Context and the Career of Bryan Murray
It's been a summer in need of context.
Daniel Alfredsson's abrupt departure left a sizeable void, not just in Ottawa's lineup, but in fans' understanding of the decision. What was needed through most of July was context. While the full story remains somewhat elusive, all sides - Alfie, Eugene Melnyk, Bryan Murray, J.P. Barry - have given their versions.
To evaluate the tenure of current general manager Bryan Murray in Ottawa, context is needed. That context comes from his time in Ottawa; he's been in the nation's capital, first as head coach and then as general manager, for close to a decade now. But that context also comes from his more than three decades of NHL experience as a coach and GM and his life before the NHL.
Those wondering how the Sens would proceed after parting ways with a franchise-defining player need only look to Murray's past. He's no stranger to big moves. He traded for Paul Coffey when he was the GM of the Red Wings. He acquired Pavel Bure and Roberto Luongo while heading up the Panthers. He sent unhappy, long-time Ducks Jeff Friesen and Oleg Tverdovsky to New Jersey for Petr Sykora while he was Anaheim's GM. He traded Dany Heatley and acquired Bobby Ryan.
Perhaps most illuminating is his handling of Paul Kariya a decade ago. Ten years ago Murray was GM of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Murray's inspired hiring of Mike Babcock - to fill the head coaching role Murray had vacated to become GM - as well as an assistant, Paul MacLean, would help change the fortunes of the team during the 2002-2003 season. Anaheim had just been to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, losing to the New Jersey Devils. A young J.S. Giguere won the Conn Smythe trophy for those Mighty Ducks despite not winning the Cup. The finals featured one of the key moments in team history. Captain and first-ever draft pick Paul Kariya was knocked out by a Scott Stevens-hit early in Game 6. A must-win game for the Mighty Ducks, Kariya returned to the ice in the second period of the game and scored Anaheim's fourth goal. Kariya had been the team's captain since 1996 and was one of the most recognizable faces in California hockey. At season's end, he confirmed his commitment to the team, pledging to bring the Cup to Anaheim the following season. But he became an unrestricted free agent after Murray refused to qualify the captain and face of the Mighty Ducks franchise at his current salary.
Kariya signed in Colorado - for considerably less money - on a one way deal. Murray also decided to cut ties with older free agents Adam Oates and Steve Thomas. The departures unsettled the fan base and called the team's leadership into question, but Murray brought in marquee free agents Sergei Fedorov (36G, 47A, 83P in 80GP, Detroit's leading scorer 2002-03) and Vaclav Prospal (22G, 57A, 79P, in 80GP, Tampa's leading scorer in 2002-03) to help fill the void.
Perhaps more importantly, Murray set the foundation for the next decade of Ducks hockey a few weeks after the Cup Final at the 2003 Draft. While the GM was somewhat fortunate Ryan Getzlaf, the fifth ranked North American skater, fell to 19th, it was his acquisition of the 28th picked that was characteristic of Murray. Murray packaged the Mighty Ducks' 36th and 54th picks in the second round to Dallas (used to take Vojtech Polak and B.J. Crombeen) for Dallas' first round pick (28th overall). Murray used this extra first rounder to selected Corey Perry, a somewhat surprising move given the prospect's second round ranking. It's a strategy Sens fans saw Murray utilize five years later in 2008 when he traded up in the draft to acquire franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson.
He has always been a coach.
Even before Murray stepped behind the bench, he was a coach. The third of ten children, Bryan helped look after his siblings growing up; his father Clarence worked long hours for Ottawa Gas and Bryan stepped up. After attending MacDonald College at McGill University he returned to his hometown of Shawville, Quebec to become head of the Phys. Ed. department at Pontiac High School for eight years. He instructed, he advised, he led. These jobs, all of this work, would prepare him for the coaching career that would occupy the next four decades of his life.
His coaching career began in earnest when he returned to Montreal. He was appointed athletic director and head coach of his alma mater, MacDonald College from 1970 to 1974. While living in Shawville he coached teams from Pembroke and Rockland, spending five years in the Central Junior Hockey League. He won the Centennial Cup behind the bench of the Rockland Nats in 1976.
But he almost walked away from the bench for good.
Murray and his wife Geri purchased the hotel in Shawville. He spent a year at the hotel, but knew it wasn't for him. According to Bryan, he "was going to give up coaching and teaching and be a business man." His success with the Nats had not gone unnoticed. Coaching was calling him back.
The call came from Regina.
It changed everything. He wanted one year at the helm of the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. He wanted his chance. More than a quarter-century later, he made it back home.
He took the job in Regina and in 1979-80 he led the Pats to a WHL championship and a trip to the Memorial Cup. This too, had not gone unnoticed. The next season Murray was on the move again, this time to Hershey, to coach the AHL's Bears. Hershey won the regular season title in Murray's lone full season at the helm; he was rewarded by being named minor league coach of the year. His next move was to Washington and the NHL, promoted early in the 1981-82 season when he took over from Roger Crozier. He spent parts of nine seasons with the Capitals, winning the Jack Adams award in 1983-84. He became known for guiding teams which were successful during the regular season but couldn't break through during the playoffs, never making it past the second round. Eventually, this futility led to his dismissal.
In 1990 he joined the Detroit Red Wings as head coach and GM. Much remained the same. Murray's teams had regular season success but stalled in the playoffs. In 1993 he turned over the coaching duties to Scotty Bowman - who would eventually get the Wings to replicate their regular season success in the playoffs. Murray spent one season as Bowman's boss, but left for the opportunity to shape the expansion Florida Panthers.
For the first time in his NHL career, Murray wasn't a coach. For the first time in his NHL career, Murray had playoff success. In 1996, his recently-minted Panthers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, his first trip. Losing out to the Avalanche in just four games, Murray was nonetheless named NHL Executive of the Year by The Sporting News. Criticized for firing coach Roger Nielson, Murray's replacement, Doug MacLean, helped lead the young Panthers to an Eastern Conference championship and vindicate Murray's decision. MacLean wouldn't last, and Murray would step behind the bench in Florida during the 1997-1998 after relieving MacLean of his duties. He finished the season and then hired his brother Terry as his replacement in 1998.
By the time he joined the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2001, Murray was glad to be back coaching. After a disappointing season, GM Pierre Gauthier was let go and Bryan was promoted to general manager. A second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals followed, this one more disappointing then the first trip.
When the Ottawa Senators came calling after the 2003-2004 season with an offer to coach in his hometown, it was a move Murray had to make.
Bryan Murray is a throwback.
The post 2004-2005 lockout-era was supposed to be different. And it was, to a degree. Murray's 2005-2006 Senators led the league in scoring with 312 goals - a franchise record. But he also dressed Brian McGrattan in 60 games that season and 45 the next. As GM, he re-signed Matt Carkner in 2010 and signed Zenon Konopka as a free agent in 2011. He acquired Matt Kassian for a sixth round draft pick in 2014 in response to a fight-filled affair between the Leafs and Sens in which Frazer McLaren knocked out David Dziurzynski. All the while he had Chris Neil. Murray expanded Neil's role when he was coach and as GM presiding over the Sens dismantling in 2011, identified Neil as one of the team's leaders.
Murray values these players and this brand of hockey as much as he seems to embrace newer, possession based metrics.
Because he was that type of player.
Neil. McGrattan. Carkner. Konopka. Kassian. Murray. All players cut from the same cloth. He played senior hockey, he played college hockey. He would evaluate himself as someone who "played tough. I fought lots. I wasn't a great skater and that held me back. But I banged around."
At the same time he was offered his first teaching contract, the Philadelphia Flyers offered him a PTO. Murray knew he wouldn't be a regular NHLer so he took the teaching gig. But there's a lot of Murray the player in Murray the coach and Murray the GM. As coach, Murray built trust between himself and his players by sticking up for them: As Murray states "you get trust is by showing them you will do whatever is necessary to support them. Sometimes it's just a pat on the back and a meeting in your office. Most of the time it's more than that. It's showing them that when one of your skill players gets run, they are going to be looked after. Sometimes it's yelling at a referee or yelling at an opposition player because he's not doing right by a particular player on your team."
Sens fans might remember Murray's outburst against Jim Fox in the bowels of the Corel Centre in 2005. In many ways, it was classic Bryan, standing up for his players. It was also a reminder for those with longer memories of the temper of a younger Murray.
As a young coach with Regina, Murray was known for his bench banter and temper. "In one pre-season game, Murray, feeling his players were being taken advantage of, challenged an opposition coach. 'Murray, you always were a chickenshit,' said the other coach before being pinned up against the wall behind the bench by Murray. 'You got the wrong Murray,' hissed Bryan, his hands still wrapped around the other coach." That's right, in a pre-season game.
