Hockey coach has fondness for opponents
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Bryan Murray proudly wore his Ottawa Senators warmup suit with the big Stanley Cup finals logo on his chest.
He couldn’t help but also feel pride for his opponent, the Anaheim Ducks, a team he had a big hand in building.
Murray coached the Ducks in the 2001-02 season and moved up to the front office for a two-year term. Anaheim jumped 26 points in his first year in the post and got to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals before falling short against the New Jersey Devils in 2003.
But the foundation was built. And when presented with a chance to go home and return to his place behind the bench, he couldn’t say no to Senators GM John Muckler.
“I’ve said this many times. It was a very, very difficult decision to leave,” Murray said Sunday, one day before the Ducks and Senators were to face off in the finals opener. “John gave me an opportunity to go back to my home area and to coach a good hockey team.”
Murray longed for that kind of success.
He is in the finals for the third time, also going as GM of the Florida Panthers in 1996 when they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. Murray is one of five NHL coaches to earn 600 victories, hitting the milestone in February, but was the last in that group to lead a team to the finals.
That is the product of coaching Washington, Florida and the then-Mighty Ducks during rough patches of each franchise’s history. Murray, who also guided the Detroit Red Wings for three seasons in the 1990s, is first among active coaches in wins (613) and games (1,221).
The Senators are in the playoffs for a 10th straight season and finally shed their label of postseason underachievers by reaching the finals for the first time in the franchise’s modern history. And they did it with Murray, who could still be in charge of the Ducks.
“I had great friends here,” Murray said. “People in the office and the scouts that I was either involved in bringing here or working with. And that was as tough as leaving the team, just knowing full well that you affected some of their lives as well and I did. And I feel awful about that.
“But it was an opportunity for me to go back and it was an opportunity, I felt, to leave this organization in real good shape.”
He can claim Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere as one of the key pieces still in place in the shadow of Disneyland. Giguere earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP four years ago when Anaheim made its run to the finals.
Now the 30-year-old goalie is enjoying another fine spring. He is 9-3 with a 1.87 goals-against average in playing 13 of Anaheim’s 16 postseason games.
“I think 2003 was more of a learning experience where we had nothing to lose,” Giguere said. “This year is a goal that we set at the beginning of the year. But the excitement is the same. I know I’m going to have a lot of fun playing against Ottawa.”
As will Murray as he faces his former team.
“I am very proud watching the games,” he said. “I was very proud the way some of these kids have developed and become the level of player they’ve become.”
Anaheim entered the NHL in 1993. Not since the Montreal Canadiens won their 23rd title earlier that year has the Stanley Cup been claimed by a team in Canada. No team north of the border reached the finals between 1995 and 2004 when Calgary got in, followed by Edmonton and Ottawa.
“We’re hockey historians also,” top-line Senators forward Jason Spezza said. “Having the opportunity to bring a Cup back to Canada and become Canada’s team is definitely another driving reason for us to try to win.”
Ottawa, the East’s No. 4 seed, owned home-ice advantage in only one of its four series. The Ducks were second out West, and knocked off top-seeded Detroit in the semifinals.
“We’re content to be the underdog in this. It’s clear to us that we are,” Ducks general manager Brian Burke said. “We’re happy with our group and we’re happy to be here.”
This is the third time in 14 seasons a California club has a shot at the Cup. The matchup of a small-market U.S. team and a club from Canada pushes this series far off the mainstream sports map. It won’t be on network television until Game 3, and most American newspapers have decided to cover it from afar, if at all.
The lack of buzz is especially evident in Southern California.
“It gets obscured by both baseball teams. As luck would have it they’re in first place,” Burke said of Los Angeles’ Dodgers and Angels. “These are things that we compete with.”
The Ducks’ strength comes from a defense that has Norris Trophy winners Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger _ both finalists again to be the NHL’s top blue-liner _ and Giguere. They will have the task of slowing down the No. 1 line in the NHL playoffs, made up of Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza and Dany Heatley.
Heatley is first in playoff scoring with 21 points, and Spezza is right behind him with 20, powered by seven goals _ one more than Heatley. Alfredsson, who has played in all 94 playoff games in the history of the modern Senators, is fourth with 17 points, including 10 goals.
“They’re the hottest line in the playoffs,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. “For us, it will be about trying to take away time and space.”
Time will be a factor for the Senators, not for the usual reasons. Ottawa hasn’t played since finishing off top-seeded Buffalo on May 19, hasn’t been out of the Eastern time zone since March 4, hasn’t visited California since October 2003, and will have to deal with 5 p.m. start times to accommodate East Coast prime time.
“We’re just changing our clocks for a couple of days,” Murray said. “People have to make adjustments in this league if you’re going to be competitive.”