Boys to Men

It's Friday. Only a few miles down the road, college kids and twentysomethings imbibe libations. They stand in line from Deep Ellum to Lower Greenville, waiting to shake their trunks in the ass-clubs, hoping for relief from everyday drudgery. House music plays. Shots are slugged. Digits are exchanged.

Brenden Morrow, though, is missing it all. He's here at Reunion Arena, dressed not in standard pretentious bar gear but in a white-and-green jersey, pads, helmet, and hockey skates. He's here, waiting not for a cute girl to catch his eye but for an ugly Coyotes defense man to put one out. He's waiting for Game 11 of 82 and a bout with Phoenix.

Any other life-path chosen, and Brenden Morrow would be out throwin' down with his contemporaries right now. He's 21, and won't turn 22 until after New Year's. "So what?" you say. You're numb to tales of youthful talent because high-school kids have long played in the pros, and the boys-playing-a-man's-game angle is simply yesterday's news. So what's the big deal about a 21-year-old?

But think about it. How many good kids are playing professionally? Remember, for every Andruw Jones there are five Leon Smiths. Beyond that, how many good kids are playing for good teams? Contributing on the second line of a Stanley Cup qualifier from jump is like nailing a supermodel--only a select few are so skilled and lucky.

Besides, what were you doing at his age? Whatever it was, rest assured you weren't doing it with the adeptness that Brenden Morrow practices his craft. And you didn't do it with the maturity he does, either.

That's what's so strange, because, at least last year, he didn't fit the mold. Not of a hockey player, anyway. His face looked suited for oatmeal commercials or a Leave it to Beaver recasting; it was the mug of a soft, impressionable kid. His eyes were easy and amiable. His frame was muscular but hardly appeared ready for a game that has left larger men crumpled on the ice. He was a boy. Talented, but a boy nonetheless.

He still is, but you'd never know it because of what he's become: a tough, physical player, always scrapping and elbowing in the corner; a poised presence, carrying himself equally well with his teammates and the media.

After the Coyotes game, which the Stars lost despite plenty of in-close scoring chances in the third period, Morrow entertains a host of scribes for an instant. Most of the players avoid the reporters, bypass the locker room because they're in no mood to chat. Not Morrow. He plays along, if only for a little while, but at least he plays.

"We had the chances, it's frustrating," he says, clearly upset. Even from a year ago, he looks different. Bigger, toned--although his media-guide listing of 5-foot-11, 210 pounds is generous. His face doesn't look naïve but rather worn. His chin has a bumblebee's color, black from fresh stitches, yellow from the anesthetic. His eyes are hard, tired. "We came off playing a few really good games. But we need to take advantage when we can."

From a second-year player, when no one else has it in them to bother, this amounts to a lot, shows he's taking his rightful place near the head of the class. Because just as on-ice aggression is important, so too is off-ice composure, particularly when the last thing you want to do is talk to some meddlesome writers about a disquieting loss.

Already he's developing, becoming a star--in Dallas, in the league. Look at the numbers, glance at the team stats. He's surrounded by familiar names. Guys who could just as easily be uncles as teammates. They are established, quality players.





They are all older, all have at least eight years on the left winger. Still, (as of Wednesday) there he was, tied for third on the team with nine points, just behind Hull and Modano. He's played in each game. He has a plus-minus of 6. His shot percentage of 23.5 is the best on the team.

Last season, when he was wide-eyed and feeling his way, he laid the foundation, scoring more goals--16 counting the playoffs--than any Stars rookie since that Modano fellow found the net 29 times. Was second among NHL rookies in hits, fourth in game-winning scores, 11th in points. That was then, that was impressive. Now look.

And yet he's barely able to booze. If not for the obvious ability, he might be studying for midterms somewhere, squirreled away in a library, chest-high in physics texts or Shakespeare or something equally vile.

But he's not. He's here. Doing damage with a hockey stick and an awe-shucks grin turned gritty. Despite his youth, despite what others his age are doing, here he is, at the top, leading with the big names.

Step into what the players call "the room" for a moment. Mixed among the exercise bikes and the dirty-laundry bin, hidden beneath the stench of a just-finished hockey game, is an air of respect. For proof, you need only look at where the organization has placed Morrow's locker. It sits next to Mike Modano, one over from Jamie Langenbrunner. This is no small feat for someone so young, to sit with the men instead of at the kiddie table. He's one of them, as much an integral part of the Dallas Stars and their hopes for the season as are the more etablished, older players.

Stay with me, here: He's only 21.

"I looked up at the board [in the third period]," he says tellingly, one shoulder wrapped tightly in an ice pack, talking with an authority usually reserved for vets, "and saw that we outshot [Phoenix.] But we lost. That can't happen."

He's here. Maybe he shouldn't be. Maybe he should be off with his contemporaries, living life and being stupid. Chasing skirts. Raising Hell. Drinking too much drink.

But he's not. The boy is here. And there are 22 other men who are the better for it.