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How the influence of his father helped Josh Morrissey’s journey to stardom

“The Three Morrissey Boys.”

R. Thomas Morrissey would say this whenever he was with his two sons, Jake and Josh. Suggesting this was a rallying cry or even an allegory that it was “them against the world” would cheapen the sentiment. For Tom, this was a way to express how much he loved his sons and the time they spent together.

Just saying “the Three Morrissey Boys” brings back so many memories for Jake and Josh. Like those times they would spend hours together on the ice. Those days and nights shared shooting pucks in the garage. Especially that one day back in 2013 when the Winnipeg Jets made Josh a first-round draft pick, one who would eventually become one of the NHL’s top defensemen.

Here they were. The Three Morrissey Boys. Tom didn’t need to say it. He couldn’t say it. By this point, the cancer that ravaged Tom’s body took away his ability to speak. So the sons sat next to their dad in the hospice bed at Tom’s house. Jake held one hand while Josh held the other.

You can talk about loss and how to prepare for losing one of the most important people in your life, one who has shaped you. But nothing can actually prepare you for when it happens. On that summer day in August 2021, Jake and Josh went to their dad’s house in suburban Calgary. There was no script. There was just raw emotion. They were sad. They were scared. They were concerned.

Jake and Josh found the words. They thanked their father for everything he did for them. All Tom, who already had a previous bout with cancer, could do in that moment was squeeze their hands with all the strength he could muster while giving them a half smile.

That was the last time the Three Morrissey Boys were physically together. Tom died Aug. 8, 2021, the day before what would have been his 70th birthday, from glioblastoma.

“I think about him every day in one way or another,” Josh said. “There are days when you think about him more. This year, certainly, when it comes to hockey, that is probably what we talked about most. Whether it was calling him after games or talking to him about something cool going on or a play we saw another guy make in the league. Those are the times we would chat and I think about that. I miss having those conversations.”

But they are never apart.

“Getting named to the All-Star Game was amazing and emotional for me,” Josh said. “The first person I would have called to tell was my dad. He would have been very proud. Those kinds of situations are when I think about him the most for sure.”

People back home in Calgary will tell you. So will anyone who follows the Jets. Morrissey has always been this good of a player. He may not have had the bombastic offensive numbers of other defensemen until this season, but the talent has always been there.

The 28-year-old has been central to the Jets going from missing the playoffs last season to being in the fight for the postseason this year. He is on pace to finish with a career-high 76 points in 79 games. He can do everything that’s required to be a legitimate top-four defenseman in the contemporary game, which is why he is a serious contender for the Norris Trophy, the award for the NHL’s best defenseman.

While Morrissey is having the best season of his career, there is still a feeling that he is something of an unknown. He’s not Erik Karlsson, who has had more than a decade and two Norris Trophies to make his mark. He’s not Adam Fox or Cale Makar, both of whom left college early and won a Norris within their first three seasons in the league.

Exactly who is Josh Morrissey, beyond being a Norris challenger? He’s someone who cares about every detail, thinks about every decision and has a magnetism that makes people feel attached to him whether they have known him for months or years.

Maybe the most important thing to know about him? He’s his father’s child.

“People tell us now that we are both getting older, they look at Josh and I, and say, ‘You are mirror images of your dad,'” said Jake, who is currently seeking a master’s degree. “The way you move. The way you act.

“He instilled so many lessons in us that we were both molded in his image. Whether that was putting everyone else before yourself or dedicating yourself to any endeavor. Without doing that, neither of us would have turned into what we are today. Even though our dad is physically gone from this earth, his spirit lives through us.”

SHANE MARCHAND ENROLLED both of his sons in D-Rules, a hockey camp in Calgary that was created for defensemen. Marchand said the camp taught young defensemen the importance of footwork while providing tutelage on when they should lead the rush, how they should lead it, the intimate details of quarterbacking at even strength and on the power play.

These are all things one would expect a young defenseman to know given the way hockey has evolved. But this was more than a decade ago, when the premium on puck movers was quite different.

Tom Morrissey founded that camp with the belief that skilled puck-moving defensemen would be the future of the game. He loved coaching and teaching, and wanted to share what he taught his sons with other youths who wanted the same thing.

Marchand sees those skills every time he watches Josh Morrissey play and recalls the camp, which helped the development of Marchand’s son, Charlie, who played four seasons of Division I hockey at Bentley University. Josh said other campers went on to reach the NHL, such as Brendan and Kaiden Guhle.

