It seems like just the other day the Dallas Stars were playing the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals, defending their championship run from the year before with a similar, yet slightly different roster. On that Western Conference leading team there was a young rookie forward who had seized the attention of Stars fans everywhere, and after an incredibly impressive regular season (14 goals, 19 assists in 64 games) he was given big minutes once the playoffs started.
At the time, Brenden Morrow was a scrappy forward who was focused on doing everything that no one else wanted to do. He would fight like an animal along the boards, he would crash the net harder than any other player on the team and there was no one more adept at scoring goals from the edge of the crease than Morrow was. That this young and brash forward was dating his linemate's daughter, and getting significant minutes on the third line, only added to his popularity.
Morrow was one of those rare players that made the jump directly from junior hockey to the NHL and it was through sheer will and determination that he etched out his place on that great Dallas Stars team. He would go on to be the rock on the Stars, the steadying force that led the team from those Stanley Cup days and through the tough years surrounding the lockout. He would -- a bit controversially -- be named captain of the team prior to the 2006 season. Since then, there have been ups and downs with Morrow at the helm, as he's struggled with several major injuries and has had the task of leading the Stars through several years of incredible disappointment.
All the while, he's never changed. He's had his own rough patches and his own struggles, but in the end he's still the player we all loved way back in 1999 when he was recklessly crashing the crease as a baby-faced 20-year old rookie...
Brenden Morrow is now the most-tenured player on the Dallas Stars. He's the final remnant of those championship days and while he wasn't with the Stars during the 1999 Cup Finals, his presence on this team still serves as a reminder of when the Stars were the best team in the NHL.
He's now in his 11th full season in the NHL and at the age of 31 is the fourth-oldest player on the team. For those of us that have been following the Stars since their very first days in Dallas, this fact is still a struggle to accept. Morrow is now the player the Stars are leaning on to not only lead them into a new future and through a tough rebuilding phase, but to be the face of a franchise that is now without one of the most popular American hockey players ever.
It's no coincidence that the Dallas Stars struggles of the past two seasons is also directly related to the struggles of the team's captain. While there has certainly been much more going wrong than just a couple of bad years by the captain, when a player like Morrow is struggling the rest of the team is going to have trouble overcoming the hardships of its true leader.
In 2008, Morrow struggled with the presence of Sean Avery in the locker room and it was apparent he was letting personal feeling affect his performance on and off the ice. While the Stars were struggling to live up to the high expectations set after a Western Conference Finals appearance, Morrow was leading the way with inconsistent attitudes and leadership on the ice. It wasn't all Avery's presence, yet it was apparent that nothing was quite right with the team's leader.
Once Morrow was injured on November 20, 2008 and lost for the season with a torn ACL, the season for the Stars was effectively over. Despite the early struggles of the Stars that first month of the season, there was no doubting after that night that the loss of Morrow's presence on the ice and in the locker would be felt for the remainder of the year. Morrow fought hard to get back to the ice to help his team make the playoffs but by the time he was near-healthy the season was already lost.
Last year, Morrow returned to the ice and declared himself fully healthy. Yet a summer of turmoil, coaching and front office changes cast a shadow over the franchise and Morrow was struggling with his own confidence. He was healthy and back on the ice but he was far from the player that Stars fans had grown to love years before. He no longer was aggressive along the boards or in front of the net and he appeared tentative at times when the game was on the line. Perhaps it was a combination of a new coach and lost confidence due to the knee injury but one thing was certain; the Dallas Stars could not win without Morrow at his finest.
This past summer, fans questioned Morrow's dedication to the team. He appeared to be much more motivated playing in the Olympics and some wondered if he had played tentatively for fear of being injured and missing his chance to represent Team Canada in Vancouver.
To his credit, Morrow publicly admitted that the 2008-09 season was far from his best effort. With the the Stars fighting to regain some level of relevancy in North Texas and in the NHL, he's said that he knows he has to be at his best and most consistent if this team is going to succeed and climb out of the darkest days this franchise has ever faced in Dallas. While the team has struggled with finances and ownership woes and the departure of a hockey icon, Morrow was come forward and rededicated himself to being the captain we knew he always was when he first started to wear the "C".
While it's just 10 games into the season, it's apparent that this is not the Brenden Morrow from the past two seasons. This is the Morrow that first took the city and the NHL by storm over a decade ago with his combination of power, skill and reckless aggression around the net. Morrow leads the team in goals (6) and is proving this season that he doesn't have to take penalties to be as effective as he was ten years ago.
This is the Brenden Morrow the Dallas Stars have desperately needed. He's once again showcasing his underrated scorer's ability and skills and is setting the tone for the rest of the Stars with his combination of physicality and smart defensive hockey. A week ago he was called out by his coach after a series of poor performances and he responded with perhaps his best all around game in over two years.
Morrow has never been the type of player to be open publicly; he doesn't criticize his teammates or his coaches to the media and he's never been one to give a fiery speech in the locker room. Instead, Morrow is the perfect lead-by-example player, the one who accepts the challenge of his coach and puts forth an effort that every player on the team can't help but do their best to emulate.
The Dallas Stars are not going to be the best team in the NHL this season. They won't be the worst, either. But they'll be right there in the mix and once the playoffs begin, anything can happen. With Brenden Morrow playing at the level he is to start the season, a level of play reminiscent of the young player that hit the ice in 1999, the Stars will always have a chance to beat any team in the NHL on any given night. He leads not through words but through his actions, putting himself out in front and doing whatever it takes to will his team to victory.
That's what a captain does.