laying all over the stairs back on and get back into the net. We had a lot of fun with that. Well, I had a lot of fun with that – and I think he did too because he kept coming back. Those were great memories.”
A conversation with Jake over the phone confirmed that, indeed, those were fun times for him as well.
“I remember there were a lot of tears on my end,” Jake conceded. “As a younger brother, I always looked up to him and always wanted to be involved in whatever he was doing. If that was hockey in the basement, that generally meant me strapping on the pads. As we got a little older, we started to get on the ice and my dad would be out coaching with Josh, and I would often be the goalie in the net. A lot of the times, as a defenceman, they’re working on one-timers or that type of thing and I would be standing in there and wearing a few off the face or whatever I needed to do. I know it probably was appreciated by Josh, so that was something I never thought twice about.
“Our father put together our own little piece of ice. That was where some core memories, if you will, were made when we had the whole family together. That was definitely something we all cherish, now especially, given the circumstances.”
Another cherished family memory occurred in 2015, when the Kelowna Rockets captured the Western Hockey League championship after Josh Morrissey and Leon Draisaitl were acquired in a blockbuster deal with the Prince Albert Raiders. Josh joined Jake, who was a goalie for the Rockets.
“With the two-year age gap, we had never played together once. The fact we got to play together there and win a championship together was just fantastic,” said Josh. “There are some great photos of us in the games we played. He got injured and missed a bunch of time and that set him back, but we did play four or five or six games together, and he backed up a lot. We were road roommates. All of that stuff was a blast.”
“I always laugh that my jersey just said Morrissey and his said J. Morrissey because I was there first. I was the first Morrissey and he had to take the backseat on that one,” added Jake. “Of course, not everyone gets the chance to make it to the NHL. I don’t have any regrets that I didn’t, but a big part of the reason I don’t have any regrets is that I was fortunate enough to have that experience. If I look back at my career now, I can always say that I won a Western Hockey League championship with my brother.
“We had our parents in the stands and we had friends and family there watching. Looking back, you’ve got cool photos and memories to share. It’s cool that the first chance we ever formally got to play together culminated in that. I’d like to think I had somewhat of a role, but certainly Josh was a bigger part of it. Regardless of that, it’s something that we both will hold onto forever. It was a ton of fun and I won’t forget it for as long as I live.”
Those memories were especially important when the Morrisseys lost their father, Tom, to cancer in August 2021, one day shy of his 70th birthday.
“My passion for the game certainly stems from the time on the outdoor rink. But at the time, for my dad and I, that was our thing. Basically, our entire relationship that I remember, that was the No. 1 bonding point and element there,” said Josh. “Back then, you couldn’t get all of the games on TV. I feel like I’m talking about the times with black and white TVs. But with blacked-out games and stuff like that, we’d go down into the basement – which was undeveloped – and play ball hockey and have the radio on, listening to the Flames game.
“Peter Maher with the call (on the radio), Jarome (Iginla) and all of those guys, I lived and died by every game. My dad and I would be down there with my brother, playing ball hockey, playing table hockey. We had one of those for a couple years. I couldn’t get enough. We had a few chances to go to games every year and that was me in all my glory. I couldn’t get enough and I still can’t get enough. Those times with my dad and my family where you’re just playing, that was the best.”
That insatiable desire to grow his own game has fuelled Morrissey throughout his career.
When the announcement was made that Morrissey had been chosen to participate in the NHL All-Star weekend, it was emotional for him – and he couldn’t help but think of numerous conversations when Tom expressed his belief that his son could one day be an All-Star.
“Like I said in the media availability a couple of weeks ago, coming from a couple of tough seasons to kind of a bounce-back year last year and then just looking forward to being on the up-and-up and just trying to keep going, it’s probably more rewarding for that reason, given there are bumps in the road,” said Josh, who was chosen 13th overall by the Jets in the 2013 NHL Draft. “I’m in my seventh year and it’s my first All-Star Game.”
The Morrissey contingent in Florida this weekend is a strong one, with around 10 people taking in the festivities, including his wife Margot, mother Bev Jarvis, brother Jake and a number of close friends.
The plan is simply to soak in everything that’s on the docket and to relish the time spent with friends and family.
Like any first-time All-Star, Morrissey is looking forward to spending time reconnecting with old teammates and making connections with peers and guys he’s been watching for years.
“For one, Sid. He’s been a superstar for a long time and I remember being a little kid (watching him). When he came into the league at 18, I was 10 years old. There was nobody bigger than Sidney Crosby,” said Morrissey. “Obviously, it would be cool to brush shoulders with Erik Karlsson. He’s a guy I really loved watching play and I still love watching him play. When he was really getting going in Ottawa and just starting taking over – in 2013, ’14 and ’15 – in those years, I watched a ton of him when I was in junior and tried to learn a lot from him. He’d be another guy.
“There are so many guys, and I’m sure there will be some guys who surprise you. Obviously, everyone there is a very good player, but when you’re up close to them, you’ll appreciate how good every guy is, with their individual unique talents. It’s still kind of surreal for me. I’m kind of nervous in some ways and excited, but at the end of the day, it’s a huge honour. I’m just going to try to enjoy it.”
It’s also a well-deserved honour, as Morrissey has already delivered career-bests in assists and points, and is well on his way to chasing down former defence partner Dustin Byfuglien for the franchise record for points (56) recorded by a blueliner.
Morrissey, who has 11 goals and 53 points, enters Game 53 after the break just six points behind that number, and he’s on pace for a season that includes 80-plus points, without sacrificing his play without the puck in the defensive zone.
