Skating on Strange Terrain : NHL Hopeful Justin Morrison Wants to Set an Example for African American Kids


As a child in Los Angeles, Justin Morrison spent a lot of time on basketball courts. But after only his second time on skates, he knew his future was on ice.

One weekend when he was 10, Morrison went ice skating with his cousin and a friend. He liked it enough to go back the next weekend.

And after that second trip, he returned home with a surprising announcement. He told his parents he wanted to play hockey.


“We’re not hockey people, and we knew nothing about it,” said Karen Morrison, Justin’s mother. “We were kind of shocked at the time.”

Nine years later, that shock has turned to pride. Morrison, whose mother is white and father is African American, was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the third round of June’s NHL Entry Draft.

Playing the major team sport that is the least racially diverse, Morrison, 19, is hoping he can be a positive example for other African American kids.

“[Being African American] was one of the things that kept me going,” he said. “It’s a goal for me to make it [to the NHL] and set an example for [African American] kids to keep playing and follow a dream.”

Following his own dream has taken Morrison to many places the last 10 years.

Morrison turned to competitive hockey quickly.

Less than six months after putting on a pair of skates for the first time in Culver City, Morrison made it as an alternate on a local traveling team.


“Before tryouts, a lot of [parents] said he wouldn’t make it,” Karen Morrison said. “ ‘He hasn’t been playing long enough. He isn’t good enough,’ they said. But he made it that September.”

He spent the next seven years playing on various traveling teams in Anaheim and Los Angeles, taking him all over the country and Canada in seasons that lasted eight months.

From there, Morrison’s hockey career became more serious as he made the U.S. national under-17 team in 1996.

Then at 17, looking to improve his game and get a college scholarship, Morrison joined the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country. Juniors are designed to give players under 20 an opportunity to play better competition in an accelerated schedule in front of college and professional scouts.

Spending time between Omaha and high school in Los Angeles, Morrison scored 36 points in 62 games. After the season, Morrison returned to Southern California and graduated from the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school in West L.A., in June.

After a year of juniors, Morrison got a scholarship, to Colorado College, and it didn’t take long for him to make an impression there.

“He’s a tremendous skater,” said Colorado Coach Don Luccia. “Sometimes he’ll do things that will make [the coaching staff] say, ‘Wow where did that move come from?’ ”

Morrison scored only four goals and had 12 points in 36 games as a freshman for a 26-13-3 team last season. But his potential was enough for the Canucks to make him the 81st pick of the draft.

Morrison isn’t turning professional yet, though.

“I’ll probably stay in school for all four years,” said Morrison, who acknowledges he has a lot of work to do before he can play in the NHL. “But if [the Canucks] do make me an offer after my sophomore year, I’ll have a decision to make.”

That sophomore year is already under way, as Morrison is back at Colorado College preparing for the season opener Oct. 16.

With a few exceptions when he was younger, Morrison was the only African American on the ice while he played. And he occasionally heard racial slurs, though those stopped by the time he was about 13. But simply playing hockey made him stand out among his friends.

“My friends at home made fun of me,” Morrison said. “They just didn’t know about hockey. It made me feel unique, and knowing I was doing something different also helped keep me going.”

Playing hockey also helped keep him out of the trouble some of his friends got into.

“Hockey lessened the possibility of [getting into trouble],” Karen Morrison said. “He was so focused on hockey.

“And the kids he [played and] hung out with were a great group.”

Justin Morrison has lost touch with most of the kids in his neighborhood, with one exception.

Garrett Stafford, whom Morrison grew up with, went to high school with and played juniors with, is Morrison’s best friend today.

They are the same age, participate in hockey camps together, and Stafford is being recruited by Colorado College right now.

Stafford is also Morrison’s best competition.

“We play two or three times a week when we’re in town together,” Stafford said while he was staying in Los Angeles this summer. “It’s all in good fun, but we’re still competitive.”

That competitiveness never showed more than in a game two years ago, when Morrison’s Omaha team played Stafford’s Des Moines, Iowa, team.

Morrison had the puck in front of the net, ready to shoot. Then Stafford stepped in.

“He could’ve shot, but I held his stick,” Stafford said. “It was definitely a penalty, but [the referee] didn’t call it.

“[Morrison] was mad at first,” Stafford said. “Sometimes, he still talks about it.”

Now, however, it’s Morrison who has people talking about him.