Remembering (and Rooting for) Bryan Murray

Cup'pa JoeFor the past nine years I’ve watched the Stanley Cup Finals with dispassionate interest, not having a proverbial dog in the fights. That streak ends later today, with the arrival of Game 1 tonight in Anaheim. Twice during the regular season I noticed an unusual interest among the Washington hockey press (its old guard, anyway) associated with the arrival of the Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center. Quickly I realized that nearly 20 years after he’d last coached a game behind the Washington Capitals’ bench Bryan Murray retained a sizable segment of friends here.
Initially I thought it a bit ironic that much of the Washington media would regard Murray so warmly, for it treated him with little warmth and affection as he became inextricably linked with the Capitals’ ’80s playoff shortcomings. But over the past three decades Murray’s career has migrated into one of genuine distinction and accomplishment in the game — from south Florida to Hockeytown to now in Canada’s capital, Murray has earned deserved acclaim; he’s a hockey man of the first order.
Time has a way of affording not merely perspective but also a healthy healing of hockey hurts, and today I think I am joined by hundreds, perhaps thousands of Washington hockey fans who, whatever our disappointment with and criticism of Bryan Murray two decades ago, this morning want nothing so much as to see him prevail in his ultimate postseason challenge.
It’s worth remembering how significant Murray’s tenure in D.C. was. There was a veritable carousel of Caps’ head coaches preceding Murray’s hiring in November 1981: six different coaches in the Capitals’ first seven years, among them Jim Anderson, Milt Schmidt, Tommie McVie, Danny Belisle, Gary Green. Bryan Murray’s first accomplishment with the Caps was bringing stability to a position that had never known it. He also guided the team to its first-ever postseason appearance, in 1983. The following season, 1983-84, Murray won the Jack Adams award. He remains the only Caps’ coach so honored.
He won only one Patrick Division title, ironically in his last season here, in 1989, but consider that his Caps’ clubs ever were competing against Al Arbour’s dynastic New York Islanders (beginning in 1980, Stanley Cup champs consecutively through 1983) as well as perenially strong Flyers’ and Rangers’ teams. In a lot of those seasons there was a great deal of truth to the adage that the second-best club in the Patrick division was also the league’s second-best (the 1980 Cup finals featured the Isles against the Flyers). Beginning with his 1983-84 Caps Bryan Murray would guide the club to three consecutive 100-pt. seasons, including 107 points in ’85-86, and earn not one division title.
Looking back on the 1980s Caps with the advantage of hindsight, it appears quasi miraculous that Murray’s clubs were as competitive as they were with Arbour’s Isles, one of the great dynasties in NHL history, particularly in the postseason. Murray had Langway, while Arbour had Denis Potvin. Arbour had Billy Smith, and later Kelly Hrudey, while Murray went into postseasons with the likes of Al Jensen, Pat Riggin, Bob Mason, Pete Peeters, Clint Malarchuk, and Don Beaupre. Nice goalies, but obviously, not a Hall of Famer among them. We old timers have spent the past 10 or 15 years perpetually playing the great what-if: What if Bryan Murray had had Olaf Kolzig behind those terrific ’80s bluelines?
Of course, for Washington’s columnists and very part-time hockey observers, Murray was ultimately judged a regular season hero and a postseason goat. But this morning, look who’s persevered. Entering the 2006-07 season Murray ranked sixth in the NHL in all-time games coached (1,057) and seventh for wins (513).
Almost wherever he’s coached pedestrian netminding has often been believed to be Bryan Murray’s postseason undoing, and heading into this postseason, while I liked the look of the Ottawa Senators through all four forward lines and three defensive pairings, Ray Emery seemed to invite the same sense of trepidation for Murray’s admirers. Maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing the maturation of Emery into one of the league’s elite. Of his coach, that accomplishment occurred many years and hundreds of wins ago.

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2 Responses to Remembering (and Rooting for) Bryan Murray

  1. Caps Nut says:

    It was in that last 100+ point season in 85-86 that we had the Cup dead to rights and should have won the thing.
    But Bryan Murray hated Al Jensen and refused to use him in the second round against the Rangers which we lost 4-2. Jensen had the Rangers number that year but never saw the ice in the playoffs against them. Three of the four losses to the Rangers were by one goal and two of those came in OT. It was Murray’s stubborness that cost us that year.
    There’s no doubt that Murray is a good coach, but he’s isn’t good enough to win. This is the first time he’s ever gotten a team beyond the second round of the playoffs. For whatever reason, playoff success eludes this guy.

  2. pepper says:

    Murray’s career has certainly been so recognized north of the border in the distinguished manner you present.
    On a recent episode of Prime Time Sports on Fan590, the roundtable assembled specifically noted how Murray and Poile led the Caps out of the cellar and into legitimate force, building and maintaining “good to very good” teams for much of the 80s.
    Excellent point that the (Bryan) Murray era steered our perennial 100 point squad through perhaps the most formidable division during that era.

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