SAN JOSE, Calif. – On his fourth attempt during a hockey breakaway drill, Nyjer Morgan shot the puck past Sharks goalie Thomas Greiss to score in the bottom right corner of the net. Greiss did the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder a favour and let it go in, with Morgan later thanking him with a firm pat to the chest pad.
A giddy Morgan cheered, thrust his stick in the air to celebrate and became a bit wobbly on the ice before recovering.
When asked about it after his outing Wednesday, he became defensive.
“But how many athletes do you know who can just jump on the ice and do what I just did? Exactly,” Morgan said. “Pretty cool, huh? It’s been many moons, it’s been a lot of years, yeah. And I’ve still got it, you see that?”
At last, the diehard San Jose fan and former hockey player got the chance to practice with the team he loves—however brief it was.
“Tony Plush” as he refers to himself—”Say it one time, yeah!” he begged of someone to speak aloud his self-created alter ego—stepped out for the first time 36 minutes into the hour-long session sporting a black No. 2 Sharks jersey with “Plush” on back.
“Oh, my feet hurt,” he said, posing and acknowledging the crowd with a huge grin once his short stint on the ice was done.
He received a little pep talk and some razzing from Sharks captain Joe Thornton beforehand while eagerly awaiting his turn.
“Not bad. It was better than I thought,” Thornton said later in the locker-room. “He’s a really good guy. He likes to laugh. I was just kind of fooling around with him a little bit. It seems like he enjoyed coming here and we loved having him. … It loosens everybody up. He’s got a good personality and he relates to the guys.”
About 100 fans turned out at the Sharks practice facility to witness Morgan’s workout, if you can truly call it that. He worked on his passing skills and once attempted to juggle the puck with his left skate in a soccer-like move.
Greiss and others were plenty impressed with the efforts of Morgan, who has been a Sharks fan since the franchise began playing in the Bay Area in 1991.
Morgan’s first three shots on goal were easily stopped by Greiss, who eased up on the last attempt.
“He just came down with a nice shot and put it in,” Greiss said. “He skates really well. He’s said he likes to get on his skates and have fun. You could see that.”
Mike Sizemore, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student at nearby Santa Clara University who grew up in St. Louis, came to taunt the centre-fielder. Sizemore, who claimed he wasn’t skipping class, sported a Cardinals World Series shirt underneath a St. Louis jersey and held a sign reading: “(at)TPlush Good to see you’re tryin’ hockey. Baseball didn’t work out.”
“Nyjer Morgan talked a lot of smack this year against the Cardinals, so I thought I’d pay him a visit,” Sizemore said.
Morgan, who still spends the off-season in his native Bay Area, was a late bloomer in pro baseball—getting his start at about age 20 after deciding to make the switch from hockey—and grew up playing hockey as his first love and hoped to turn pro. He moved to Canada at 16 and appeared in seven games with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League in 1999-2000, registering two goals and 20 penalty minutes.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan isn’t quite ready to commit to signing Morgan. But he would consider it.
“You know what, I’ve seen his passion and his energy when he gets out on a ballfield, and if that converts into anything on the ice, I absolutely will, but I do know one thing, he wouldn’t be going in the shootout,” said McLellan, a coach in the WHL during Morgan’s junior hockey days. “His ball characteristics, and the way he stirs things up on the ballfield, that’s the exact same way he was on the ice surface. He was a bit of a disturber, got under the skin of some of the other players, and competed hard.”
The 31-year-old Morgan was a 33rd-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2002 draft. Morgan agreed to a US$2.35 million, one-year contract with Milwaukee last month to avoid arbitration. He arrived in a trade with the Washington Nationals last March, becoming the team’s primary centre-fielder against right-handed pitchers. He played in 119 games for the Brewers, batting .304 with four home runs and 37 RBIs.
This time, there was plenty of fist-bumping with a different type of glove.
“Ah, that brought back so many memories, just because I love hockey,” Morgan said. “Not too many African Americans, especially in San Jose, can actually relate, so I would like to actually encourage people to come out here and try skating. It’s a beautiful game. There are so many fun aspects and just ways of meeting people through this game. That’s how it’s helped me through my life.”
So, what do the Brewers think of all this?
“I’ll let you just worry about that one. Next question,” he said, becoming testy.
Morgan skated with the Penguins several years back, but noted: “I couldn’t really show them my skills like I did here. I was on the enemy’s territory. I bleed teal.”
Asked about skipping the potentially dangerous tip drill, Morgan said: “Hey, man, I’ve got to be smart out here, come on now. I’m done. Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.”
Morgan declined to predict how far the Pacific Division-leading Sharks will go. They lost in the Western Conference finals last season to Vancouver, which lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to Boston.
“Ah, I’m saying nothing,” Morgan said. “Every time Plush says something, I get Plush into trouble, so I’m leaving it alone.”