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Olympic gold and Stanley Cup silver for Islander star?

A once-in-a-lifetime year is drawing to a close for Ken Morrow, and if the New York Islanders can beat Philadelphia just one more time he'll become the only hockey player in history to win an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup ring in the same year.

As far as National Hockey League statisticians can determine via a quick check, in fact, he would be the first player to achieve such a feat in an entire career.

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"I haven't really had time to think about it," the young defenseman said when asked if he were in awe of the whole situation. "Everything happened so fast in Lake Placid. Then before I knew it I was playing in the NHL.

"Right now, February seems like two years ago," he added. "Everything is a blur. If I stopped to think about it, I'd probably drop over."

Morrow, a rugged 6ft. 4 in., 210-pounder who played his college hockey at Bowling Green University, was the biggest player on the US Olympic team, and one of the most important. He didn't get the publicity accorded some of his more spectacular teammates, but his solid all-around play was one of the main factors in the team's success -- a fact that was not lost on the Islanders.

New York had drafted Ken back in 1976, and had been eagerly awaiting the end of his college and Olympic careers. Within a week of those emotional triumphs over the Soviet Union and Finland, in fact, Morrow was signed and in action for the Islanders.

He and the other half dozen US players who turned pro right after the games had a big adjustment to make from amateur hockey to the NHL, but at least no one had to worry about how they would react to the pressure. As Islander Coach Al Arbour put it: "After the Olympics, these guys should be able to stand up to just about anything."

Morrow said the biggest difference he has found so far has been the greater importance of strength in the pro game.

"You've gotta be strong in the corners -- strong everywhere," he said. "I don't mean bullying out there, but you've gotta have the strnegth to lift somebody's stick or hold someone off just to get to the puck."

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The Islanders had been playing just over .500 hockey most of the season before Morrow came aboard on March 1. They lost and tied the first two games he played, but then came alive, going 10-2-4 in their last 16 regular season games and storming past Los Angeles, Boston, and Buffalo in the earlier playoff rounds. Now they stand on the verge of clinching the cup as they carry a 3-1 lead into Game 5 of the best-of-seven final series at the Spectrum tonight.

Morrow's arrival hardly sparked the surge all by itself, of course. The Islanders have a lot of talent (they won the league's regular season championship the previous year), and it was undoubtedly only a matter of time before they got it together this season. Ken's solid play has certainly been a factor, however, and his availability alos was a key to the acquisition of center Butch Goring in the late season trade which many observers credit with igniting the New York offense and turning a good team into an outstanding one.

As General Manager Bill Torrey explains it, Los Angeles wanted defenseman Dave Lewis, but he didn't dare to let Lewis go unless he was reasonably sure Morrow could fill the gap. He watched Ken very closely during the Olympics, therefore, and any doubts he may have harbored quickly evaporated.

"That's why the trade went through so late in the year," Torrey said. "Morrow was the key to it."

Like most future pros, Morrow got an early start in skating while growing up in Davison, Mich., but not at the highly organized and almost fanatic level encountered in Canada and even in some US cities.

"As a kid, I used to skate on a small backyard rink with my father and older brother," he recalled. "Hockey wasn't a big thing in the town I came from. I had to travel quite a bit to go and play. But it was always fun. I wasn't pushed. I'm not like a lot of guys up here who were playing 80-game schedules as Pee Wees or Bantams.

"I just grew up with the rink in the backyard. I'd get up and skate all morning; put my ice guards on; walk into the house and have lunch; come back outside and skate all afternoon; put my ice guards back on and go have dinner; then come out and skate into the night."

Morrow's talent eventually surfaced, taking him on the road that led to All-America honors at Bowling Green, a berth on the US national team at the World Tournament in Prague, and finally to Lake Placid. But even as recently as a year ago he still wasn't really sure what was in store.

"Last year at this time I was just watching the Stanley Cup playoffs on TV," he said. "I remember thinking to myself, 'Gee, if ever I could make it there. . . .' "

The Olympics of course, were the catalyst -- both for the quick jump to the NHL and for the instant fame that neither he nor his teammates could ever had imagined.

"I still can't believe it," he said. "I mean, the day before the Olympics, nobody knew who you were. Now my whole life has changed completely in every way. Most of it is just recognition from the public.

"A lot of times people just come up and start telling you stories about having watched the whole thing on TV. There's not much I can say except 'thank you.'

"People really appreciate what happened. We knew we were doing a good thing in Lake Placid, but we didn't realize what the impact was. We were kind of isolated up there. We thought it was a big thing in Lake Placid, but not such a big thing away from it. No way did we realize what it meant to people in California and Florida."

Because of the Olympcis, Morrow has had a more grueling schedule this past year than even the grind imposed on typical NHL players. There was the training camp in August, followed by a 60-game schedule in Europe and the United States against a variety of college, pro, and national teams. Then, of course, there were the Olympics themselves, followed by almost three months of NHL play.

No wonder he's ready for a long vacation.

"I'm tired," Morrow said. "It's been a very long year. I'm just looking forward to taking a long break this summer."

Ken wouldn't mind, in fact, if that break started sometime around 10:30 tonight.

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