One & Done: Referee Dean Morton scored in the only NHL game he played
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One & Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
On the first day of the 1989 NHL season, Calgary and Detroit combined for 17 goals in a 10-7 barn-burner at the Saddledome, and when so many pucks find the net in a game, it can be hard to appreciate the significance of any single score.
For Dean Morton, his goal in the Red Wings’ season-opening loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Flames is one he’ll certainly never forget, if only because it’s the only one he scored and it came in his only game– making Morton one of three players in history to light the lamp in his only NHL appearance.
Now a veteran NHL referee, Morton was once a hard-hitting defenseman in the Detroit system. He never necessarily projected to be a star at the game’s highest level, but after delighting the Motor City faithful with his aggressive approach during the 1989 preseason — three years after being selected in the eighth round of the 1986 draft and months after helping the Adirondack Red Wings to a Calder Cup championship — he found himself on Jacques Demers’ bench on opening night.
"I wasn’t anything flashy as far as offensive abilities, for sure, but I was able to play a real tough style of hockey," Morton told FOX Sports in a phone interview last month. "I guess my big forte was that I could lay out the Scott Stevens-type hits regularly, and that’s what created the buzz. (Before that), I was in the mix but never talked about as far as cracking the main roster. I think I was more of a depth player with potential down the road."
Even so, Morton, who donned the No. 5 sweater later made famous by (and retired in honor of) Nicklas Lidstrom, didn’t figure he’d be part of the team’s game plan just because he happened to be in the arena.
"I was just surprised that I was on the rotation, period," Morton said. "I didn’t think I was going to get into the game. At that time, Borje Salming was recovering from an injury and so I managed to crack the six-defenseman roster to start the season. It was something where I could feel the momentum building up, and I was getting headlines in the paper for open-ice hits and creating mayhem. It kind of made their decision difficult to send me down when the fans were starting to take a shine to my style of play."
It didn’t take long after the puck dropped for things to get out of hand, as Detroit allowed three Calgary goals in a span of 3:12 midway through the first period. A short time later, Morton got his chance to cut into the deficit and didn’t waste it, scoring the Red Wings’ first goal of the season on a shot few probably expected him to take.
"I was playing with Lee Norwood and I was on the right side, and Marc Habscheid and (Steve) Yzerman were cycling the puck down in the right corner," Morton recalled. "There was a bunch of traffic in the slot, and eventually Habscheid passed it back after the cycle with Stevie and I managed to get a one-timer low. It went through probably three sets of legs, and I was more shocked than anything else (when it went in).
"All of a sudden it was 3-1, and it’s like, ‘Boom there you go.’ But you know things are going sideways when a slug like me scores a goal."
All of a sudden it was 3-1, and it’s like, ‘Boom there you go.’ But you know things are going sideways when a slug like me scores a goal.
In fact, Morton says he didn’t necessarily take the shot with the expectation that he might make it himself. His strategy throughout his playing days was to put the puck in a position for a teammate to possibly redirect it past the goaltender.
"I’m not an offensive guy," Morton said. "I always worked on the low shots and everything, but it was more so for guys to deflect them in. I learned my lesson hard in juniors when I let a couple go around chin-high, and some of the veterans let me know, ‘You better keep the damn puck low because we want to tip it, not eat it.’ "
Unfortunately, Morton didn’t have long to bask in his unlikely goal or add to his career points total. He stayed with the Red Wings for the remainder of their season-opening road trip but didn’t play in losses in Vancouver and Los Angeles. Then, before the team’s home opener against Winnipeg, Morton got the news that he was being sent to the AHL, where he would go on to score as many goals in 75 games for Adirondack that season as he did in one with Detroit.
Morton always anticipated he’d be called back up sooner or later but says his place within the organization later became unclear after the Wings fired Demers and moved Jim Devellano out of the GM role at the end of the season, which saw Detroit slide from first place to last in the Campbell Conference’s Norris Division. Ultimately, that call to return to the NHL never came.
… I might see a kid play his first game or see a kid score his first goal, and I can actually blow by him and say, ‘Hey kid, been there, done that, take your congratulations and get on with it.’
"There was so much upheaval going on, and they were spinning their wheels," Morton said. "The following season, Jacques got fired, they changed the whole routine, (new coach and GM) Bryan Murray came in and everything snowballed off of that.
"The depth chart system got thrown out the door after I got sent back down to the minors," he added. "I played a lot, but it was not filtered through to the coaching staff and to Jim and those guys. They were saying that I wasn’t playing and I didn’t dress, but I played in every game. It was just a combination of new people in and they had their own mindsets going forward."
After the 1989-90 season ended without a promotion, Morton went on to play three more seasons in the minor leagues, bouncing around among the American, International, East Coast and Colonial Hockey Leagues before retiring in 1993. Having to come to that decision was not easy, and calling it quits without ever getting another chance in the NHL was a reality Morton struggled with for some time.
"Years later, when I had the realization that I wasn’t going to be getting back into the NHL, I was kind of embarrassed," Morton said of his one-game, one-goal stint. "(When I got demoted) I thought I’d be OK. I got sent down, but it was, ‘This should be no problem. I’ve got a long career ahead in the NHL.’ You’re 21 and you think you’re invincible and that you’re going to get your shot."
It actually wasn’t until Morton began refereeing that he started to give himself more credit for what he accomplished in his brief NHL career.
After working his way through the minors, Morton began calling NHL games in 2000 — he took the ice 55 times this season before breaking a rib two inches from his spine during an in-game collision with David Clarkson in January — and in some ways, it took getting back to the big stage as an official to fully appreciate how tough it was to ever even get there as a player.
"I got into the American League, (refereeing) more and more games, and once I got there I started thinking, ‘Geez, 90 percent of these kids aren’t going to make the NHL,’ and that’s where it started coming back, that sense of pride," the 47-year-old Morton said.
"But it wasn’t until I was probably 30-something when I started realizing, ‘Hey, you know what? I did something pretty special,’ and I wasn’t hiding behind the fact that I only played one game. It took a long time to get over the fact that I only played one because, selfishly, I wanted to play more. Every player does."
And while refereeing wasn’t necessarily the career Morton dreamed of, it’s the one he was meant to have.
"I don’t work a day in my life because I love my job so much," Morton said. "I get the adrenaline rush the same as a player, you’re front and center. Yeah, you’re going to be booed, but it’s part of the nature of it. It’s not for everybody, but I might see a kid play his first game or see a kid score his first goal, and I can actually blow by him and say, ‘Hey kid, been there, done that, take your congratulations and get on with it.’
"You try to keep things light," Morton added. "Young guys don’t know any better, just like I didn’t when I scored mine."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.