In the eight years since the Texas Stars took over for the Austin Ice Bats as the lone professional hockey team in central Texas, the franchise has had four head coaches, three uniform changes and won two Western Conference championships.
But there’s one constant, No. 23 leaning in at center ice.
Travis Morin is the last remaining original Star and has played in every season since the team’s inception in 2009. Including this season, Morin has suited up 426 times for the American Hockey League franchise and holds the Texas career records for goals, assists and points. On Nov. 11, Morin tallied two goals and a helper powering the Stars to a 5-3 victory over the San Jose Barracuda, providing the Stars’ captain with 600 career professional points. Saturday at Manitoba, Morin notched his 400th professional assist.
“It’s something I never expected,” Morin said. “It’s [his milestone] very humbling and at the same time it’s pretty cool to be able to say you scored that many points.”
Morin, 32, patrols the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park with a 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame accompanied with a scruffy beard, and curly hair sticking out of his white helmet straps. In the locker room, he still wears the same flexible black cap the players were given in 2009, now perfectly formed to his head, with the original Stars logo on the left side just above the brim.
“Mo is the face of the organization,” said Derek Laxdal, the head coach of the Stars since 2014. “He’s a real laid back guy off the ice and does his own thing. He’s like the dressing room cat. But when that puck drops he’s a competitor.”
Morin was born in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, an area littered with hockey culture, and some of the most talented prospects in the United States. However, the forward wasn’t considered one of them. He made his varsity high school team as a sophomore and led the Osseo Orioles to their first and only Northwest Suburban Conference Title. After the season in which Morin racked up 66 points, becoming the school’s all-time leader, the Minneapolis Star Tribune named him the Metro Player of the Year and one of nine “Mr. Hockey” finalists, a prestigious honor in Minnesota.
Those awards did enough to earn Morin a place to play college hockey with the Minnesota State University-Mankato Mavericks where he skated alongside David Backes, a future NHL All-Star for the St. Louis Blues and a 2010 Olympic Silver Medalist for the United States.
Although he was never a highly-touted prospect, in 2004, after his freshman campaign, the Washington Capitals drafted Morin in the with the 263rd overall pick in the 9th round of the NHL Draft. Only 291 players were drafted.
“I hadn’t thought about playing professionally before that,” the AHL All-Star said. “I was worried about getting a degree. I got drafted and figured well I guess I could try playing professionally and see how that goes. A lot of kids in Minnesota dream about playing in the NHL, but I never really thought it would happen.”
After his senior season with the Mavericks, Morin was assigned to the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL, two leagues away from the NHL.
In 2015, out of 690 players in the NHL on opening night, only 74 of them had ever played in the ECHL, making the odds slim that someone beginning his career in the ECHL will ever see the ice at the top level of hockey.
Morin spent two seasons in South Carolina, making the all-star game both seasons, and helped the Stingrays win the Kelly Cup in 2009. But he was only called up for five total games in the AHL and didn’t score a goal with the Hershey Bears.
“After playing pretty well and not getting much of a chance, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to make it in the AHL,” Morin said. “Texas gave me my shot.”
Current Dallas Stars director of hockey operations and Texas Stars general manager Scott White took a chance on Morin, who led the ECHL in scoring that year. White convinced him to leave South Carolina, and come to Cedar Park on an Amateur Tryout Agreement for 25 games.
“That was a crazy time for me,” said Morin, who had his first boy Andrew that year. “We (he and his wife Lindsey) spent a month in a hotel room with a newborn baby with our luggage stuffed in the corner.”
That season Morin scored 52 points, which ranked second on the team, in 80 regular season games. He added 16 in 24 playoff games, tied for second on the roster only to a late season call up: future Art Ross Trophy Award Winner Jamie Benn. Texas lost in six games in the Calder Cup finals to Hershey, the AHL team Morin spent his five games with before the Stars.
After signing a one-year deal in the offseason, and notching nearly a point per game pace in 2010-11, he got the call. Morin made his NHL debut in a 3-1 Dallas win against the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 26, 2011.
