A reunion of sorts
When the Flyers play the Coyotes tonight, assistant Gord Murphy will be coaching against his son, Connor.
GLENDALE, Ariz. - Tonight is the game on the Flyers' schedule that assistant coach Gord Murphy has been dreading.
He knew his emotions got the best of him here in the desert last November. Murphy, 47, played 862 career NHL games. He has been on the bench for another 871 games as an assistant coach.
Nothing could prepare him for the rush of watching his son, Connor, make his NHL debut with the Coyotes on Nov. 16, 2013, against Tampa Bay.
"It was surreal," said Gord Murphy, who was out of coaching at the time. "It was a total different feeling. I went through so many more emotions and nerves than I ever did as a player or coach. Everything I had gone through, the hundreds of games, it wasn't the same thing. It felt completely different and foreign to me."
Tonight will be even tougher. He hasn't watched Connor play live all season and his first glimpse will be from the bench when Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek go toe-to-toe with his 21-year-old boy.
Murphy will become the sixth father in the last six seasons to coach agains his son at the NHL level. Ulf Samuelsson, Darryl Sutter, Mike Foligno, Ted Nolan and Brent Sutter have all experienced the same unsettling feeling.
After years of tutoring, pep talks and coaching, being the enemy - even for just a 2 1/2-hour period of time - will be difficult.
"I've got a lot of mixed emotions," Gord Murphy told the Daily News. "I'm really looking forward to seeing him out there, but I'm not really looking forward to being on the other bench. He's got a job to do, and I'll try and focus. It's going to be hard. It's going to be strange."
Nicole Murphy, Connor's mom and Gord's wife, decided to stay back at the family's home base in Columbus, Ohio, because the game would be a little too nerve-racking.
"She sort of wanted to avoid it, too, deep down," Gord Murphy said. "She'll watch on TV."
If it's any consolation, the matchup will be a bit easier for Connor, who now has 60 games under his belt. He is still fighting daily to prove he belongs in Dave Tippett's lineup, he says, leaving little room for any other stray thoughts. That focus, that eye on the prize mentality, comes in large part because of his dad.
"It will be weird, but I'd like to think of it as just another game," Connor Murphy said yesterday. "I know that I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my dad and everything he's done for me. I've leaned on him pretty much my whole career. He has so much experience with playing and coaching, he's been in so many different situations that's he's been able to help with everything."
Connor Murphy, a defenseman, was selected 12 slots behind Sean Couturier (20th overall) in the 2013 draft. His road to the show was a long and bumpy one, derailed by one injury after another, starting with an unusual path.
Gord Murphy was an original Florida Panther, selected by the team in the expansion draft, a year and a half after posting 128 points in 261 games with the Flyers from 1988-1992.
Connor Murphy was born in Boston, but learned to skate in South Florida. He played his first travel hockey in Atlanta, when his dad skated for the Thrashers (1999-2001) and made a name for himself in youth hockey circles in Columbus, where his dad helped coach the Blue Jackets. He now plays in Arizona. Non-traditional NHL markets are pretty much all Connor Murphy knows.
Prior to his draft, Connor Murphy had played just 11 games in parts of two seasons with the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., because of a chronic lower-back injury. He came back to score the overtime goal in the gold medal game against Sweden in the World Under 18 Championships, cementing his first-round draft status.
In his next two seasons, with the OHL's Sarnia Sting, Murphy played just a combined 68 games because both knees required operations. His first full season of hockey since 2008-09 was last year, which he split between the AHL and NHL before making a dent.
"He's had to face some adversity, some injury issues along the way he's had to overcome," Gord Murphy said. "We're extremely proud of him and just the person he is growing into."
After parts of four seasons on Florida's bench as an assistant to Pete DeBoer and Kevin Dineen, Murphy was abruptly fired last November. He says it was a blessing in disguise, because Connor was called up to make his debut 10 days later - a game he otherwise would have missed.
"We spent a lot of time together," Gord Murphy said. "I was able to just be a dad again. They say things happen for a reason."
Now, he catches most of Connor's games on his laptop. Flyers video coach Adam Patterson will load the Coyotes' game tape onto his laptop along with the Flyers' most recent action for review.
When Connor was a healthy scratch for a few games, Gord Murphy didn't morph into coach mode. He just listened.
"I stay away from details," Gord Murphy said. "That's not my role. He's got great coaches there. It's just about being a dad, being there for support, building him up. He's just like any other 21-year-old, there's highs and lows and growing pains. You just try and be there for him."
Blood is thicker than water, as Sabres coach Ted Nolan said this year before facing his son Jordan. That doesn't make tonight any easier on the Murphy clan, though.
"Our daughter, Lexi, is having a hard time with it. I know I am, so is my wife. Our oldest guy, Tyler, he's 23 and he's a little more comfortable with it," Gord Murphy said. "I know deep down, though, they'll all be rooting for Connor. And that's OK. I'm cool with that."