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Don’t Tell Morin These Are Dog Days

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until this season, Stephane Morin of the Long Beach Ice Dogs had never experienced the excitement of postseason hockey beyond the first round.

So in the last six weeks, Morin, 28, has made the most of his first extended playoff experience, helping lead the Ice Dogs to their first Turner Cup finals.

With a team-high 18 points in 15 playoff games, Morin is a key reason Long Beach is in the best-of-seven International Hockey League series. Heading into tonight’s Game 4 at Long Beach Arena at 7, the Detroit Vipers lead, two games to one.

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“He’s our go-to guy and he loves being put in that position,” Long Beach Coach John Van Boxmeer said of Morin. “He is playing his best hockey of the season right now in the playoffs and he had a great regular season. But now, he’s playing even better because he has picked up his play defensively.”

One might think that Morin, who once was the 43rd pick in the NHL entry draft, would be disappointed to be playing his best hockey going for the Turner Cup and not the Stanley Cup. Not so, he says.

“I take a lot of pride in what I’m doing now because I had never really had a chance to go far in the playoffs,” said Morin, drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989. “This is something that I’ve always wanted to do. To me, the Turner Cup is the Stanley Cup.”

Morin has patterned his playing style after that of Wayne Gretzky, his favorite hockey player while growing up in Montreal. He is at his best when the puck is in his possession behind an opponent’s goal.

“He’s a guy who gets paid finding open players,” Van Boxmeer said. “That’s his game.”

Morin’s journey to Long Beach was an interesting one. As a 20-year-old rookie with the Nordiques, he had a productive season, 40 points in 48 games.

The next season, however, Morin was odd man out when Quebec decided to stick with other young forwards, Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan. Starting with a stint with Halifax of the American Hockey League, Morin struggled to move back up from the minors the next couple of seasons as he played 42 more NHL games with the Nordiques and the Vancouver Canucks.

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After finishing third in the AHL with 109 points while playing for Hamilton in 1993-94, Morin decided he needed more security and signed with the Minnesota Moose of the IHL. It turned out to be a career-changing decision.

“When I signed with Minnesota, I passed up a chance to go back with the Vancouver organization because it was a better situation for me,” Morin said. “I was tired of worrying about going up and down. I figured, if the NHL really wanted me they could come and still get me in the IHL.”

Morin won the IHL scoring title with 81 assists and 114 points in the 1994-95 season, then signed a three-year, $445,000 contract, making him one of the highest-paid players in the league.

With that deal came more pressure and last season Morin slumped to 78 points.

The team moved from the Twin Cities to Winnipeg and Morin continued to have problems scoring at the start of this season with the Manitoba Moose. After 12 games, Jean Perron, the team’s general manager and coach, traded Morin to Long Beach for center Wayne Strachan, who was later demoted to the lower minors.

“I’m not bitter with what happened to me over there,” Morin said. “It just was a bad situation. They thought that I was over the hill. I didn’t have any doubts that I could still play but I was getting frustrated. It was like everything I was doing wasn’t good enough. There was a lot of pressure.”

Morin might have been the fall guy in Winnipeg, but in Long Beach he has been the offensive leader Van Boxmeer and the Ice Dogs had been looking for.

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“I knew the guy could still play because just two years ago he led the league in scoring,” Van Boxmeer said. “He’s dangerous every time he steps on the ice. He draws people to him, he can find the open guy and get the puck to a teammate at the right time. He has given our offense a lot of confidence.”

In the first 30 games after the trade, Long Beach went 23-3-4 and became the dominant team in the Western Conference. Morin’s game quickly became a focal point as he led the Ice Dogs during the regular season with 63 assists and 91 points.

“When we got [Morin], he gave us a No. 1 center man,” said Ice Dog captain Dan Lambert, who played with Morin at Quebec and Halifax. “Since then, we’ve been playing unbelievably. He has given us more options and everyone plays so well together.”

With a season remaining on his contract, Morin is at peace with himself, playing and living in Long Beach after his short and controversial stay in Winnipeg.

“Everything is pretty stable for me now,” he said. “Things didn’t work out for me in [Winnipeg] but that happens. I’m happy here in Long Beach. I know that I’m not making millions, like they do in the NHL, but I’m making a decent living. Not a day goes by when I’m not thankful for the situation I’m in.

“We’re winning games like crazy and everyone around the locker room knows that it is not a fluke. We’re right where we want to be and the reason is [Van Boxmeer] and the coaching staff. They’ve given us a chance to win a championship by giving us all of the ingredients. Now it is up to us to go out and just play. Some teams have to overachieve to have success. Not us.”

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