Justin Morneau makes his living playing baseball, but the native of Vancouver bleeds hockey. An All-Star first baseman for the Minnesota Twins, Morneau narrowly missed capturing his second American League MVP Award in three seasons last year, finishing as the runner up to Bostonís Dustin Pedroia. Briefly a backup goalie in Major Junior before devoting his full attention to baseball, the 27-year-old Morneau is one of the best run producers in the game -- and one of the biggest hockey fans. Morneau talked about his ďother favorite sportĒ prior to a game at Fenway Park earlier this week.
David Laurila: What is Justin Morneauís history with the game of hockey?
Justin Morneau: I grew up in Vancouver and started playing hockey when I was three or four years old. I started skating when I was two, or so. I started out as a defenseman and when I was 11, I moved to sort of being a goalie. Basically, I loved the game from the time I started playing.
DL: Why did you move from defense to goalie?
JM: I always wanted to be a goalie. From about the age of five, I asked my dad every year and he kept telling me that I had to learn how to skate, which was his way of telling me that he hoped Iíd grow out of it. It was just one of those thingsÖbeing a goalie is pretty expensive, and that had probably something to do with it. I just loved the pads when I little, and wanted to put them on.
DL: Is it important for goalies to be good skaters?
JM: Oh, yeah. For sure. It helps you to be able to move with all the gear on, and it helps your agility, especially skating backwards. Guys will be coming in on two-on-ones and you need to be able back up under control.
DL: Had you remained on the blue line, would you have been an offensive defenseman or more of a stay-at-home guy?
JM: When I played, I was pretty balanced. I wouldnít take too many chances, but at the same time, I could score a little bit. And I donít think that guys change too much. If you have hands, you have hands, and you have that scoring touch. I think thatís with you from the time youíre little, and at the same time, with hard work you can develop those skills too.
DL: What is your opinion of the rule changes that opened up the game a few years ago?
JM: I thought it was good, because the game had kind of been slowed down a ton, before the lockout, with all the interference and all the clutching and grabbing. It didnít really let the skill players do a whole lot. The guys have gotten so much bigger that there still isnít much room out there, but itĎs better than it was before the lockout.
DL: Essentially, you prefer the increased offense over tradition?
JM: No, I just like skill players being able to do what they do. I think thatís good for the game. But I do kind of miss the battles in front of the net, on the power play, where the forward would park himself and the defenseman would sit thereÖthat was a battle, but now, as soon as that guy is in front of the net, and you touch him, itís a penalty. That was a part of the game and one of the little battles that I liked. But when a guy is trying to chase a puck on a dump in, and heís got a guy with a stick wrapped around him, hooking him so that heís not able to go make a play, I donít think thatís really hockey either.
DL: Guys like Tomas Holmstrom and Chris Pronger still have pretty good battles down low.
JM: Yeah, for the puck. But on the power play, when a guy is parked in front of the net, and thereís no puck and heís just trying to get position, and the defenseman is trying to move him out of thereÖbattles like that. They canít really touch them anymore, because if they do, itís interference.
DL: What are your thoughts on fighting in the NHL?
JM: You need it. Itís definitely part of the game, you know. Youíd see guys taking runs at star players, so thereís a reason those players are there, to avoid those cheap shots. People buy a ticketÖthey spend their hard-earned money to watch Crosby play, or Ovechkin play, and if guys are taking a run at them, those guys are outÖif they have that fear of, if theyíre taking cheap shots, theyíre going to have to pay the price. Thatís just part of the game.
DL: How different is the mentality of a baseball player from that of a hockey player?
JM: Itís a lot different. A baseball game is soÖthere arenít as many systems and that kind of stuff. And in hockey, you can get by playing on emotion and adrenaline, and a big hit can fire you up. In baseball, the more you let your emotions come into play, during an at-bat or any play, it seems like the worse you do. The more relaxed and calm you are, you usually have more success. In hockey, you can run out there and have a couple of big hits in a shift and it will fire your team up. Itís a little different that way.
DL: You grew up in a great hockey environment in British Columbia. What is it like in Minnesota?
JM: Itís great; itís one of the best. Itís comparable with any Canadian city that Iíve been to, Vancouver or Toronto or Edmonton. People love it. Theyíve sold out every game since the Wild moved back. People love hockey there. Theyíre great fans who know whatís going on, and theyíre very passionate about their team.
DL: Fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City obviously love hockey. As a Canadian, does it bother you that those cities no longer have NHL teams?
JM: Itís tough, because they have a lot of great hockey fans there. I think itís easier to survive with the way the salary cap is now, but you have teams in some markets that donít draw very well that are traditional hockey markets. And you have teams in some non-traditional hockey markets that draw very well. So itís tough, and I donít think you can expand because I think youíve got as many teams as you can handle in the league with the number of good players that are available. It would be great to see teams back there, and hopefully, eventually, there will be, but right now with the way the economy is, I donít think thatĎs going to be happening soon.
DL: Do you come across many hockey fans playing Major League Baseball?
JM: There are quite a few, but itís mostly the Canadian guys. Iíll talk hockey with [Jason] Bay or [Matt] Stairs, and there are some guys from the Michigan and Minnesota areas that know the game, and whatĎs going on. I try to convert as many guys as I can into becoming hockey fans.
DL: To close, what are your thoughts on the Stanley Cup playoffs thus far? Any predictions?
JM: Well, Iím hoping that Vancouver wins it. It would be nice to see Vancouver get into the finals, because itís a hockey-crazy city, and they look good so far, but Detroit also looks really good, as they have all year. Washington is tough if they can get out of this first round. Pittsburgh looks like the playoff team they were last year. Of course, Boston, with the way theyíve been playing. A Boston and Vancouver final would be nice. That would be pretty cool. As long as Vancouver gets there. To me, thatís all that really matters.