All things being equal, Garth Murray should not be looking for work.
He has a sterling hockey pedigree, certainly for someone trying to chisel out a place on an American Hockey League team, attempting to knock down odds not of his making.
A captain or assistant captain most everywhere he’s been; an alumnus of the Canadian world junior program; a player with 116 NHL games to his credit; a hard-nosed, hard-working centre whose style has endeared him to fans, teammates and coaches across the continent; someone who has done enough to earn two hockey nicknames: ‘Muzz” and “Murr-Dog.”
But Murray, who is attending the St. John’s IceCaps’ training camp, is without a contract. What’s more, he classifies as a veteran under AHL guidelines, which limit teams to dressing no more than five players who have more than 260 games of NHL, top-level minor or European elite league games to their credit (see accompanying box on page B3).
The 29-year-old Regina native rose to that level five years ago, and although the IceCaps’ roster situation hasn’t completely shaken out, it looks like they could be hard up against the veteran limit.
“If I was a second- or third-year player, I’d love the rule, but I’m a veteran and I don’t love it and I wish it wasn’t there right now. But it’s something I respect and it’s something I understand because they want to make sure there’s room for young players to develop,” said Murray.
“But I faced this before and my attitude has never changed. Work hard and battle. It’s worked out for me the last nine or 10 years, so I have to believe it will work out again.”
Murray faced it last season, which saw him start out with the Victoria Salmon Kings in his first-ever stop in the ECHL. After just six games in Victoria, he got an opportunity to play with the Manitoba Moose, Victoria’s AHL affiliate.
“We never had Garth before, but he’s just one of those guys you never hear a bad word about,” said IceCaps’ general manager Craig Heisinger, who held the same job with the Moose last year.
“I couldn’t promise him anything. I couldn’t promise him it would be one game, five games or 10 games.
What we did tell him is that if he did come and do his part, we wouldn’t hang him out to dry. He lived up to his end of the bargain, and I would say, at the end of the day, we lived up to ours.”
Murray suited up for every one of Manitoba’s remaining 55 games, playing the same way he has for more than a decade. It’s the same game he’s brought to Newfoundland in an attempt to make the IceCaps.
“Maybe I’ve calmed down a bit over the years. Back in the day, I’d maybe get into about 20 fights a year, but I have slowed down a little when it comes to that,” he said. “The game has changed a lot and there is not as much in the way of fisticuffs as back then, when I remember it being a war most every night.
“But other than that, it’s the same — block shots, hit, get to the net and be a solid defensive player.”
If you’re looking for scoring, don’t bring the request to Murray’s door. He hasn’t had more than 12 goals in any of his nine pro seasons. Just about anything else, however, he can deliver.
“His game hasn’t changed,” said Heisinger. “He’s gotten older, but he’s the same hard-working, great-character guy. It’s wonderful what he does in a (dressing) room, and that’s a great intangible, although in the end, he doesn’t get paid for what he does in the room. He gets paid for what he does on the ice.
“Keith (IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge) is a big Garth Murray fan and its up to Muzz to make himself valuable again. Some things will probably have to fall into place, but if they do, he’s someone who can take advantage of the opportunity.
“There are lot of guys who wouldn’t do what he’s doing because they think they’re entitled to a job because they are veterans. That’s not Muzz. All the risk is on his side in the situation, so you have to admire him for that.”
Murray is also looking forward to playing hockey after having adopted a new attitude toward the game. Part of that is due to the good experience he had in Manitoba last season. It’s also because of the soul-shaking experience of having to deal with the death of three former teammates — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.
Rypien, like Murray, was a former captain of the WHL’s Regina Pats, but the two became close friends as linemates last season with the Moose.
“I thought he was in a good place,” said Murray, shaking his head.
“I played with Boogie in junior and knew him for 10 years and I played with Belak for a while with (the NHL’s Florida Panthers).
“First one and then it was like deja vu two times over.”
