It wouldn’t be hard to mistake Strait Pirates ‘D’ men – numbers # 2 and # 26.
Somewhat of a similar build and certainly a similar style, Matt Morgan and Liam MacKinnon share a number of other similarities, including both being from the area and coming up through the Nova major bantam and Cape Breton West Islanders major midget programs, as well as being engineering students at St. F.X.
Finally, both have enjoyed very good seasons and are playing solid playoff hockey as the Pirates have advanced to the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League (NSJHL) finals, where they’ll play either the East Hants Penguins or Sackville Blazers (the Blazers are up 3-2 in the series as of press time).
“I think the biggest thing is; we are a really well rounded team,” Morgan, the 21-year-old Pirate captain from Port Hastings, said.
“The team struggled last year but now, with the confidence of having a good backend [goaltending], having a good ‘D’ core and great forwards, we are well rounded and feeding off each other’s energy. We stayed pretty consistent with our game plan which is just to show up every single night with the same mentality. We know we’re a strong team so we just try and come out, every night, and prove that.”
MacKinnon, a first-year Pirate from Whycocomagh, said this year’s team has been “the perfect storm.”
“Everyone has played extremely well; we’ve had four lines and six ‘D’ rolling every night, and Cody Smith has been a major part of our success, he has played extraordinary,” MacKinnon said of the Strait’s number one netminder, the NSJHL goalie of the year.
“I think management did a really good job of putting the team together this year; we definitely have a talented group. Things have been working out pretty well and, hopefully, they’ll continue to,” MacKinnon, last year’s Islanders’ captain and a member of their 2017 Telus Cup championship, added.
With the ‘C’ on his jersey and his hard-nosed, strong work-ethic style, Morgan is an automatic inspiration to his teammates. When you consider he is coming back from missing almost two full seasons due to concussion-related symptoms, he is an inspiration to many more.
“I had a bad concussion at the end of my year in Pictou,” he said, referencing the 2015-16 season he spent with the Pictou County Jr. ‘A’ Crushers; a year that ended in a league championship for the organization.
“Then I took two years off from playing. I played a few games but I didn’t really feel well when I was playing; maybe six or seven games in the two years. But now I’ve come back, played and haven’t missed a game this year.”
Morgan said he approaches each game the same way; play hard and keep it simple.
“Every night, no matter who we’re playing against,” he said.
“That has always been the story for me; show up and play my hardest, my best and focus on my own game. Hopefully my play would encourage my teammates and get them going; just showing up and playing my hardest.”
It works, notes MacKinnon.
“Matty has such a good drive; he really, really, really loves hockey,” MacKinnon said with obvious emphasize.
“He is on the ice five, six, seven times a week. He constantly pushes himself in practices and games, he has a really good work ethic and knows the game really well.
“He has definitely been a good role model for me; a great guy and mentor for sure. It’s always good to have guys like that in the locker room.”
Without a question leading to the subject, both Morgan and MacKinnon noted their first-round seven game battle versus the Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Bulldogs as a special part of not only their season, but hockey careers, so far.
“That was probably the most fun I have had playing hockey in my life,” Morgan said. “Even though three of them we lost, I think we learned more in those three games than we did all season really.”
“It might be old news now but, honestly, hats off to the Bulldogs for that first series,” MacKinnon said. “I thought they played exceptional; a lot to be proud of there for sure. I thought it was great for both organizations.”
He talked more about the intense battles with former teammates and good friends.
“It’s fun but weird, at times, for sure,” he said. “When you see one of your buddies going in the corner, you might think twice about laying the shoulder into him but he is out there same as you, and you have to do it.
“It’s good fun though. I had a lot of laughs with Andrew Boyle actually. We were going back-and-forth hitting each other, [exchanging] little comments going off the ice, texting after the games and going out for a beer. I used to sit beside him in the [Islanders’] dressing room and on the bus, I know Andrew well.”
Strait region pride
In acknowledging that it’s extra special to bring success to their home region, both MacKinnon and Morgan talked about sharing the wins with a grateful Port Hawkesbury crowd.
“Whenever you look up in the stands and see people from home or just who you know, it definitely gives you a lot more pride,” MacKinnon said. “Everyone likes to be part of it and I’ve definitely been around Port Hawkesbury enough to get to know a lot of people. My father works at the mill in Port Hawkesbury, so we [as a family] have a lot of friends from there. It’s awesome to be able to play and have success in front of a hometown crowd.”
Morgan said he never really had the opportunity to play high-level hockey so close to home.
“Playing in Port Hood, in New Glasgow, out of Antigonish in bantam, so it was definitely nice this year to play a whole season, play every single home game, in front of my family, family friends, aunts and uncles, cousins,” he said. “This has been a really special year for me … I’ll remember this year for a long, long time.”