Jan. 14, 2018
By John Heisler
University of Notre Dame goaltenders Cale Morris and Dylan St. Cyr stood at the end of the bench during a timeout of a recent Irish hockey game.
Just before the players headed back to the ice, Morris gave a quick squeeze to his water bottle and flipped a stream of droplets into the air.
At first glance, it looked like a couple of kids enjoying a frivolous moment on a Friday night.
Don't believe it.
First of all, Morris over the last 10 weeks has provided plenty of proof that he's not just another net-minder on Irish head coach Jeff Jackson's roster:
--Fifteen consecutive wins in goal for the top-rated Irish (18-3-1).
--A 1.33 goals-against average during that streak.
--A gaudy .962 save percentage during those 15 victories.
--An overall 17-1-0 mark in net in 2017-18, with a 1.47 goals against average (second nationally) and an NCAA-best .956 save percentage.
--Seventeen wins for a team that hasn't lost since October--and no goaltender in the country has more victories.
So don't assume Morris is doing anything simply by accident these days.
While playing in goal for the top-ranked team in the country might seem to come with its share of pressures and anxieties, the Larkspur, Colorado, product has developed a reputation for his comparatively nonchalant approach. That includes a laid-back, upright, left arm-on-top-of-the-crossbar stance when the puck heads to the other end of the ice. He's been doing that since his days in junior hockey.
That seemingly casual flip of the water bottle? There's a method to Morris' madness there, too.
"It's a technique to stay engaged and focused," he says. "After a shot or two I'll use the water, spray it up and find a drop and focus on it to get my eyes engaged. I'll watch a drop or maybe the whole splash and watch it all the way down. It's a way to stay engaged mentally.
"I've been doing that since my junior hockey days--when I feel a need to sharpen up, stay focused and keep the gears turning. I saw (Washington Capitals goalie) Braden Holtby do it once and thought it was interesting, so I tried it and had some success with it. It just stuck with me, and goalies kind of use each other as building blocks in terms of what works for them."
What a difference a year makes.
A season ago, Christopher Cale Morris was a somewhat anonymous, first-year, backup goaltender who mostly watched from the bench as junior net-minder Cal Petersen led the Irish to a spot in the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four in Chicago.
Morris' game action in 2016-17? It comprised all of a single period in Notre Dame's season opener against Arizona State. He gave up one goal. He made seven saves. The Irish won 9-2.
Not exactly the stuff that makes for a big-man-on-campus role.
As good as Petersen was (23 wins, a 2.22 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage), both he and star forward Anders Bjork had a chance to return and headline the 2017-18 Irish roster.
When both opted to sign last summer with National Hockey League teams (Petersen with the Los Angeles Kings, Bjork with the Boston Bruins), many Irish fans might have thought Notre Dame would take a step back this winter.
Little did they realize the quality of the goaltending Jackson had left in his hip pocket.
The season is only half over. Notre Dame still has a full second run of Big Ten Conference games remaining. Then there's the three-weekend Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Championships.
Morris hopes he still inspecting water droplets in April at the NCAA Frozen Four in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
At midseason the Irish have established themselves as a legitimate contender for that ultimate weekend in college hockey.
Morris is a big reason why.
Morris has his big sister to thank for some aspect of his hockey baptism.
The 6-1, 190-pounder had played a laundry list of sports as a kid--football, baseball and soccer--but hockey became a more serious option in great part because current Wisconsin goaltender Kyle Hayton lived just down the way.
"Kyle is originally from Colorado, and he lived two streets away from us," says Morris. "He was friends with my older sister, and so it kind of trickled down in terms of hockey. We went over there and played floor hockey in his basement and loved it, and I used his hand-me-down pads for my first four or five years of goaltending."
Born in Littleton, Colorado, Morris played his triple A hockey through the Colorado Thunderbirds and became a huge NHL Colorado Avalanche fan.
"(Avalanche goaltender) Patrick Roy was a childhood idol," he says. "It was a good time growing up there."
For what became Morris' senior year in high school, he moved to Bartlett, Illinois, played with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League (living with Steel teammate Robby Jackson, now a junior forward at St. Cloud State) and graduated from South Elgin (Illinois) High School.
Says Morris, "The USHL helps you get older, stronger, faster. It's a good bridge from high school to college hockey because otherwise you have those 24- and 25-year-old college guys who are just going to dominate an 18-year-old coming right out of high school. It lets you build your game.
"Goalies normally take a little longer to develop, so I was definitely in no rush. Unless you are a superstar at the top of your age group, normally you play two or three years in the USHL just to develop and get as much hockey as you can. It's a hard, physical style and that really prepares you for college. I knew I needed time to develop and I saw my game really take some steps forward in the USHL."