“[Tom] thought there was a gap in hockey training with defensemen because a lot of it was focused on forwards and goalies,” Marchand said. “Josh was the focal point to start with, but it turned into a program that in the early years, it was an elite group he took and worked with. … Tom was so against [the old way defensemen were taught to play in the offensive zone] that he would tell them, ‘Come on. You are good, smart, young, have good feet and have good vision. Why not use it?'”

Parents play numerous roles beyond simply being mom and dad to their children. That applied to Tom too. He was a junior high and high school teacher. He was a coach who guided his high school basketball team to a provincial championship. Later on, he was a small business owner who became a financial planner.

All these professions reflected Tom’s love for being around people and helping them however he could. Jake and Josh still meet random people who tell them their dad was an important part of their lives.

“There were students who he taught 35 years earlier that came to the funeral that told us how much they loved him as a teacher,” Jake said. “There were hundreds of families that if even their kid was not the greatest player or had a chance to make it pro, our dad had the same amount of care with them. Not because he wanted to see them make it to the NHL, but he wanted them to be the best versions of themselves and to feel like they matter.”

Josh continues to hold dear the many lessons Tom taught the boys. Being a coach’s son showed him the value of always putting the team first. As the son of a teacher, Josh always tries to show a sense of gratitude for those willing to make him better. And when your dad is a financial planner and a small business owner, it means projecting a certain image. That’s why Josh tries to project himself in a way that balances being authentic and presentable.

The relationships he has fostered with Jets coach Rick Bowness and longtime winger Blake Wheeler are examples. Bowness is in his first year with the Jets, while Wheeler has been with the franchise for more than a decade, going back to when they were the Atlanta Thrashers.

Bowness knew quite a bit about Morrissey as a player, but admits he didn’t know Morrissey was this good until he saw him up close. Since then, Bowness has been adamant about what he wants for Morrissey.

Bowness began building a relationship with Morrissey this past summer, right after he was hired by the Jets. Bowness said he speaks with every player as much as he can to get to know them. That way, they can build a sense of trust.

From that trust, Bowness challenged Morrissey to be the sort of defenseman who can not only enter the Norris discussion, but win the award. Bowness believes Morrissey has that type of ability.

“What’s fun about the whole thing is he’s starting to realize how good he is,” Bowness said. “I don’t think that was there at the start of the year and that has grown over the course of the season. … With a player like Josh, you keep challenging him. When he has a tough night or a bad shift or a bad game, you challenge him. He’s a very proud individual and wants to be as good as he can be.”

That drive to be great goes beyond creating goals or stopping them. Bowness said Morrissey, who is an alternate captain, was part of a group of players who told their new coach they wanted to have more of a voice in the Jets’ dressing room.

Bowness recalled a 4-2 win the Jets had in late January against the St. Louis Blues. They were down 2-0 before Morrissey scored the first of his two goals in a run of four unanswered goals by Winnipeg. Morrissey also led all skaters with more than 27 minutes of ice time.

“He went out and won the game for us,” Bowness said. “He is doing his talking on the ice. He’s a very intelligent, articulate man and has a ton of respect and has his teammates’ attention.”

Bowness speaks about Morrissey in an emphatic tone. He doesn’t just say Morrissey is a good kid; he says it in a way that almost dares anyone to say something to the contrary.

Wheeler has the same passion. The difference is Bowness has known Morrissey for only about nine months, whereas Wheeler has been around Morrissey for several years. The way Wheeler speaks about Morrissey is similar to that of an older brother who has watched his younger sibling grow into an adult.

Wheeler said Morrissey initially made his mark with the Jets by being an extremely quiet rookie who always was very respectful of the veterans. What stood out to those older players was how Morrissey found a balance between wanting to learn from his teammates while figuring out how he needed to improve in order to help the team.

As for Morrissey’s ability? Wheeler said flashes of what Morrissey could become had always been there, which is what makes this season so rewarding.

“His skating is really elite,” Wheeler said. “There aren’t many guys who look like they are moseying along and are actually skating faster than everyone on the ice. He makes everything look so easy. I think that is the sign of an elite player, when you make the extraordinary look so ordinary.”

Over the course of a 15-minute interview, Wheeler repeatedly mentioned his eight-year age gap with Morrissey. Not in a way that’s negative, but in reflecting how he has seen Morrissey grow over time.

