NHL legend Bryan Murray built winners and lasting bonds: Cox
No-nonsense NHL coach and GM had knack for turning franchises around, and getting to the point.
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It was Bryan Murray’s faux gruffness that always made you laugh.
“Don’t know why you’re calling me,” he’d say drily over the phone. “Those people in Toronto have all the answers, don’t they?”
By the end of the conversation, of course, he always would have told a funny story, given you some good information, and made it clear you could call anytime. When you call a fellow several times a season over the course of more than a quarter-century of hockey seasons, you get used to the rhythm, the necessary back-and-forth. Can’t remember too many chats with Murray that weren’t well worth the time. Or any.
In a perfect hockey world, Murray would have ended up in Toronto with the Leafs in some position or another during his sterling 35-year NHL career. Damn, that would have been fun. It would have been a terrific fit in many ways.
In that perfect shinny world, of course, a quality man like Murray would also have, at some point along the road, received a Stanley Cup ring for being part of a championship team. The closest he came was coaching the Ottawa Senators to the Cup final in 2007 where, in one of those shake-your-head peculiarities of the sport, he was beaten by an Anaheim team he had a major hand in building.
Murray, who died of colon cancer at his Ottawa home on Saturday morning at the age of 74, was a hockey man through and through, with a super-sensitive b.s. meter for all the nonsense in the game and a willingness to speak his mind. He was one of 10 kids and put his hometown of Shawville, Que., on the hockey map despite the fact he didn’t play the game to a particularly high level himself. No, he started out as a teacher, the point in his life from which many of the endless number of stories he could share often began.
The accolades began pouring in for Murray on Saturday, and that will continue for some time because of all the people he touched in the game, and the careers he helped start, all the players he coached, all the friends he made, all the media people for whom he always had five minutes and a clever quip or two.
“I don’t think it really bothered him that he didn’t win a ring,” said his longtime colleague and friend Doug MacLean. “Sure, he would have loved to win one. But he thought bigger than that.”
MacLean, who worked alongside Murray in Washington, Detroit and Florida, first met Murray in the late 1970s at a junior all-star game. MacLean was playing for Brockville, and Murray was the head coach in Pembroke.
“I remember listening to him, thinking: Man, does this guy know his hockey,” said MacLean. “We stayed in touch, and if not for Bryan Murray I wouldn't have been in the NHL. He mentored me, gave me opportunities. He taught me you can treat your players with respect and still be a really good coach. He had a knack for coaching like he had played in the NHL, and he never played a game.”
Murray, whose 620 coaching wins put him 12th on the all-time list, had been waging a very public battle with colon cancer since 2014, and had decided to become a spokesman for cancer awareness. He finished off with the Senators as general manager at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, soon after making one of his riskier and more controversial trades, acquiring Dion Phaneuf from the Maple Leafs in a nine-player deal.
Whether it was as a head coach or as a GM, Murray specialized in turning losers into winners. He did that in his first NHL coaching job in Washington, winning NHL coach-of-the-year honours in 1984. When he was fired by GM David Poile partway through the 1989-90 season, Murray was replaced in rather controversial fashion by his brother Terry.
Detroit, another perennial loser, hired him immediately, and he immediately got that team into the post-season. He was behind the bench when the Wings were stunned in the first round of the 1993 playoffs by the Leafs in a seven-game series ended by Nikolai Borschevsky’s overtime winner.
Scotty Bowman was hired by owner Mike Ilitch the next year, and the fit just wasn’t there between Murray and Bowman. Murray left to become GM of the expansion Florida Panthers with MacLean as his coach, and three seasons later the Panthers made it to the Cup final, losing in four games to Colorado.
He later moved on to Anaheim, and was GM of the Ducks when they made it to the 2003 Cup final against New Jersey. Murray left the Ducks to return to the Ottawa Valley as head coach of the Senators, a surprising move at the time. As Ottawa GM starting in the 2007-08 season, his biggest challenge was trying to find somebody who could coach the team the way he felt it should be coached. He went through five coaches in nine years.
“I’m leaving after a disappointing year. That’s the hardest part,” he said after the Senators missed the 2016 playoffs by eight points. “You always want to leave on the up, and that wasn’t to be this year, but I feel really good about the talent level that is on the ice for the future.”
The hockey gods, it seems, chose to make Murray beloved and widely respected rather than a Cup winner. If it had been his choice to make, you always understood he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Damien Cox is the co-host of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for The Star. Follow him @DamoSpin. His column normally appears Tuesday and Saturday.