Morris played a year and a half in Chicago and then was traded to the USHL Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks.
"I got on a hot run in my first year there (19-6-3 record, 1.85 goals-against average, .937 save percentage) and drew some attention from some college coaches. We had a lot of team success, and so that process was fun," he says.
Morris visited Penn State, Nebraska-Omaha and Colorado College in addition to Notre Dame, his first stop.
"I knew Cal (Petersen) would be a junior and he was very talented. I knew there was a chance, as good as he was, that he might leave after his junior year," recalls Morris. "I saw it as an opportunity to grow behind him and learn from him. They told me I'd have to work for everything, and I was definitely up for the challenge. It was a great opportunity to come in here and try to have an impact.
"Going into that first year at Notre Dame (2016-17), I knew I wasn't going to have a heavy workload in terms of game situations. But I was there to push Cal in practice and make sure he was on top of his game. We had a great relationship on and off the ice, so it was fun to have him as a mentor. And I'd known him because we had done some goalie camps together in previous summers."
Morris' first year in South Bend also provided a solid bridge back to the academic world.
"It was a little bit of an adjustment since I was two years out of high school and and had only been playing junior hockey for those last two years. It was good to get back in the swing of things--I was focusing on hockey, but I was able to get a good hold of school, too," says Morris, who is enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business and expects to end up either a finance or IT major.
The summer of 2017 began routinely enough for Morris back in Colorado.
"Everyone takes a little time off. It's a time to hang out and be a normal kid. After the Frozen Four it was a little heartbreaking the way it ended for us. But, back in Colorado, I have a great training situation--I work out with a good group five times a week and skate twice a week. Then we came back for summer school where we're training with (Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach) Tony Rolinski and get a few classes done."
Morris also went to Dallas for a week to work with Mike Valley (former Dallas Stars goaltending coach) and Marty Turco (he played nine seasons with the Dallas Stars and one year each with the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins in 2002-12).
But somewhere in the midst of all that, Morris knew Petersen had a decision to make (as did Bjork).
"The whole team was supporting their decisions, no matter what they did," he says. "We cared for them deeply and respected their decisions. I never actually asked Cal, ‘What are you going to do?' He was going to take his time and talk to his family and his advisers and make the decision that was best for him."
Petersen turned professional May 31 and signed with the Kings a month later.
Morris knew it was time to step up.
"I knew it was going to be a challenge with (freshmen) Dylan and Nick (Sanford) coming in. It would be a great opportunity for all of us to battle and compete and push each other. It was fun.
"During the first week of the season in October it was a week-to-week thing, just to see how the week of practice went. Then the games were the test times. It was a fun competitive time for both Dylan and me, and we still compete every day. We'd go through practice battling each other and Nick, too, so we all used each other as competition. None of us had really played any college games so we all took it as an opportunity to compete for a spot."
Morris headed into 2017-18 splitting time with St. Cyr, as he and St. Cyr alternated weekend starting assignments in net throughout Notre Dame's four-week October home stand.
St. Cyr went 1-2-1 in those games, with a 3.22 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. He opened the year with a shutout of Alabama Hunstville and made an amazing 46 saves in the Irish tie with defending NCAA champion Denver.
Meanwhile, Morris allowed 2.75 goals in his four starts (.905 save percentage), helping the Irish to wins in his final two assignments against Sacred Heart and Omaha.
"Then going into the Ohio State weekend Coach Jackson talked to both of us and said we'd both played great, but it was time for someone to come up and take over the starting job. So he said, ‘We'll just go game to game. And if you win you keep playing and if you have good games you build on that.'"
Morris earned the starts in those Big Ten openers against the 16th-rated Buckeyes, won both games (4-1 and 3-2), and Notre Dame amazingly hasn't lost since. The Irish have become the biggest story in college hockey so far this season.
"I feel like my game has developed a lot over the last year," Morris says. "Practicing at the college level really helped over my freshman year, helped me get used to the speed and the next level beyond the USHL. I've been pretty fortunate to have (volunteer Irish assistant coach) Zack Cisek here this year--he's helped me kind of calm my game down and have a bigger presence in net. And all the game experience definitely has helped--it's a test for all the lessons you learn through practice. I definitely think my game's headed in the right direction."
The month of October, with the starting Irish goaltending job seemingly on the line every day of the week, might have created controversy in the Notre Dame camp. But quite the contrary.