Belak’s death was ruled a suicide, Rypien’s is believed to have been, and Boogaard was ruled to have died due to a from a lethal mix of alcohol and oxycodone. All were said to have suffered from depression.
“It was a weird situation. I knew all three and all three were fighters, ” said Murray.
“It was a very reflective summer.”
“It made me think about what’s at the end of the rainbow. When you’re younger, your focus is entirely on the NHL. And now it’s more of a job. I don’t have a family to support so that takes some pressure off. So, in the end, it’s hockey.
“The decision to take a rip at this came a little late. But honestly, this is the opportunity I wanted
“I know the town,” he added, as a smile creased his face, as a happy thought cut through the earlier and gloomier reflections.
“I do remember slushy snow. I remember having a nice pair of shoes and being worried about walking around St. John’s. But everything else was great. I know the fans and I know how much fun every guy on this team is going to have this year. I want a chance to be part of this.”
Again, Heisinger can offer no promises. But he isn’t betting against Murray either.
“It’s unfortunate Muzz is in the same situation (this year). He has to come and roll the dice and veteran spots are a little bit more at a premium with us (this year),” said Heisinger. “But Garth is like a fly in a room. Once he gets in there, he’s hard to get out."
Winnipeg has assigned three more players — forwards Spencer Machacek and Carl Klingberg and defenceman Brett Festerling to the IceCaps, although Machacek and Festerling will have to clear waivers to make it to St. John’s. The Jets have also released tryout forward
That eaves Winnipeg with 32 players --- including a few who are injured -- in training camp. ... Murray and fellow forward Riley Armstrong, another AHl veteran without a contract, played their first games for the IceCaps in pre-season play against the Norfolk Admirals Friday night in Gander. Newfoundlanders Jason King and Alex Wall, who had suited up for St. John’s in a 5-2 loss to the Admirals Thursday night in St. John’s, were among the scratches for St. John’s Friday ... Expect a big roster upheaval on the IceCaps in the next 24 hours, what with nearly a dozen-and-a-half players assigned to the team still having to hook up with the main body. The St. John’s lineup that takes to the ice 2 p.m. Monday at Mile One Centre in St. John’s for the third and final game of the Mary Brown’s Cup against the Admirals, won’t look anything like the one that was used Friday in Gander (the results of the game were not available at The Telegram’s press deadline).
The AHL’s veteran rule
The American Hockey League introduced its veteran rule some years back in order to enhance its reputation as a league focused on prospect development, and not as a storehouse of older players waiting on another shot at the National Hockey League or playing out the string.
Simply put, the rule limits teams to dressing no more than five players who began the current season with more than 260 combined regular-season NHL, AHL, International Hockey League (the old version) or European elite (Swedish, Finnish, Czech, Swiss, German, KHL) games.
There is also an exemption for one “tweener,” a player who has played more than 260, but fewer than 321, of such games.
A couple of notes:
• Goaltenders are exempt from the rule
• Players on loan from the NHL for a two-week conditioning period don’t count towards the veteran quota, but this exemption can only be used once per player, per season
• The veteran rule is applied in the playoffs
• If a player participates in European elite league games while of an age when he is still junior eligible for the Canadian Hockey League, those games don’t count in calculating the 260 games. Overage junior years are excluded from this exemption.
• If a team dresses fewer than 17 skaters in a game, the amount of eligible veteran players who can dress is not reduced.
• The rule does not limit the number of veterans a team can carry on its roster, only the number it can dress for games.
• The following players who have already been assigned to the St. John’s IceCaps or who have been signed to two-way NHL/AHL contracts by the Winnipeg Jets would classify as veterans under AHL rules: forwards Jason King, Jason Jaffray, Marco Rosa, Garth Murray (unsigned), Riley Armstrong (unsigned) and defencemen Derek Meech, Brett Festerling and Mark Flood. Festerling and Flood qualify under the “tweener” exemption (see above).