Even then, Morrissey and Wheeler still have so much in common. Their bond was built over Wheeler’s love of wine, and in short order, he got Morrissey to join the club. They go to nice dinners and talk about anything and everything over a few glasses of wine.

They confide in each other about what is going on in their lives. Wheeler says he’s confident he will remain close with Morrissey even after he retires. That’s what makes watching the rest of the world take notice of Morrissey feel so special for Wheeler.

That’s also what made it so hard to watch one of his best friends endure the loss of his father.

“You can tell when you meet someone, whenever you have these dads trips and parents come on the road, you get a sneak peak at where it all comes from,” Wheeler said. “Tom was certainly a great guy to have around. You could tell that they shared a pretty strong bond.”

WHEELER SAID IT is natural for fans to expect a player to perform at his best once it’s game time. He admitted everyone is that way, and he can be guilty of it himself whenever he watches the NFL.

But he added that it’s important for fans to consider the bigger picture too, that they don’t know what a player might be dealing with in their personal lives. Such as a parent who is dying.

“I don’t think words can describe what [Josh] went through,” Wheeler said. “As a friend and as someone who tries to look out for Josh’s best interests over the years, it was hard to watch him go through that. That’s something someone in their mid-20s should not have to go through, but he handled himself incredibly well and tried to not let it show.”

Glioblastoma, as defined by Mayo Clinic, is a form of cancer that starts as a growth of cells in the brain or spinal cord. The National Brain Tumor Society states the five-year survival rate for glioblastoma is less than 7%, while the average survival length is estimated to be eight months.

This was what Tom Morrissey, who everyone says was the “eternal optimist,” had developed.

Tom was three months into his treatment when the truncated 2020-21 season started. But with COVID-19 restrictions and the nature of a hectic NHL schedule, it was difficult for Josh to spend time in Calgary with his father and stay with the team. The NHL placing all the Canadian teams in one division at least made it easier for Morrissey to go back to Calgary, but hospital restrictions meant he could not really see his dad that much.

Josh got to see Tom on one of those trips back to Calgary. There was an understanding that his dad’s health was not going to get better.

That made the phone calls after Josh’s games that season even more valuable. It was more than just a way for father and son to connect. It was a way for Josh to be there for Tom on days when he could not physically be with him.

“Probably the most difficult game I had was the last game against Montreal, when we lost in the second round of the playoffs, because I knew we were facing elimination,” Josh said. “I basically knew there was a very high chance that if we lost that game, it would be the last game he could see me play.”

The Jets lost in overtime. Josh said he sat in his locker room stall after the game and just cried because he knew his father would never get a chance to see him play hockey again.

Before Tom died, he told Jake and Josh that he did not want them to dwell on his passing or to feel sorry for themselves. Tom wanted his sons to remember him and the fun times they had while living their lives without any regrets.

Hearing those words brought a renewed sense of optimism that continues to impact Josh to this day. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy playing in the NHL. He did, but to hear the person who was instrumental in his path tell him to concentrate on having fun made a difference.

Josh talks about Tom with reverence, even when he’s asked what might be a rather difficult question: Who is Josh Morrissey beyond being a hockey player?

Josh loves fashion. He has always enjoyed dressing well, and there is something he particularly appreciates about finding a great suit. He gets that from Tom, the financial planner who always wore a suit to work, which made Josh understand the value of looking the part.

Lately, Josh has been watching the TV series “Yellowstone.” OK, more accurately, he’s obsessed with it. He has watched the first series along with its prequels, “1883” and “1923.” He loves the shows because the scenery reminds him of those days in Alberta when he and Jake would go horseback riding with their dad.

The love he has for wine leads him to talk about how much he has learned and how he has no issue admitting he’s a bit of a nerd on the topic. He can talk about the process of making wine, the different soil conditions, sunlight, irrigation, the age of the wine, you name it.

Could this lead to Josh opening a winery and being a small business owner, like his dad?

Maybe, someday. But for now, the aim for Josh is simple. He wants to be the best player he can be, for himself, the Jets and those who have helped him arrive at this stage in his life. He wants to be a father someday, which is one reason he told Tom how much he appreciated everything he did for him.

“When I am a father one day, I will do the same for my kids,” Josh said. “That will be the thing I will take with me the most. I am my own person and I am a different personality, as is everyone else. But at the end of the day, his care and love for his sons and wanting them to have the best possible lives is what I admire most. I would like to definitely hope I can be that way for my kids one day.”

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