Way back in October of 2004, the NHL found itself in the throws of a horrid situation. A lockout forced many NHL players to scatter to many continents, various leagues, and a handful of odd destinations (and subsequent sweaters with ads). To put it mildly, it was a disappointment for those that followed the game their entire lives — including a recently married man from Oklahoma named Neal.
As a resident of Oklahoma City, I was going to be fine. You see, the Central Hockey League was still plugging right along. The triple A OKC Blazers were putting together an entertaining team as they glided across the pre-Thunder ice in the Ford Center. There weren’t going to be any Marty Turco double pad stacks, Mike Modano soaring moves towards the net, or any Bill Guerin right wing lazers. Instead it proved to be another fisticuffs heavy, slow-paced, but rarely dull minor minor league hockey season. That was until Tyler Fleck, a fan favored Blazers defenseman, made a phone call.
Born five days apart in the small town of Carlyle, Saskatchewan, CHL All-Star defenseman, Tyler Fleck, and rising NHL star, Brenden Morrow, were life long pals. Same age, same town, same love of the sticks and pucks — both had careers that were vastly different but quickly become one in the early throws the Central Hockey League season of 2004. Fleck simply made a phone call. The brief conversation led to the OKC Blazers exercising their rights to have one roster spot (non-goaltender) given to an NHL player during the lockout. Morrow exercised his right to do so, and thus began an interesting twist to an already storied hockey history in Oklahoma. The twist would only last 19 games.
There’s no denying the impact an NHL player like Morrow would have on a lower tiered hockey team. We all knew it. Even the players knew it.
When the Daily Oklahoman (Bob Hersom) asked Fleck what Morrow had to offer the Blazers, he simply replied, “What wouldn’t he add to this team?” He continued, “He’s one of the top left wingers in all of hockey right now. He’s going to add a lot to our team. Besides his physical attributes, we’re going to learn a lot from him. He’s a step ahead. He’s a big leaguer. And he’s going to bring a wealth of everything to the table.”
And indeed Morrow was the greatest player in the then 13 year old history of the re-incarnated Blazers. 8-14-22 in 19 games is pretty solid. Throw away the scoring sheet because the eyes told you that Morrow was an infinitely better player in every facet of the game. The way he moved away from the puck. The way he cradled every pass. The strength on the puck. The dynamic trigger shot. The tenacity to play. He was simply the best player on the Blazers, and in the entire league. They even enshrined him forever in the form of a Blazers themed bobblehead.
And although his intentions were good, it was a short-lived honeymoon for Oklahoma City. Rumors of Morrow being somewhat disenchanted by the so-called minor league experience. And pummeled under its goon-like tendencies, the end was near. Signing on October 24th, Morrow would be granted a leave of absence less than two months later.
Of the experience, Blazers Head Coach Doug Sauter said, “Brenden did everything he was asked – and more – whether it was on the ice, off the ice, or on the bus. He truly is an athlete playing for the love of the game. Hockey comes first to Brenden. His teammates and the coaching staff will miss him. We are leaving the door open for a return.”
Likewise, Morrow sung the praises of the franchise and his time in OKC, “I was impressed with the operation of the CHL from top to bottom. There are many skilled and talented players in the league that have bright futures ahead of them. I consider myself lucky to play for a classy organization that respects my decision to prepare myself the potential of an NHL season.”
The season that Morrow was hoping would come to fruition never came. Neither did his return to the CHL.
It’s hard to find fault in the scenario for Morrow. He gets a chance to play with a good friend, where he’s the immediate star. He keeps himself in playing condition (although injury likely played a part in his quick escape). With a minute wage of $3000 per month, it was a far cry from his NHL dollar amounts — and he seemingly didn’t care. He came. He won. He entertained. He left. Like a great heavyweight fighter, he rang the knockout blow, then raced off into the sunset.
I’m grateful for the lockout of 2004 for one reason alone. Brenden Morrow. As silly as that statement sounds, it gave some poignancy to a stale CHL hockey club. One with which is now defunct and replaced with an incredible AHL replacement. But it was a sports moment for the OKC ages. One with which I still think fondly of.
The likelihood of a solid NHL player heading back to Oklahoma City seemed like a Dr. Seussian fairy tale until this summer. Now, there is a chance that players might entertain AHL playing time if they qualify. Yet I’ll always find a silver lining to the original lockout. Because it gave us one entertaining surprise, thanks to #10.