“It was a lifelong goal to accomplish and it’s not a thing a lot of people can stay,” Morin said. “But you always wish you had more.”
He lasted three games and didn’t register a point before being reassigned to Texas. He would receive two more call ups back to the NHL, totaling 10 games during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. He tallied his only NHL point on an assist to Erik Cole on March 14, 2014, against the Calgary Flames.
“When you score down here and go up there and don’t score, it’s tough,” said Laxdal, who spent portions of six seasons in the NHL during his playing career. “Mo’s attributes are offense, he’s OK defensively. But he’s got some deficiencies and in the NHL those are going to be exposed.”
His attributes vaulted to a new level in the 2013-14 season. Morin led the Stars to their only Calder Cup, and was awarded the postseason, and regular season MVP awards after blasting home 100 points in 87 games combined.
“He was the quarterback of the most lethal line in the league on the back of his playmaking,” said Stephen Meserve, who has covered the Stars since 2010 for 100degreehockey.com. “He really came into his own and was on full display. Everyone found out who he was.”
Morin’s stock had never been higher than that offseason. But Dallas signed forwards Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, filling any potential line openings.
“A lot of guys will look for greener pastures when they’re sort of stuck in the minors,” Morin said. “I’ve been tempted a couple of times to go somewhere and try to maybe get a better shot, but my family likes it here and I like it here.”
Now Dallas has transitioned into one of the youngest and most offensively talented, teams in the NHL, with a roster that features seven forwards 26 or younger. Most of them blossomed under Morin in Texas, and limit his chances of returning to Dallas.
“His job is to provide offense, but also to mold and develop some of these young prospects,” Laxdal, the Texas head coach said. “But you never say never. He may still get up there and take advantage of it.”
Morin is the now the oldest player on the Texas roster by four years. He’s the father of three off the ice, but the mentor and cooling presence in the arena, and the unquestioned leader of 22 others who wear victory green and white sweaters.
“It’s a guy to look up to and a guy to mimic,” said Cole Ully, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound 21-year-old forward who faces a similar challenge of making the NHL to Morin’s. “He’s had an unbelievable career and it’s cool to play with him.”
In Cedar Park, he’s a superstar. He dropped the first puck on a new sheet of ice for the Pond Hockey Club in August and the H-E-B Center is flooded with fans wearing his No. 23 jersey. For minor league hockey players, he’s an example of how to conduct himself on and off the ice with a balance of skill and class. And although he was never able to sustain consistent NHL playing time, he made it to the show, and is still one of the most productive players in the AHL.
“I still hope for more [NHL games] and wish I could have been a full-time player up there and maybe scored a goal,” Morin reflected. “But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in my time here in Austin.”
Two more of Morin’s former line mates, Gemel Smith and Justin Dowling, have ascended to the NHL at different times this season. In the past, Morin would rarely watch hockey, but now he regularly tunes in to Dallas games to see his apprentices playing for the big club giving him “a little pride knowing you helped them along the way.”
As of Dec. 6, he’s tied for the team lead in goals (9), and leads Texas in points with 19, a mark that ties him for 13th in the AHL. His current contract expires at the end of this season, but that doesn’t mean his time in Texas will end.
“I don’t know what’s in the future for me,” the veteran said. “I’d like to finish my career here and play a few more years. But I don’t want to not be me, just taking up a spot when other guys could do the job better.”
If that time comes, and after Morin’s blades grow dull, his puck battles dwindle and his shot slows, his sweater will be undoubtedly be retired.
His number will hang from the rafters of the H-E-B Center. For the Texas Stars, there’s only one No. 23.
Reese Miller is a senior journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. His writing has previously been featured on Orangebloods.com and nascar.com, but his focus is broadcast where he hosted the intermission report and filled in on play-by-play for the Texas Stars. He has also worked with the Round Rock Express, Fox Sports Southwest and Spectrum News.