Former Flyers coach Terry Murray back in the game that has defined his life
The 68-year-old hockey lifer accepted an offer from Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher to return to hockey as an assistant coach for the minor-league Phantoms.
ALLENTOWN — Terry Murray was driving through the Maine winter minding his own business — minding a retirement that was somewhat forced, and somewhat planned — when his cellphone rang.
On the phone was new Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher, a guy he knew well from his coaching days alongside his late brother Bryan in Florida three decades ago. Fletcher was a few weeks removed from his own limbo, lured from a consulting job with the Devils to fix a Flyers franchise that had entered the season with such high hopes.
Fletcher had just completed his most aggressive move to that date, replacing Dave Hakstol with Phantoms coach Scott Gordon, promoting touted goaltending prospect Carter Hart, elevating Phantoms assistant Kerry Huffman to the head job.
``He asked me would I be interested in coming down and being an assistant coach here in Allentown,’’ Murray said.
Murray has coached and helped build NHL teams in Florida (with Fletcher), Washington, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. He took a Lindros-era Flyers team in the mid-'90s to the Stanley Cup Finals, and he helmed a Los Angeles team that was 30th in the league to the precipice of its first Cup before injuries and lack of fortune caused him to be replaced.
Assistant coach? In Allentown? At age 68?
A man with 549 NHL victories (including playoffs)?
Sounds insulting, right?
``I said, `Well, I have to talk to my wife,’ ‘’ Murray said as that familiar grin curled up. ``But yes.
``I wasn’t miffed. But you always feel like you could be an asset for somebody. I’ve been around long enough with different teams. Head coach, assistant coach, pro scouting. So you always feel you can add a little bit to somebody’s organization. So you’re hoping that the phone rings. But you get to an age, too, when if it doesn’t ring, you understand … maybe it’s just time to step back and watch it on TV.’’
To call Terry Murray a hockey lifer is to state the obvious. As he said as he sat in a room adjacent to the coach’s office at the PPL Center on Thursday, it has defined who he has been, dictated where he’s been, immersed him into a culture that he is unwilling to escape.
``Just a great guy to bounce things off of,’’ said Colin McDonald, the Phantoms' 34-year-old captain. ``All the players he’s coached. Younger guys can ask what did this guy do, what made this guy great.’’
McDonald has asked those questions enough times to know. What he was interested in is what Murray has been doing for almost 40 years: How to get into coaching. ``The first thing he said, `Are you willing to be mobile? To not be home for years at a time?' ’’ McDonald said.
It’s an easy answer for Murray. Then again, his first professional contract, almost 50 years ago, was written on a paper smaller than an index card.
``You’re a hockey junkie, I guess,’’ he said. `` You’ve been playing from the time you could first walk. You go through the juniors, go through the pros. It is your whole life. And everything you’ve got in life is pretty much from the game of hockey. And I appreciate that.’’
Huffman, in his first pro head-coaching gig, doesn’t seem to feel threatened.
``I don’t know if it was his goal to get back into coaching,’’ Huffman said. ``But he loves the game, loves being involved, and loves giving his input on everything. It’s been perfect for what I needed.’’
He needed a defensive-minded coach. He got a library. Murray can tell players what part of their game, if any, mirrors Eric Desjardins'. He can reference players they grew up idolizing such as Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, players he has developed, players he has coached.
In many ways, he is the hockey version of Gene Mauch, his knowledge and work ethic never rewarded by the game’s ultimate prize; a foundation guy, teacher first, motivator second. Unlike many of his peers, he does not moan about today’s player, does not begrudge the money they make or bristle when they require detailed explanations before buying in.
``Overall, I think they’re really good people,’’ Murray said of today’s players. ``They want to learn. But they’re millennials. They want to know how, and why and when. They want more information than the kids 20 years ago did.
``But teams can’t win if you don’t have a good foundation, if you don’t have a good understanding of what the game’s all about. That’s the most important thing of all. Young players come in, and they have great talent. I’ve seen many, many, many players over the years. First-round picks come in, high-end skill, and they just play on their skill.
``They don’t want to put in the work, don’t want to learn. Don’t want to pay attention to the basics of the game that are going to get you to the next level. To learn to be a champion. If you have those players who are not willing to listen and learn, then you have to make sure you are making the right decision on those players.’’
Five weeks ago, he didn’t have any skin in that game. Now, he does. It’s not the NHL, and it’s not management. But the hockey junkie is back in the game, and he is clearly loving it.
``You change your philosophy over the years,’’ Murray said. ``And you learn constantly. I think that’s why I love the game so much. Because the game has changed dramatically. And I think I have been able to adjust and really buy into what’s going on in the game today.’’