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Hothead Morgan got his start on the ice
Scott Schoneck is a district sales manager for Frito-Lay Canada. He lives in Calgary. He sees to it that the Wal-Marts and Safeways across Alberta are supplied with the salty snacks they need. It’s a good job, and he does it well.
It wasn't long ago that he made his living on the ice. As a teenager, Schoneck played in Moose Jaw. At the end, Las Vegas. There were, of course, a couple stops in between.
Nyjer Morgan had a brief hockey career before turning his attention to baseball full-time.Regina Pats
He got into a fight with Nyjer Morgan.
“Some good memories,” Schoneck said with a chuckle over the phone on Friday. “Yeah, we had a little bit of a dance.”
Their tussle came Oct. 1, 1999, at the Regina Agridome. So says the HockeyFights.com entry from Morgan’s brief stay as a third- and fourth-line winger in the Western Hockey League.
Two fights, more than a decade apart. One in a hockey rink in Saskatchewan. One on a baseball field in South Florida.
Big surprise: The circumstances were quite similar.
“When you’re young and full of energy, you’re trying to make an impression on a team,” Schoneck said, recalling Morgan as a 19-year-old. “I think he was maybe taking a liberty of the game at one of our premier players. I wasn’t a fighter by any means, but I would drop the gloves to protect my team and my players.
“He was on the ice at the same time I was, and he did something I didn’t agree with.”
Somewhere, Gaby Sanchez is nodding his head.
Regina, Saskatchewan, is more than 2,500 miles from Sun Life Stadium, site of last week’s oft-replayed melee, of which Morgan was the provocateur. Peeved at a second purpose pitch — for a second alleged violation of unwritten rules — Morgan chucked aside his bat and charged at the much taller Volstad.
“With the size of the pitcher, I thought he might have been more cautious,” said St. Louis Blues defenseman Barret Jackman, when asked for a hockey analysis of Morgan’s approach. “The thing is, you have to make sure that you land that first one, if 25 guys are going to jump on your back that quickly.”
The final count was probably less than 25. But you get the idea: Chaos ensued. A gesturing Morgan later exited the field — amid howling boos — in a manner that would have made Tie Domi blush. Suspensions followed Friday, with Morgan getting eight games.
All this, after Morgan received a separate seven-game suspension for throwing a ball into the stands.
As if the poor Washington Nationals didn’t already have enough unfavorable news to deal with.
Before we go any further, let’s make something clear: Morgan wasn’t a dirty player, a malcontent or an off-the-ice troublemaker during his brief career with the Regina Pats.
“The funniest thing to me about all this is that people are saying his temper comes from his hockey background,” said Brent Parker, the Pats’ team president. “During his time here, you couldn’t have described him more differently. He was pleasant, always laughing, a real nice young man.
“He became an instant fan favorite up here.”
He skated. He wasn’t afraid of contact. He brought energy. But he didn’t show the “hockey sense” that Parker and team officials were looking for. So, Morgan was released. Now, though, he’s back in the Saskatchewan sports discussion.
“I watch the ball highlights every night,” said Parker, who played college baseball at Arkansas-Little Rock. “We had our intrasquad scrimmage last week, and a bunch of our scouts were going to get a bite to eat and a beer afterward. We have a scout (Chris Anderson) who played with him. He came right up to me and said, ‘Did you see the ball highlights? Wait until you see what Nyjer did.’ We were having a good chuckle, of course. Then the phone started ringing the next day.”
Schoneck (pronounced SHEN-ik) is following the Morgan developments from afar, with the right amount of amusement. The two haven’t spoken since the on-ice encounter 11 years ago. Nothing personal, though. It’s just that Morgan, a California native, didn’t stick around the WHL very long. Before long he had moved back to the States and traded skates for spikes.
Meanwhile, Schoneck’s career extended seven seasons after the fisticuffs, though he didn’t reach the NHL. And although he never played an inning of professional baseball, Schoneck has a unique understanding of what took place in Miami the other night.
“It’s the code; the sports code,” he said. “It goes across all of them — football, basketball, baseball, hockey. When you’re wronged, you need to make it right. You need to show what your team isn’t going to stand for.
“We’re all a family. You live together, travel together, look out for each other, and stick up for each other.”
So, how did Morgan violate the hockey “code” 11 years ago?
Well, Morgan’s Pats were hosting the Moose Jaw Warriors in an early-season game. The rivalry is apparently Saskatchewan’s answer to Michigan-Ohio State. “The towns are about 45 minutes apart — on any given night, the fans and players are fighting,” Schoneck said.
In that environment, an enthusiastic Morgan was hounding Jamie Lundmark deep in the Regina zone. A scrum for the puck developed. Schoneck, a defenseman, saw what he viewed as a cheap shot by Morgan.
“Elbows up,” Schoneck said, “and some stickwork involved afterward.”
A key detail here is that Lundmark was Moose Jaw’s best player — Hanley Ramirez on skates. He has gone on to play nearly 300 games in the NHL. So, Schoneck wasn’t pleased. And as an assistant captain, he was the on-ice sheriff.
So, much like the Marlins would do 11 years later, he set about teaching a lesson to Nyjer Morgan.
“It went on for two or three minutes,” Schoneck recalled. “I don’t want to say that I whooped him or he whooped me. It was probably a good fight. … For sure, there were some punches thrown on both sides.”
And that settled the score. One can only hope that is also the case for the Marlins and Nationals, who meet this weekend in Washington.
Schoneck didn’t hold a grudge. To him, the hit on Lundmark was a simple case of a newcomer trying to prove that he belonged in the rough-and-tumble WHL.
Schoneck understood what Morgan was trying to do. For two men who came to blows, that’s the highest form of sportsmanship.
“He was a guy trying to make the team, doing what he needed to do,” Schoneck said. “He was that type of role player – a hard-nosed guy who likes to muck it up. Those things follow you around. If you do that, you’re going to warrant that attention.”
Said Jackman, the well-known Blues defenseman who played with Morgan in Regina: “He was exactly the same type of hockey player as he is in baseball — kind of a sparkplug, quite the agitator. He skated like the wind and tried to create some havoc. … He fit in great (with the team). He had a little bit of a cocky attitude, but it was more of a playful type of cocky than arrogance.”
Amazing how little has changed in more than a decade, huh?
Yes, Morgan has reached the major leagues. He’s making very good money, over $400,000 this season. But even at age 30 — when he should be in his prime — he’s trying to establish himself as a reliable everyday center fielder. Morgan has blazing speed but is batting a career-low .257.
He’s never played for a winning team in the big leagues. He’s never appeared in more than 120 games in a major-league season.
But fight? Yes, he’s done that before.