Reporting David Elfin
All pro coaches know when they’re hired that they’re eventually going to be fired. However, Terry Murray’s dismissal by the Los Angeles Kings last Dec. 12 was particularly cruel.
Sure the Kings had lost four straight games, but they were still over .500 at 13-12-4. What’s more, the 61-year-old Murray had 499 career victories, leaving him just one shy of becoming the 17th coach to win 500 games behind an NHL bench.
Murray, whose career as an NHL head coach began with Washington in January 1990, had captured 139 of those 499 victories with Los Angeles. His .560 winning percentage was the best of any coach during the Kings’ 44-year history. Los Angeles’ 199 points under Murray’s direction in 2009-10 and 2010-11 were its most ever in consecutive seasons.
“I didn’t know (my firing) was coming,” Murray said in an exclusive interview with 106.7TheFan. “Our expectations had been very high after the previous two seasons. It was time to take it to the next level and we didn’t start off 15-3 like we had the previous year. Our (season-opening) trip to Europe was harder than maybe I had expected and I was so concerned about fatigue after we got back that I probably pulled back too much on practices. That was my fault.”
But Murray can’t be blamed for the injuries to forwards Dustin Penner and Scott Parse, ace defenseman Drew Doughty’s holdout and the tentative starts by newly-acquired center Mike Richards and by sniper Anze Kopitar as he returned from a broken leg.
Of course, there’s no argument now that replacing Murray – after interim coach John Stevens four-game stint – with Darryl Sutter didn’t make sense. The Kings went 25-13-11 the rest of the way under Sutter, good enough to gain the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. And now, after becoming the first team to beat a conference’s top three seeds en route to the Stanley Cup finals, Murray’s former players are now just one victory from winning the first championship for the franchise that was founded by Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, a native Canadian in 1967.
“I’m definitely cheering for the Kings,” said Murray, who scouted the American Hockey League and the Eastern Conference finals for Los Angeles this spring. “It meant a lot when some of the players called after I was fired. I was part of that organization for three years. It starts with a great owner like Phillip Anschutz. My name won’t be on the Cup, but emotionally, I feel like I’ll have a piece of it.”
Of course, veteran Caps fans remember that Murray was on the other end of a more bizarre coaching change. On Jan. 16, 1990, Washington general manager David Poile promoted him from Baltimore, where he was coaching the organization’s AHL affiliate, to replace his brother Bryan, who had led the previously forlorn Caps to seven consecutive playoff berths.
The younger Murray took a Caps team that was limping along at 18-24-4 and directed an 18-14-2 stretch drive that extended the postseason streak. Washington then outlasted New Jersey and upset the New York Rangers to reach its first conference finals. Murray’s 1991 and 1992 teams were beaten in the playoffs by eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. However, the Caps were surprised by the New York Islanders in the 1993 playoffs and Murray didn’t survive another full season, getting canned in January 1994. To this day, only his brother has coached more games (326) or won more (164) behind Washington’s bench.
Murray moved on to Philadelphia where he guided the Flyers to two Atlantic Division titles and a spot in the Eastern finals during his first two seasons. The Flyers reached the Cup finals during Murray’s third season, but he was dismissed for allegedly questioning his players’ confidence as they were being swept by powerhouse Detroit.
His next stop was Florida where he produced a franchise-record 98 points in 1999-2000 only to be ousted during the next season in favor of Duane Sutter, Darryl’s brother. Murray then worked as a scout and an assistant coach for the Flyers until the Kings gave him his fourth shot at command in 2008.
And now almost six months after he was coaching Jonathan Quick, Kopitar, Doughty et al, Murray can only watch as they skate for the Cup that he has never won as a player or a coach.
“You never get used to being fired, but you have to learn from it,” Murray said. “I feel fresh. I still want to coach. I know what I can do.”
With Dale Hunter, whom he coached for three years, having resigned as the Caps’ coach last month, perhaps Murray can finish his career behind the bench where it started, in Washington. Are you reading this Ted Leonsis and George McPhee?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin