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Tragedy on Ice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his dream of being an NHL standout a distant memory, Stephane Morin made the most of his minor-league hockey career. He averaged more than a point a game every season and was an all-star in two leagues.

But pay in the minors had limitations. So despite being recognized as one of the top minor-league players in North America, Morin decided to take advantage of the high salaries that European teams were paying and play for the Berlin Capitals in the German League.

But before leaving his Montreal home in late August, Morin acted a little unusual. He made one last tour of his home.

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“He was really excited to play in Germany, but he cried like a baby before he left Quebec,” said his wife, Karen. “He walked around the house and looked into every room. It was kind of strange.”

It would be the last time Stephane Morin saw his home. On Oct. 6, during a game at Oberhausen, Germany, the former Long Beach Ice Dog center collapsed and died from cardiac failure shortly after scoring his third goal. He was 29.

Morin, who had played the previous two seasons for the Ice Dogs in the International Hockey League, had left the ice early in the second period complaining that he was feeling ill. Shortly afterward, he fell unconscious on the team’s bench. The game was stopped as doctors unsuccessfully tried to revive him.

An autopsy revealed that Morin had suffered an undetected heart attack several years earlier. It was also discovered that Morin had chronic bronchitis and his heart was larger than normal, conditions that had previously gone undetected.

Throughout his professional playing career--which began in 1989 with the Quebec Nordiques in the NHL--he had no history of poor health and was renowned for his conditioning.

“It’s been pretty tough, I’m not going to lie to you,” said Karen Morin, who along with the couple’s 2-year old son, Frederick, had moved to Germany in early September. “Every day is a new challenge. It’s been hard to deal with, but you just have to go deep inside to find strength every day.”

Morin’s parents have also struggled with his death. His mother, Louise, recently tried to talk about him over the phone but was still too distraught to go beyond the first question.

“It hurts too much. I don’t think I can do it right now,” was all she could say.

Morin was the Nordiques’ third pick (43rd overall) in the 1989 draft and as a rookie in 1990-91 had 40 points in 48 games. But he was soon the odd man out when the team decided to stick with other young forwards, including Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan.

Morin, who would play only 90 games with the Nordiques and Vancouver Canucks in parts of five seasons in the NHL, developed into an outstanding playmaking center in the American Hockey League and the IHL. In 1994, he left the AHL for the IHL’s Minnesota Moose and won the league’s scoring title with 114 points.

The Ice Dogs acquired him in a trade early in the 1996-97 season, and Morin helped Long Beach reach the Turner Cup finals and was an IHL MVP candidate with 82 points in 65 games.

“The team really took off when he came here,” said John Van Boxmeer, Long Beach general manager and coach. “He became the go-to guy, the guy who was front and center and said to the team, ‘Hey, follow me.’ ”

Morin sat out 55 games last season because of a broken right leg. But he returned for the final two regular-season games and the playoffs.

“Not too many people know that Stephane already had a deal to go over and play in Europe before he returned [from his broken leg],” said Dan Lambert, a former Nordique and Ice Dog teammate. “He was still not completely healthy, but he came back because he wanted to help the team win the [Turner] Cup. People had told him that he wouldn’t play again last season, but he wanted to prove them wrong. He really had nothing to gain and everything to lose if he re-injured himself.”

Morin was considered one of the IHL’s elite players and last season made $175,000, the highest salary of any player not under NHL contract, but he went to Germany for the opportunity to make a great deal more money.

His health was not an issue when he signed with Berlin. Although he was asthmatic, it was not acute and he passed a team physical before the the season.

If regular testing procedures in Berlin, or in North America, had been more stringent, perhaps Morin’s heart condition would have been diagnosed earlier. One recent study indicated deaths such as Morin’s could be prevented with a screening for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a birth defect involving heart-muscle enlargement and an overly vigorous heartbeat that can be fatal under extreme exertion.

When the New England Journal of Medicine screened 33,735 athletes younger than 35 for the condition from 1979-96 in Padua, Italy, it found 22 that had the condition.

If hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was discovered in the screening, an athlete was disqualified from participating in competitive sports. Of those found to have the condition, none died during the more than eight years of follow-up.

In Italy, screening for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is required by law for every athlete participating in competitive sports, but that is not the case in the United States or Canada, in part because of the high cost of electrocardiograms.

Many in the medical community suggest implementing such tests, but there appears to be no real movement in that direction. And there’s no way to be certain more extensive examinations would have detected Morin’s heart problems. Right now, his family and friends are simply trying to come to grips with their loss.

“He was really in love and happy that he met someone he felt so good with,” IHL forward Patrice Lefebvre, who grew up with Morin in Montreal, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “And he was so devoted to his baby. He was a great guy and it’s just a tragedy. . . . It makes you think. This is a guy who just loved to play hockey and be with people and, at a young age, he’s gone and is not with us any more. That really hurts.”

Karen Morin has sought professional advice about how to deal with her son regarding his father’s death. So far, she doesn’t think that it has hit him.

“He’s OK, but he asks at least 10 times a day, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ ” she said. “I’m sure that he understands what is going on better than we are giving him credit for. It’s been very, very tough.

“I’m just grateful that we got a chance to spend five weeks with him in Germany before he died. It was the greatest five weeks. He was amazing.”

In honor of Morin, the Ice Dogs are dedicating this season to him. The Berlin Capitals have donated all television earnings from his last game to his family, and plan to do the same with proceeds from a charity game.


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