Farm, family strengthen Penguins' top pick
ST. PAUL, Minn. — If Norman Rockwell had been born in Canada, he'd have invested canvas after canvas painting scenes from the lives of common people like Joe Morrow.
Grew up on a farm.
Frozen pond out back.
Hockey all through the family.
And, as the story progresses, the young man dons a suit, heads to the big city and hears his name called at the NHL Entry Draft, just as Morrow, an 18-year-old defenseman from Canada's Western Hockey League, did Friday night when the Penguins chose him in the first round, 23rd overall.
It's the Canadian dream.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that," said David Morrow, Joe's father. "We've got a little of all of that."
The Morrows' 40-acre family farm is in Sherwood Park, Alberta, east of Edmonton and surrounded by "trees, wild animals and snow," as David Morrow put it. The farm once had cattle, but all that grows there now is hockey talent. That is largely because of a nearby lake that freezes over for months at a time.
As children, Morrow, older brother Josh and friends would go to the lake, shovel off the loose snow, replace their boots with blades, plant the boots 6 feet apart on the ice to simulate nets, then skate until sunset.
"That little lake helped a lot," Joe Morrow said.
Josh Morrow, now 28, was drafted by Nashville in 2002, when current Penguins general manager Ray Shero was the Predators' assistant GM and was highly influential in the pick. But Josh Morrow was forced to retire while in junior hockey because of a shoulder surgery that went awry.
Dave Morrow was drafted, too, in 1973 by Vancouver and went on to play 10 games in the old World Hockey Association.
"Josh was a phenomenal skater, and Joe is becoming that," Dave Morrow said. "He's got a very powerful stride."
Is it the bloodlines?
"Coming from a hockey family, you've got pretty good genetics behind you," Joe Morrow said. "Plus, you're always around hockey."
"I'd say it's hard work," the father said. "Nothing in this life comes easy."
That includes Joe Morrow's powerful shot, the trait that Penguins scouts liked most.
"If you ask me, that shot came from all the shoveling of the snow the kids used to have to do on that lake," Dave Morrow said. "Makes the wrists strong."
Joe Morrow doesn't exactly blush when the topic is raised.
"I shoot the puck pretty hard," he said with a grin.
Morrow had nine goals and 40 assists in 60 games this past season for Portland of the WHL, as well as 67 penalty minutes. He does not have great size, at 6-foot, 200 pounds, but he impressed the Penguins enough that Shero dubbed him a two-way defenseman unlike any in a system already rich at the position.
"We feel as though he's pretty much the complete package," said Randy Sexton, the Penguins scout who saw Morrow the most. "We had him rated very high. He has the skating, skill and overall game to be a very good NHL defenseman."
And atop that list, Sexton added, "You just can't underestimate what a hard shot he has."
Mike Johnston, head coach and GM in Portland, laughed when recalling a game in which Morrow rushed up ice and ripped a puck past Kelowna's goaltender with such force that it was in and out of the net before there was a reaction.
"It's a booming shot," Johnston said. "He's not a big, big guy, but he overpowers guys, and that includes the shot. Our players call it farmer's strength. Other guys can work out forever and never get that strong."
Morrow has room to improve defensively, scouts agree, but most of that is merely positional.
"He's a puck-moving D-man, and he just needs experience in making the right play," Johnston said. "And really, he's perfect for the system Dan Bylsma plays. He really likes to jump into the offense."
"Pittsburgh's got phenomenal forwards, and I'm going to do my best to get them the puck," Joe Morrow said. "Hopefully, I'll get to be a more well-rounded defenseman and be more consistent, more aggressive in my own end."
The Penguins apparently made quite the impression on the Morrow family as well, inviting David, wife Dorrie and the children up to their suite after the first round Friday.
"They're a true family," David Morrow said. "That's where we come from. We're country folk. Family's No. 1."
"Family comes first," Joe Morrow echoed, "and hockey comes second."