When Cam and Cooper Morris stepped onto the ice for the first time with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Neepawa Natives, it was a bit of homecoming for the American-born twins.
The Morris brothers come to Natives from Anchorage, Alaska, a 46-hour drive from the western Manitoba town of 4,600. So how was their first game in a Natives sweater a homecoming?
Their father, Keith, played in the MJHL for one season in 1988-89 with the Winnipeg South Blues, who are now the Blues. The Winnipeg product then ended up playing four years of NCAA hockey with the University of Alaska-Anchorage. He was selected 245th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 1990.
Keith played a few seasons in the now-defunct International Hockey League, and even had a brief stint with the Manitoba Moose in 1996-97, playing in four games and registering two assists.
The Morris twins were born in Ohio in 2002, but two years later Keith was offered an assistant coaching job at his alma mater and he was back in Alaska.
"We’re not following exactly in his footsteps, because we’re playing for the Natives, we’re following his footsteps by playing in the MJHL, it’s just surreal," Cooper, 17, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Cam and Cooper’s connection to the MJHL runs even deeper, as their grandfather, Dave Morris, owned the Blues up until their sale to 50 Below Sports+ and Entertainment Inc. in April, the group that brought the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice to Winnipeg.
Keith has known Neepawa’s current head coach and general manager Ken Pearson for "years," Cam said. Pearson took a liking to the twins and had them protected when he was the head coach and GM of the Winkler Flyers.
This summer, Pearson took the Neepawa job and wanted the Morris twins on his team so much that he traded for their rights.
"You know that you are wanted on that team, instead of being protected on one team if the coach moves and wants you to come with him, it obviously means that you’re going to be able to do something out there," Cooper said.
Pearson had them on his radar after seeing them at tournaments in Minnesota and Detroit.
"We had to travel everywhere being from Alaska," Cam said.
Hockey runs in the bloodline, Cam and Cooper’s younger brother, Carter, is nine and plays on two teams in Anchorage.
Coming to Neepawa from Anchorage, a city of nearly 300,000 people, has been a bit of an adjustment, but Cam and Cooper said they enjoy the change of pace.
"The community is awesome," Cam said. "I live just a few minutes from the rink, I drive the same road every day, I see the same people every day, everyone knows each other so that’s pretty awesome. The community is amazing, people are dedicated."
The Natives do a lot of work in the community. For instance, the team helped set up Christmas decorations at the personal care home in Neepawa on Tuesday. At the town’s Parade of Lights last Saturday, the team had its own float.
Cooper said it was a fun experience to see how many people showed up.
"It was super awesome," he said. "They also see our jerseys and they’ll come up to us and say, ‘Oh Cooper, we love watching you guys play.’ That’s just incredible."
When Cam and Cooper played for the Alaska U16 AAA Oilers of the North American Prospects League last season, they had parents and the odd scout come out and watch, but this year they have fans.
"Now we got people who support you in the community and it’s just awesome," Cooper said.
Small-town life is something Cam enjoys.
"We do volunteer work all the time, the whole place is just one big community, it’s perfect," he said. "Everyone knows each other, everyone helps each other, everyone pitches in, it’s pretty cool."
Cam even said he hasn’t noticed a big difference culturally between Canadians and Americans.
"Alaska and Canada aren’t too different, it’s cold," he said with a laugh.
The on-ice adjustment has also been a big task for the twins as they make the switch from the NAPHL to the MJHL.
"It’s fantastic, its faster, high-paced," said Cam, the five-foot-10 forward. "I’m not the biggest player but there’s a lot of big guys on the ice, powerful guys who know how to play the game. I feel pretty lucky to be able to get out there and be playing against some of them, it’s pretty cool."
Cam, the playmaker, racked up a NAPHL-best 22 assists and eight goals in 17 games last season. He also had a league-best 12 assists in 2017-18. So far this year in the MJHL he’s continuing his playmaking with one goal and five assists in 17 games.
Cooper, the bigger of the two, is a six-foot-one blue-liner. In 24 games this season, he has a pair of goals and six assists.
"The biggest adjustment on the ice has probably been the intensity," Cooper said. "Back in midgets, you’re playing everyone who’s 16-, 17-years-old and now you’re playing against 20-year-olds on the ice."
Cooper has been looking up to Natives 20-year-olds Benoit Mowbray and Bradley Marshall.
"Both of them have been doing this for four years, so much experience under them. It’s so interesting to see how they play the game differently from other rookies," he said.
"You can tell, they’re so confident with the puck and stuff like that, it’s really fun obviously because then you’re just going to get better yourself but definitely the intensity has gone up 10 times."
Of course, the adjustment to a new town and new team has been easier for Cam and Cooper because they can lean on each other.
"I’ve lived with the guy my whole life," Cam said. "He’s great, we’re twins obviously too so we might not look the same, but we’re literally the same person.
"It couldn’t be better, even just billeting with him again, the guy does everything for me, I do everything for him, it’s just great having him, especially being away from home to have a part of my family with me."
Cooper echoed his brother.
"Of course you’re going to make friends and life-long buddies — we’ve been told in juniors — but having someone you’ve known your entire life is awesome," he said.
Neepawa as a team has not had the greatest of seasons so far, sitting at the bottom of the MJHL with only four wins through 26 games. Cam said the Natives just need to find that extra gear to have success.
"A lot of teams might go out there and work one goal harder, I think that we just need to come out faster right away and stomp on their throats," Cam said.
"We’re both MJHL teams, we both had 20 players who deserve to be there and deserve to work hard on and off the ice. We need to not back down."
A lot of MJHL players have the opportunity to play NCAA hockey following their junior careers and the Morris twins could potentially continue to follow their father and play college hockey as well.
The Morris twins still have to graduate high school however, the brothers are seniors in high school and are taking courses online.
"NCAA hockey has always been that top goal, of course you got the NHL, which every kid dreams of but the biggest thing we’ve been told and just drilled into us is our education is the most important thing," Cooper said. "I think it would be good to play anywhere. College hockey is college hockey."
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