Groomed for battle

Robin
Robin Short
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Garth Murray was 15, new to major junior hockey and the Regina Pats' training camp.

He was scrimmaging with the team's other youngsters, and the first- and second-year Pats. The veterans, still junior-aged but old enough to grow playoff beards and legally drink, were the on-ice officials.

Murray was still in high school, where, in addition to hockey, he starred on the volleyball team. He was also a crackerjack in the classroom, smart enough to be on the honour roll for four straight years.

He was never a fighter, per se. Rather, Murray had a nice combination of grit and skill, enough skill to make him the 13th overall pick in the 1997 Western Hockey League bantam draft, enough skill to win him a spot on Canada's world junior team five years later.

But that didn't matter.

This was junior hockey, the Dub (you know, Dub as in W, as in WHL). The Western league, with the big, rawboned farm kids.

"The older guys were refereeing the games, and they're going around setting up fights with different guys," recalls Murray 14 years later, on the back nine of his hockey career.

"They skate by and say, 'So and so wants to fight you.' I'm like, 'I've never really fought before. But whatever. Let's go.'"

And thus Garth Murray was introduced to hockey's subculture - some may argue its dark side.

Murray's done all right for himself. He played four years with the storied Pats in his hometown, won a silver medal at the world juniors, was drafted 79th overall by the New York Rangers and, 10 professional seasons later, has 116 NHL games on his résumé.

Murray's survived this long by being a consummate team player. He skates hard, finishes checks, plays a responsible defensive game, chips in the odd goal and, yes, drops the gloves from time to time.

He's no heavyweight, and won't be mentioned in the same breath as Tony Twist, Marty McSorley or Joey Kocur when it's all said and done.

But he's been a darn fine representative within the middleweight division.

And it all started, reluctantly, back in junior hockey.

"There were some long days knowing what fights were coming up," says the St. John's IceCaps winger.

"I remember fighting guys like Darcy Hordichuk, some tough guys in junior and even in pro. There were some long bus rides between Regina and Saskatoon knowing he was there waiting.

"But it was never an option for me not to do that every now and then. It was always something I had to do."

The fighter might be hockey's most honourable man. The job description, not so appealing.

Hands the size of Easter hams, but run through a meat grinder. Noses crooked and twisted, a human detour sign. Barking shoulders and backs.

And now, seven months following the death of hockey's toughest customer, something far more grim has emerged - the potential for serious brain damage.

Garth Murray fought Derek Boogaard at Regina's training camp when the two were still 16. That was before Boogaard, then a gangly, still-growing-into-his-body kid, had become The Bogey Man. They hooked up again, when Boogaard was playing for the Prince George Cougars, but that one wasn't anything more than a grappling contest.

Boogaard grew to six-foot-seven and over 260 pounds. He became the modern day John Ferguson, the game's most feared fighter.

Last spring, Boogaard died at 28 - same age as Murray at the time - the victim of a drug and alcohol overdose.

Recently, medical findings have shown that Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It's similar to Alzheimer's disease, and, had Boogaard lived, it's likely he would have suffered middle-age dementia.

He's not the only hockey player.

The brains of Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming were also examined and CTE was found.

In fairness, it's not just the tough guys. Former Buffalo Sabres scoring star Richard Martin also showed signs of CTE.

It's enough to make one step back and reflect on one's mortality, no?

Especially when you see three of your former teammates die - Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak (the latter two rough-and-tumble players committed suicide).

"Definitely. I'd be foolish not to worry about it," Murray admits.

"My first concussion happened when I was 14 (from a check, not a fight). I remember being pretty messed up with memory loss. Since then, I think I've had four or five stingers.

"As a hockey player, personally, it was a long summer because I did a lot of thinking about playing. I was at two funerals (Boogaard's and Rypien's).

"It's funny, because you go into a season and every year you try to slow down a little (with less fighting). But it's not how I'm wired. I stick up for teammates, and I do what I got to do. I just seem to get the mitts off. I think I've changed the way I fight because the older you get, the smarter you get. You don't take as many punches as you used to, so in that regard it's a little better.

"But, still, when you see stuff like that, like what was going on with Boogie's brain, you'd be foolish not to worry a bit. I feel good now. But who knows when I'm 50."

Smoking has been linked to any number of diseases, yet people still light up.

And despite a greater emphasis on safety, working in a coal mine can't be good for the body.

There are many safer jobs than working on a crab boat.

And some hockey players fight.

There are wingnuts out there who thoroughly enjoy dropping the gloves and going at it. But most, according to Murray, would prefer to keep the gloves on.

"There are times, I suppose, that I like it, when you're home and the fans are into it. But when I'm sitting on the trainer's table, getting my nose pushed back or stitches put in, it's not as much fun.

"There are teams I know we're playing weeks in advance, and what guys are on those teams and what guys who are going to ask (to fight). It's a tough feeling. I think if any guy who does fight told you he wasn't - I won't say scared, but wasn't nervous or anxious - I think they're lying.

"The best part of any fight for me is going to the box, knowing that's it."

It's difficult to say if the NHL will ever ban fighting.

Commissioner Gary Bettman maintains his league doesn't allow fighting, that anyone who exchanges punches are penalized (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

Murray recalls watching a Pats junior game a year or two ago, and a fight broke out on the ice. For the moment, Murray was taken back as the adults in the seats cheered, applauded and otherwise went wiggy over two teens duking it out.

He remembers thinking that he hopes he never has to see any children of his fighting.

Still, Murray cannot be a hypocrite. He cannot bite, as they say, the hand that feeds him.

"I don't really believe it will ever leave the game. I think it will be there forever," he says.

"It's funny, because the kid that I watched fighting in junior is now playing in the AHL, and I've tried to fight him.

"My opinion is jaded because of what I do on the ice. One of Boogie's comments was, 'you live and die by the sword,' and I totally get that. Hockey has paid a lot of bills for me, and has given me a little bit of financial freedom. So I hate to bash it. I can't."

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Western Hockey League, NHL, New York Rangers Buffalo Sabres

Geographic location: Canada, Regina, St. John's Saskatoon

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