An important conversation took place this summer between Morrissey and new Jets head coach Rick Bowness, one that gave Morrissey the green light to get more involved in the attack and allowed him to unlock some of the offensive potential he’s shown at every level.
“I hung up the phone and thought, ‘Wow.’ That’s a pretty awesome feeling. An empowering feeling,” said Morrissey. “That this coach thinks this highly of me. I always felt like I could play in the NHL, but until you do it, you don’t know. I always felt that I had more levels to my game, but until you do it or you’re encouraged to do it, you don’t know if that’s going to happen. No one had really ever encouraged me before to that level. Some of it is the path for my career that I’ve had. That was the right time and I felt that maybe I was ready to do that. Some of it is timing, but to have him say that, I wanted to go run through a wall. You’re so excited. That was in early July, and it really motivated me throughout the rest of the summer.
“Everyone’s career is different. Where I’m at now, there are plenty of things that I’m working on and trying to get better, that I need to get better at. Because I was a smaller guy who was good offensively, the stereotype was that I wasn’t a good defender. Did I have a lot to work on offensively and defensively to play in the NHL? Yes, but I had always taken pride in that. Even now this year, I want to continue to defend well.
“(Bowness) and I talk about that all the time. To not give up anything at that end to be more offensive and to be an all-around player. There are still lots of things on the defensive side and offensive side that I’m working on. But it’s been an exciting time to take those next steps and actually to see it happen. You never know it until you do it and you see if it comes to fruition. That encouragement from Bones pushed me out of my comfort zone. As a person, I’m not necessarily the guy that jumps in with both feet. I kind of figure it out first and then kind of build. So, to have that encouragement to jump in and do this because you have this ability, that was a huge confidence boost and it encouraged me to take that jump forward.”
Much of the discussion this season about Morrissey revolves around the offensive explosion, but longtime friend and teammate Eric Comrie isn’t among those surprised to see it happening.
“I’ve seen it my whole life, when he was 12, 13, 14, 15. Every single day, I saw the ability and I saw how much talent he had,” said Comrie, who now tends goal for the Buffalo Sabres. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is going to be one of the best players in the league.’ I always knew he was going to be that good because he always was that good. I think he’s getting a little more leeway this year, a little more freedom, and you really see him taking advantage of that. He’s loving the new system here, he’s loving the guys he’s playing with and he’s playing great. Talking to him, he’s having a lot of fun and he’s enjoying it.
“He’s such a good skater, he sees the ice so well, he’s got a great shot. He’s really got everything. He’s one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen in hockey, so it’s pretty to watch him on the ice.”
That’s saying something, considering Comrie played on the 2015 Canadian world junior team with Morrissey and Connor McDavid.
Nobody is as explosive as the Edmonton Oilers captain, especially when the puck is on his stick, but that Comrie holds Morrissey’s skating in such high regard should provide a bit of context.
Morrissey’s edgework and ability to both join the rush and get going the other way after being involved offensively is a thing of beauty.
As for the offensive explosion this season, Comrie isn’t the least bit surprised. Morrissey has produced at every level and this outburst is reminiscent of those days back in the WHL.
“He’s the same exact person. The same humble and friendly person,” said Comrie. “He worked hard and just loved the game of hockey. You see him on the ice now. He’s such a good skater, so fluid and he’s got such a good shot. He’s a great leader as well, a fantastic leader.
“His commitment to the game is unbelievable, just how much he loves the game. He’s watching video, he’s breaking down film. That’s the kind of commitment level it takes to be that good and to improve that much. I’m so happy for him and I’m excited to see where his game is going to go even more.”
Morrissey came out of junior as an offensive guy who grew into a shutdown guy and has come full circle as one of the top all-around defencemen in the NHL, third in the league in points among defenceman, and right in the thick of the Norris Trophy conversation with the likes of Erik Karlsson of the San Jose Sharks and Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres, among others.
“He was always good at that. He was always a really good defensive defenceman,” said Comrie. “His offensive side was so good that everyone thought he was an offensive defenceman. That was never him. He was a two-way guy who excelled offensively but was also great defensively. That’s just how good a player he is. He sees the game so well, and when you can skate like he can skate, you can do everything on the ice. It’s impressive.”
During his time with the Sharks and Washington Capitals, Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon was paired with the likes of Karlsson, Brent Burns and John Carlson, so he has a pretty good idea of what Norris Trophy-level play looks like. And he believes Morrissey belongs right in the heart of the conversation this season.
“He’s a well-rounded guy. He’s a guy who is out there in the last minute when we are trying to score a goal and he can be out there at the same time when we are trying to defend a lead,” said Dillon. “For most nights, he’s playing against one of the top two lines on the other team and, at the same time, he’s finding a way to contribute offensively doing that.
“First and foremost, he takes a lot of pride in his game. He’s always trying to work to get better and that says something when you’re in your seventh year in the league and it’s his best year. Whether that’s practice or pregame skates, he’s always working at his game. It says a lot about his character and a lot about him as a player. Seeing a guy like (Morrissey) have the kind of year he’s having, he’s definitely up there with those guys, for sure.”
The last word goes to Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, who had Morrissey as part of Team Canada at the 2017 world championships in Cologne, Germany.
“I love that kid. He was a great guy to have around. It was awesome for us,” Cooper said during a recent visit to Winnipeg. “He has taken on a lot of responsibility on this team and kind of become the big leader on the back end. There’s probably a guy that has gone unnoticed in the league. If he was ever available, there would be 31 other teams chomping at the bit to get him.
“Kind of a complete player who does it all in different ways. I’m a big fan of Josh.”