Says Morris, "The competition brings out the competitive nature in everyone, and I'm a pretty competitive person. At the same time, I'm pretty calm and calculated and I didn't let the pressure get to me. I never looked at it thinking, ‘If I have a bad game I might not play for a while.' I control what I can control--just do my best, take it all in stride day to day. It's building on each day in practice and preparing for the weekend--I'm still doing that. Taking building blocks every day in practice."
Notre Dame's team success in some ways has been even more noteworthy considering the Irish now play mostly in their own backyard, but in a new conference with lots of first-time assignments and trips.
"The Big Ten facilities and environment are awesome," says Morris. "And the Big Ten has some of the best players anywhere in the country. It's definitely a challenge every night.
"Yet it's been a lot of fun. It's very positive in the locker room, we're all enjoying ourselves. We want to keep the good times rolling, but we don't want to focus on what's behind because you don't win a championship in December. We all kind of feed off the competition. At a place like Notre Dame those expectations are there and we're just trying to keep it going."
Morris has worked hard to create a consistent nightly approach in net.
"As a goaltender you're kind of competing against yourself, battling for every save," he says. "I approach the game with a very calm aspect, and I guess people see that on the ice with my relaxed stance out there. I did that in juniors, too, I can't really remember when it started. It just found its way into my game.
"It's just a way to stay calm and relaxed. I stay even-keeled. I don't get too antzed up in Neverland--just stay in the moment, stay dialed in."
Along the way Morris has posted shutouts against Penn State (1-0 on Nov. 11), Rensselaer (1-0 on Nov. 18), Minnesota (1-0 on Nov. 24) and Michigan State (2-0 on Dec. 2). He has accounted for four other one-goal victories in Big Ten play--one each versus Ohio State and Wisconsin and a pair against Michigan last weekend. Only once during the win streak has he allowed more than two goals--and that came in a 5-3 triumph against Penn State when he made a then-career high 40 saves. The average Irish victory margin during the 15-game win streak--all with Morris in net--has been 1.8 goals.
After a rare weekend off, Morris and the Irish begin their prep all over again for a pair of home assignments this weekend against 18th -ranked Wisconsin (Friday at the Compton Family Ice Arena, then Sunday afternoon at the United Center in Chicago). Morris and his old friend Hayton might square off as they did in the Dec. 9 game in Madison (Morris and the Irish won that one 6-2).
"In terms of prep, we'll start video Tuesday or Wednesday and watch up through Friday," he says. "We look at our systems, their systems, face-offs, penalty kills.
"I'll probably watch some video with Zack of my last game and the last time we played Wisconsin. Keep fine-tuning every aspect and prepare ourselves for the week. It's been only a month since we played them, so coordinate what they do with our practices and refresh ourselves with the video."
Morris says he spends about 90 minutes during a week watching video.
"It's the ABCs of the game, that's where we can be successful. All our practices are in the cloud and my files are all clipped and put in there. It's always good to have an outside view, so talking to Zack is great. And seeing a shot (on video) from behind the net is different, to see where you're filling the net and where you get beat."
Morris lives in Siegfried Hall in a quad with sophomore teammates and forwards Cal Burke, Mike O'Leary and Luke Novak.
"We have the NHL Network Center Ice package so we get all the games. We'll hang out and watch some hockey. I follow Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens), Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings) and Holtby--they're all exciting goalies. I use them to learn from--they're the best at what they do. They're the ones I try to watch the most."
With the half the season gone, Morris and his teammates have a pretty good sense of what to expect from their group when they come to the ice.
"Everyone has their daily routines," he says. "We're a close group--we're all friends on and off the ice so we have a lot of fun together. I don't get too intense, I go with the flow and I'm pretty even- keeled. I do the things I need to prepare myself. Everybody gets in their own zone.
"I'll have my hat on and put my hood up and get focused in there, but I have no problem talking to people. I've learned what works with who sits next to you. It's pretty loose, and then I start to focus in as I'm getting dressed."
Morris says he and the Irish don't spend any amount of time thinking about their win streak.
"Fifteen straight? We know in this league any team can win any night so you have to approach it as if we have a target on our back being 12-0 in the Big Ten. We're going to get everyone's best because of our record and just being Notre Dame.
"It allows us to play our best and bring it every game. Coach Jackson keeps us lined up. And we're winning games in all different ways--lots of games have been 2-1 and 3-2 and so we've been successful and yet different ways mean we've faced some adversity and that's good for us."
Morris hasn't had many reasons to change much.
So he'll continue to lean back against the goal and keep a keen eye on those water drops when his focus needs an extra jolt.
"It's been fun," he says. "The football team had a great year, the basketball teams are going good, our team has had a lot of success.
"It's a fun time around campus."
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling the Notre Dame athletic scene since 1978.