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This Duck Migrated North

Murray has put Ottawa among NHL's elite after building a Stanley Cup runner-up in Anaheim.

January 19, 2006|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Bryan Murray didn't know what would happen if he stayed as general manager of the Mighty Ducks, whether he'd be free to continue the course that had carried them to within a victory of winning the Stanley Cup in 2003 or whether he'd have to compromise his vision.

But he knew this much: His father Clarence was ill and his mother Rhoda was trying to cope far away, near Ottawa, and he felt a tug to be near them.

He didn't plan to bail out on the Ducks. Disney executives hadn't blinked when he signed Sergei Fedorov for five years and $40 million after Paul Kariya bolted for Colorado, and they'd approved his expensive acquisitions of Petr Sykora and Vinny Prospal. They went along with his plan to enhance the team's skill level enough "to go from Game 7 losing to Game 7 winning," he said.

But Disney's benign neglect ended in 2004, when it decided to slash the payroll in advance of selling the franchise. Murray had brushed off the Ottawa Senators' initial inquiry about his interest in their coaching job, but changed his mind after he talked to Disney executive Jim Hunt.

"He told me I would be looked after but he said they couldn't do anything more for the rest of the staff, and I had people I wanted to take care of," Murray said. "I said, 'So, you're selling the team,' and he said yes. ... I said, 'Well, maybe I should talk to Ottawa.'

"If this hadn't been a good team and it hadn't been Ottawa, I wouldn't really have considered it."

He inherited a good team and made it better by removing the defensive shackles affixed by his predecessor, Jacques Martin, and emphasizing a high-tempo attacking game. The Senators, who play the Ducks tonight at Ottawa in Murray's first game against his former team, lead the NHL with 185 goals and have given up the fewest, 105. They are tied with Carolina and Detroit for the most wins, 31, and are tied with Detroit for second overall in points, with 65. They're deep offensively, mobile defensively and backed by a rejuvenated Dominik Hasek in goal.

"Bryan brings that added component of being almost fearless," center Bryan Smolinski said. "I learned a lot from Jacques, even though I had only one year and most of these guys had nine years. They built an awesome team. I think Bryan is able to take it to the next level."

But to Murray, the prime benefit of moving was the chance to be with his family during his father's final illness and subsequent death, and to be near his nine siblings and swarms of nieces, nephews and cousins. If this is his last stop in an NHL career that began in Washington in 1981, Murray, 63, can be content.

"For about six months, I spent more time with my father than I did probably for 25 years. That was terrific," he said earlier this week in Minnesota, before the Senators ended a brief trip with a 6-1 rout of the Wild.

"My mother's 85 and she's real healthy and going strong, but it's been real nice to be able to drop in and allow her to cook me a nice dinner and make me an apple pie occasionally. And the same with the rest of the family. Some of the younger people in the family I hardly knew."

He had no family in Anaheim. His wife, Geri, stayed at the home they bought in Florida when he worked for the Panthers and their two daughters were in school, so the Ducks were his passion during his season as coach and two seasons as general manager.

He turned that passion into results: He fueled the Cup run by adding Sandis Ozolinsh, Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer, and he collaborated with then-coach Mike Babcock to create an environment that helped Jean-Sebastien Giguere mature into a franchise goalie. The scouts kept talent flowing by finding gems in junior standouts Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Joffrey Lupul.

If those are his legacies in Anaheim, so too was the Fedorov failure.

When Murray declined to make the $10-million qualifying offer required to retain Kariya's rights and Kariya wouldn't re-sign for less money, he zeroed in on Fedorov, another prime free agent. Murray had coached the enigmatic Russian in Detroit and thought Fedorov would blossom on his own, apart from the Red Wings' ensemble cast.

He didn't anticipate Fedorov would hate Babcock's grinding style and would shy away from a leadership role. Or that Fedorov's salary would be an albatross when a salary cap was adopted in the new collective bargaining agreement.

"He wasn't very happy after a while. I knew that," Murray said. "He didn't play as well as I thought he might. ... Sergei's the type of player that needs to be patted on the back and encouraged to be the best player on the team. He was not happy, because it was always, 'You've got to check,' and we rolled four lines."

As Fedorov flailed, Giguere struggled and injuries struck key players, the Ducks did not reach the playoffs in 2004. "We went backward instead of forward," Murray said.

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