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The Cult of Durchsetzungsvermogen

Los Angeles Kings Coach Andy Murray Is the Unlikeliest of Professional Coaches. His Secret? Preach a German Style of Intensity and Treat Your Players Like a High School Team.

November 18, 2001|KEVIN RODERICK | Kevin Roderick is a Los Angeles journalist and author of "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb." His last piece for the magazine was on downtown's loft boom

Television crews and harried journalists pack a small room at the Los Angeles Kings training base in El Segundo, some perching on chair backs for a better view. They're here to gather reactions to the news that two of the hockey club's scouts perished the day before in the World Trade Center inferno. Many millions will witness this early, raw reflection on the tragedy in an intersection of national catastrophe with the culture of ice hockey, a sport that in the best of times baffles most Americans--even most American sports reporters.

Hours earlier, shaken Kings players saw the private grief of their stoic general manager, a rugged ex-star with 1,589 penalty minutes on his career rap sheet. Now Coach Andy Murray will be the Kings' public face. Asked to reminisce about chief scout Ace Bailey, a colorful former player, Murray states an ethic he will insist on honoring. "I will only talk about Ace and Mark Bavis together," Murray says, naming the younger, lesser-known scout who also died on board United Airlines Flight 175.

When reporters press, Murray instead draws the bigger picture. "We're talking about a tragedy for all of mankind. On our team we have Slovaks, we have a Swede, we have a Finn, we have some players from the Czech Republic, Americans, Canadians. In some ways we're symbolic of the world right now, pulling together." Revelation: Andy Murray, whose team surprised the hockey world with its success last season, is no inarticulate jock.

Neither is he a Phil Jackson or Tommy Lasorda, both made-for-L.A. coaching icons whose inflated personalities fill the camera lens, any camera lenses. Murray is more solid than flashy, and like so many around his game is a stickler for honest hard work--qualities he wants in the team, which is being remade in his image from the squad that until five years ago relied on the magnificent Wayne Gretzky for its identity and fan appeal. With the Kings coming off their most successful season since Gretzky left town in a huff, the team's most marketable commodity right now might be Murray, a 50-year-old former college professor with bachelor's degrees in political science and education and a master's in sports management. He's likely the only coach in the National Hockey League to quote Nelson Mandela in his training camp welcome to players, and it's not his lone distinction. Murray played hockey on the frozen rivers of tiny Souris, Manitoba, as a boy, and for Brandon University 25 miles up the highway, but he never skated professionally. Sales manager of his dad's General Motors dealership in Brandon when he fell into coaching, his best stories emanate not from NHL arenas but from the cantons of Switzerland, where he coached town teams, and from Germany, where he coached the former East Berlin police team.

Above all, he is a dad who hurts at missing these years with his three growing children. While he's in Los Angeles for his third season with the Kings, Murray's wife Ruth and the kids are home in Faribault, Minn. The situation was never more than barely tolerable, and with the world so radically changed, with insecurity seemingly universal for the foreseeable future, Murray is increasingly pulled between his responsibilities.

Andy Murray's long hockey road trip began after his father died suddenly--a heart attack in the spring of 1981. They had run the family dealership together in Brandon while Andy coached the university team and taught night classes. He was 30 and had lived all his life on the Manitoba prairie, 90 miles above the U.S. border. When a team in Kloten, Switzerland, offered him the head coaching job, he gave up the plains for the Alps. "I thought I needed to develop," Murray recalls between sips of soup sitting at a table overlooking the Kings' practice rink. "And I just kind of wanted to get away too, after what had happened." He picked up German, made friends, had some wild times--when his team played Zurich in a championship game, for instance, riot police in gas masks came in to hose down zealous fans. He even got Ruth to coach a kids team in Kloten. "She didn't really want to, but I kind of signed her up for it," he admits. He got her to take a coaching class once by promising to take ballroom dancing lessons. "She took the coaching course and I haven't quite gotten around to the dancing course yet."

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