Bryan Murray was a hockey lifer, and hockey was better for this man having dedicated his life to it.
He coached five teams from 1981-2007, amassing 620 wins in 1,239 games, winning the Jack Adams Award with the Washington Capitals in 1984. He was the coach and general manager for the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Ottawa Senators. Behind the scenes, he was a trusted voice among hockey executives. He had stories to share, and plenty of peers eager to learn from them.
When he stepped aside as Senators general manager in April 2016, he humbly labeled himself as “a pretty good hockey guy who was a good person,” but Murray meant so much more than that through his remarkable 36-year journey as an NHL coach and executive – a journey that sadly ended on Saturday, when Murray died after a years-long battle with cancer at 74.
That illness came to define him in his later years in the NHL, having been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in 2014 and told it was terminal. His family supported his decision to keep working with the Senators, as Murray felt he had more to give to “this job I’ve been fortunate to have,” even after having already given so much.
His battle against the disease inspired many, from fellow NHL executives to fans following his fight. We were watching someone who was watching his own demise, and handling every moment with clarity and class.
“I’ve have an understanding of it. I’ve had a good run. I could never feel sorry for myself after the people I’ve met, young kids going through far worse. More than myself at this stage,” he told the Toronto Star in 2016. “I guess I’ve accepted the fact I’m not likely to be pushed around in a wheelchair very long at some stage in my life. Maybe that’s not all bad.”
The stages of Murray’s life in the NHL track back to the Washington Capitals in 1981, where he was promoted to head coach after one season in Hershey and embarked on a seven-season run, making the playoffs in each complete season he coached.
He was the coach and general manager of the Red Wings from 1990-93, and then stepped upstairs for an additional season when Scotty Bowman came on as head coach. Among the players aggressively acquired by Murray: Paul Coffey and Dino Ciccarelli.
But then it was off to a new adventure after the Red Wings decided to “clean the table” in June 1994, as he put it: The Florida Panthers, as Bill Torrey hired Murray as his new general manager. It was a different set of expectations than Murray had dealt with in Washington and Detroit, but he remained aggressive: He pulled the trigger on the Roberto Luongo trade with the New York Islanders, and later acquired Pavel Bure in 1999.
He was the general manager when the Panthers pulled the “rat trick” and made the Stanley Cup Final for the first and only time in 1996, winning Murray NHL Executive of the Year.
In 2001-02, he coached the Mighty Ducks, and was their general manager from 2002-2004, overseeing their trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003. He had a memorable salary showdown with Paul Kariya, traded for Petr Sykora, drafted Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and hired some guy named Mike Babcock as head coach.
Then it was Ottawa, where Murray’s legacy will always been cemented. He coached the team to its lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2007, and outside of Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlson was perhaps its most notable public face.
(In one of those glorious ironies that sometimes seem exclusive to hockey, Bryan Murray was defeated by the Anaheim Ducks team whose foundation he had built.)
He was the general manager who drafted Karlsson, famously trading up to get him; swung incredibly bold trades, built strong teams but couldn’t find the right coach to get them over the hump – unless that coach was himself.
Some of his moves were very, very good – acquiring Craig Anderson – and some of his moves were not – the pick that became Vladimir Tarasenko for David Rundblad comes to mind, although Rundblad was eventually flipped for Kyle Turris in one of Murray’s better moves.
He worked for an owner in Eugene Melynk who on some days could be both an asset and his heaviest albatross, but he made the most of it. Ottawa honored Murray in January as its first Ring of Honour member.
“Bryan was one of the greatest men that the game of hockey has ever known and also a great father, mentor and teacher,” said Melnyk on Saturday. “We extend our sincere condolences to his wife, Geri, daughters, Heide and Brittany and the entire Murray family on their loss.”
Last year, Murray stepped back from hockey. It had been a lifeline since his diagnosis. It had been what he needed. But Murray said he decided it was time that his family stopped “putting up with me still wanting to be the young man in hockey … they deserve more time, and I’m going to try to give it to them.”
The time Murray spent in the NHL will be cherished through the generations. For his dedication. For his contributions. For his wit. For the stories and wisdom he shared with those around him.
“Bryan Murray’s strength and character were reflected in the teams he coached and the teams he built over decades of front office excellence. While his warmth and dry sense of humor were always evident, they were accompanied by the fiery competitiveness and determination that were his trademarks,” said commissioner Gary Bettman.
Murray gave his life in the service of hockey, but wasn’t going to lose his life without it being in the service of others.
He was candid about that fact that early detection could have changed the course of his life. His cancer wasn’t discovered through a colonoscopy – he thought he had a lingering bronchitis.
“My wife had had three or four colonoscopies by that time and told me I should do it. But that wasn’t something I ever thought about. It never even crossed my mind. I’m from a family of 10 kids, all of us are healthy. I’d never been to a hospital before in my life, other than to visit people. That’s why I went public. Early discovery is so important. The doctors tell me it’s not age 50 any more. It might be age 30 to 40 when people should start getting checked. I’ve had lots of feedback that people have done that,” he told the Toronto Star.
“A guy this morning at the hospital said he heard my interview and came in and they found early stages of cancer. ‘Thank you for saving my life.’ Whether it’s that dramatic or not, I think that’s at least what I can do now, to help and to give back.”
Let it never be said that Bryan Murray didn’t give all he had. He was a hockey lifer. And what a life it was.
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