They were opponents he got very familiar with last season, from Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews to Elias Pettersson and those pesky Tkachuk brothers. And a steady diet of Canadian hockey superstars certainly took a toll.
For Josh Morrissey, however, his biggest battle wasn’t happening in the defensive zone, in Connor Hellebuyck’s crease, or while quarterbacking the Winnipeg Jets power play. It was far away from the rink, back home in Calgary, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop the inevitable.
His father was dying.
"There’s no doubt it was a challenge. I’m not going to lie," an emotional Morrissey told the Free Press this week of playing this past season, knowing time with his biggest fan was fleeting and a global pandemic combined with the strict rules governing his profession meant they had to largely stay apart.
Tragically, Tom Morrissey succumbed to a brief battle with brain cancer on Aug. 8, one day short of his 70th birthday. It has left a massive void in the heart of his vast network of family and friends.
In a normal hockey season, the well-respected Calgary investment adviser would have attended close to half of Winnipeg’s games, just as he’d done since Josh was selected in the first-round, 13th-overall, by the Jets in 2013. The little boy who first told him at the age of five he was going to make the NHL one day had, indeed, achieved his dream. And the proud papa, who had coached him in minor hockey for years, continued to be part of that journey.
But all of that changed due to COVID-19, and the stunning medical diagnosis last September.
"It was a few weeks after we got knocked out of the bubble (in Edmonton)," said Morrissey. "At that time COVID was really surging in Calgary, and Alberta, and everywhere. Because he was going through his chemo and radiation, he would definitely have been in the immunocompromised category."
"It was hard saying good–bye for the year. Usually he would come out to see us play often, and he wasn’t able to do that at all." – Josh Morrissey
Morrissey has never spoken publicly about this, but revealed the measures he took to try to keep his father safe. Rather than train with his usual group of Alberta-based pro players in the off-season, he opted to lay low. He turned his garage into a makeshift gym to work out, while also finding a unique way to safely hit the ice.
"I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could in the fall before we went back for the (2021) season, and I didn’t want to risk that element of the unknown with COVID," said Morrissey. "I actually skated on my own, a friend of mine has a barn just west of Calgary, he put an ice sheet in there with a plant. It’s about a half-size, or maybe the size of a defensive zone, so I would just go there on my own and skate for a couple of hours a day, then work out in my garage."
"Although I kind of felt like Rocky some days, it just wasn’t ideal and it made for sort of a tough off-season. But at the end of the day I did what I felt was best to protect my dad in that situation and be able to spend as much time with him as I could."
Unfortunately, things really became difficult on that front when it was time to report to Winnipeg for training camp just after Christmas, followed by a 56-game regular-season played entirely in empty rinks.
"It was hard saying good-bye for the year. Usually he would come out to see us play often, and he wasn’t able to do that at all," said Morrissey. "We tried to talk on the phone as much as we could. Obviously I knew what was going on at home and the battle he was going through. So I spent a lot of time on the phone with him, trying to make adjustments as we went along."
It was especially painful when the Jets made multiple trips to Calgary to take on the Flames, but health and safety protocols meant they couldn’t be together.
"It was a really difficult year that way. I’m very grateful that I was able to play the season, at some points there were doubts it would happen," said Morrissey. "I know from talking to him and a lot of our close friends and my brother and stuff, that would go watch the games with him (at his house), he never missed a shift or a second and it was really what got him through his treatment and his days. And then talking to me about it after. I’m grateful that I was able to do that for him."
Morrissey makes it clear he’s not using any of this an excuse for what he believes was a tough year, performance-wise, but how could it not impact his play?
"Although it’s never easy and was a difficult day, the turnout was amazing. So many kids he coached, and friends and colleague and old teammates from his sporting days. It was so nice to get that support, support from the hockey community as well. You realize there’s a lot of great people out there to support you and your family when you need it, and you want to do the same for them when they need it." – Josh Morrissey
"Obviously going through a pandemic is challenging enough for everyone. We’ve all dealt with various adaptations and changes to our lives," he said. "For me, I wish we could have went a little bit longer in the playoffs, but on the flipside I was glad I was able to come home and see him here and spend some quality time with him over the last couple months."
A memorial service was held last Sunday, which Morrissey said served as a touching reminder of how many people his father impacted.
"Although it’s never easy and was a difficult day, the turnout was amazing," he said. "So many kids he coached, and friends and colleague and old teammates from his sporting days. It was so nice to get that support, support from the hockey community as well. You realize there’s a lot of great people out there to support you and your family when you need it, and you want to do the same for them when they need it."
As he and his fiancé, Margot, get ready to head back to Winnipeg in the next few weeks to prepare for the coming season, Morrissey will be doing so with a heart that is both heavy, and full.
"That’s been one of the most rewarding aspects, even the last number of months prior to his passing. A lot of friends from childhood and early days, university days. You kind of forget as a kid that your parents lived a life of some length before you were around. Just hearing some of those stories and connecting with some of those people we hadn’t connected with in some time was pretty cool," said Morrissey.
"Certainly we miss him, but we look back on a lot of great memories."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.