Murray argued with opposition players and coaches and the occasional official during the nearly ten years he spent in a different nation's capital. Early in his coaching career, he was fined $1000 for post-game shouting matches with officials. He got into an altercation one night with Duane Sutter. He was bumped by the player but Murray was assessed a penalty for subsequently bumping an official while arguing the lack of a call on Sutter. At a home game two years later, Murray had an epic battle with referee Bill McCreary. Arguing a call too vehemently, Murray received a bench minor. During the intermission, Murray went after the official, and ended up in a shouting and shoving match with linesman Ron Asseltine. Both Murray and Asseltine were suspended for 3 games.
There have been two passions for Murray: family and hockey.
Family and hockey have always been intertwined for Murray. While the hotel business didn't work out, a second family investment, Murray's Sporting Goods, is still open for business in Shawville. In his first season behind the Capitals bench, Bryan coached younger brother Terry, a defenseman, in the final season of his career. Eight years older, this was not the first time Bryan mentored his younger brother. He had been Terry's high school basketball coach as well. After Terry retired, they became the NHL's first brother coaching combination, when he became Bryan's assistant. When Bryan was fired part way through the 1989-90 season, Terry (who was head coach of the Caps AHL affiliate at the time) replaced him.
What to the wider hockey world looked like stressful situation between the brothers was nothing of the sort in reality. As GM of the Florida Panthers, Bryan hired Terry as head coach. Towards the end of their time in Florida, it was customary to hear chants of "Fire Murray! Fire Murray" at the National Car Rental Center. The Panthers had won just 2 games at home in the first 3 months of the season. Defiant in defeat, Bryan defended himself and his brother: "‘When I hired my brother as a coach, nobody would let that go....It seemed to me from that point on, the shots we took -- and we took lots of them -- even in a couple of good years, it was always 'the Murrays.'"
It's still always the Murrays.
Current Senators assistant General Manager Tim Murray joined Uncle Bryan in Detroit as an amateur scout in 1993 and followed him to Florida a season later. Under his uncle's mentorship, Tim's career progressed and he left Florida in 2002 as director of amateur scouting. When Bryan became GM of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Tim again joined his uncle, this time working as director of player personnel. Tim joined the Senators as assistant GM in July, 2007, hired by Bryan a few weeks after taking over John Muckler's position.
Increasingly, Tim Murray is the visible face of the Senators management team. Over the past few years he has taken centre stage at the NHL draft and the elder Murray has allowed his nephew to take on some of his responsibilities. Here too, in his years as Senators GM, Bryan remains a coach; grooming his nephew to become another hometown boss. With Bryan in the last year of his contract, there is a belief amongst many who follow the Senators that Bryan - who will be 71-years-old at season's end - will retire, officially turning the reigns over to his Tim.
Murray's NHL legacy is almost complete.
He has won awards for his coaching as well as his work as an executive. He has led several franchises to regular season success. While early in his career post-season success was elusive, he has been the head coach or GM of three different teams to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. But he hasn't won the big prize. An old-school hockey mind at home during the wild NHL of the 1980s, he has also mastered the dead puck era and successfully transitioned to the post-lockout world of the past decade. His name is rarely mentioned as a potential Hall-of-Fame candidate despite there being just one gap in his resumé. But that gap looms large.
That gap looms large in Ottawa as well. His first spell as coach brought the team closest to the Cup, his second stint was part of the disastrous sequence of coaching hires of which Murray was ultimately responsible.
Murray is a Melnyk man. They've been with the team for roughly the same amount of time. Melnyk has twice given Murray a vote of confidence many felt he didn't deserve. Melnyk promoted Murray to GM and fired the architect of the only Sens team to make it to the Cup Final, John Muckler. After the horrendous 2010-2011 campaign, a terrible year which followed a few seasons of decline under Murray, Melnyk extended Murray's contract.
But it won't be the playoff success in the early years that define his time in Ottawa. Nor will it be the calamity which followed; the desperate attempts to stay afloat and contend when the team's window had closed. It will be the success of the rebuild. His time with the Senators shows the adaptability he's displayed throughout his long career. In the salary cap world, he's even become the business man he thought he wanted to be all those years ago. From new captain Jason Spezza to enforcer Matt Kassian, this team, its identity, and its confidence are the result of Murray's management.
Murray has created a contender again - perhaps the final one of his career - and if that Stanley Cup void can be filled, his legacy will be set in stone.