Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Larry Murphy
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One on One with Larry Murphy

16 JANUARY 2006
'Quiet, thoughtful, methodical,' wrote the National Post, summarizing the outstanding career of Larry Murphy. Through 21 NHL seasons, Murphy quietly, humbly and remarkably established benchmarks as one of the most consistent, durable and reliable blueliners in NHL history.

Lawrence Thomas Murphy was born March 8, 1961 in Whitby, Ontario but was raised the youngest of two boys in nearby Scarborough. "My folks cared for foster children for as long as I can remember," says Larry. "They were quite involved with emotionally disturbed children as well. Sometimes, we'd have as many as three children living in our home so things were always interesting."

Hockey was a passion shared by the entire family. "Saturday nights were big in our home — 'Hockey Night in Canada.'" Larry laughs, "We were a house divided. My Mom, brother and I were Leafs fans. My Dad was a Montreal Canadiens fan. That rivalry created a lot of great memories and a lot of raised voices over the years."

Larry went with his parents to watch his older brother play hockey and waited patiently for his turn to arrive. "My father dressed me in my brother's old equipment," Larry remembers. "I was five years old and I had never been on skates. By the end of the practice, my toes were frozen. During that first year, my Dad began the ritual of taking me to the dressing room and running my toes under warm water after the game. Each week, the frozen toes of the previous week forgotten, I couldn't wait to get back on the ice. I was hooked on the greatest game on earth."

Growing up during a decade where the Leafs earned four Stanley Cup championships imprinted on the young man. "As a boy growing up in Scarborough, I never dreamed as big as the Hockey Hall of Fame, but I did dream of playing in the NHL." In a 1971 Toronto Sun newspaper article, a prophetic 10-year-old Murphy reported. "Davey Keon is my favourite player but I like to hit like Bobby Baun so maybe I'll play defense for the Leafs one day."

Larry credits his parents with reinforcing his love of the game. "They drove me to ice rinks at outrageous hours and watched every game I played in," says Larry. "They never complained and they kept the game fun for me."

The road to hockey fame was paved with speedbumps for the young Murphy, who was cut twice from Minor Atom teams and three times from Bantam squads. "It was disappointing but when you're a little guy, you keep trying to make other teams because hockey is just about all that you have to do," Larry shrugs. "Back then, if I wasn't on the ice, I was playing road hockey. And if I wasn't playing road hockey, I was playing floor hockey. And if I wasn't playing, I was watching hockey on television."

Having been switched back and forth from forward to defense, Murphy finally settled in as a defenseman while playing with the Canadian Midget champion Don Mills Flyers in 1977-78. The next year, he was playing junior in Peterborough with the Petes. That year, under the tutelage of coach Gary Green, Murphy and the Petes were Memorial Cup champions. In 1979-80, after a superb season in which Larry scored 21 goals and added 68 assists and was named the OHL's best defenseman, the Petes almost repeated, going to the Memorial Cup finals with coach Mike Keenan. "I was fortunate to have had two coaches in Green and Keenan who were just great teachers. I would have played another junior season but, luckily for me, the NHL brought in the underage draft."

In 1980, Larry Murphy was drafted fourth overall by the Los Angeles Kings. "I didn't know too much about the team but I soon realized that the Kings were looking to make some changes by moving out some older players," he recalls. "After they claimed me, I looked up the Kings' roster to find out who was on the team. I didn't know too many of their players. I'd been busy playing junior hockey and didn't study the NHL that closely. When I got to training camp, I started to think that I had a chance to make it."

But from suburbia's safe haven to the bright lights of Los Angeles was quite a transition for the 19-year-old Murphy. "There were prostitutes on the street and it was the middle of the day. Burnt-out cars on the side of the road. It was pretty shocking." Also shocking was the realization that he'd be playing with and against some of the heroes he had admired on 'Hockey Night in Canada.' "The toughest time was the first year in training camp," he states. "We were doing a three-on-two drill and I look up and see Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer coming at me. I was shaking so bad, I was scared silly!" Nevertheless, the Kings provided a wonderful opportunity for the young defenseman. "I was in awe in L.A. at first because they had the Triple Crown Line going strong but they needed someone on the powerplay point and I got the chance."

Cracking the Kings' lineup in 1980-81, Murphy proceeded to establish a record for points by a rookie defenseman, previously held by Ray Bourque, when he scored 16 goals and added 60 assists. That season, Larry Murphy was runner-up to Peter Stastny for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie.

Toiling for the Kings in Southern California pre-Gretzky left Larry in relative obscurity. "Hockey's not as big as it is up here (in Canada) and there's less pressure by the press," he states. "I was playing in a city where you weren't under a microscope, I was playing a lot and I was with a talented group."

As a rookie, Murphy and the Kings made the playoffs but were eliminated in the preliminary round. The next year, Larry broke the 20-goal mark for the first time, scoring 22. L.A. went to the division final before the season ended, but Larry proved himself a major contributor, earning 12 points in 10 playoff games. In Larry's third season, his output was diminished a little and the Kings missed the playoffs.

After just 6 games of the 1983-84 season, the Kings traded Murphy to Washington for Brian Engblom and Ken Houston. Larry had enjoyed his time in Southern California. "It would have been very easy to get caught up in the California lifestyle and lose your concentration on hockey," Murphy explains. "For instance, you run into so many celebrities, people who are big names in show business and sports, that it would be easy to forget what you're really here to do."

The move proved to be a positive one for Larry, although he sometimes earned the scorn of the Washington fans who felt his game was too one-dimensional. Coach Bryan Murray worked with Larry to establish a more well-rounded game. "When I make a mistake, it is often a dandy and because I'm a defenseman, it stands out," he said at the time. "I've worked hard to correct that and I haven't been throwing the puck away nearly as often. I've been sizing things up, making a pass when I have the chance or just getting the puck out when that's the only alternative."

In 1987, former junior coach Mike Keenan selected Murphy to join Team Canada for the Canada Cup tournament. Larry contributed a crucial goal and 6 assists for 7 points during the victorious and very memorable tournament. The confidence Larry gained in the international series carried over into the regular season, where Murphy enjoyed a career-high 23 goals and was named to the NHL's Second All-Star Team.

During six seasons with the Capitals, Larry set Washington club records for most goals, assists and points by a defenseman, and helped lead the team to a first place Patrick Division finish in 1987-88. "I feel I've improved because I'm playing with confidence at both ends of the rink," he said in a 1988 newspaper report.

Nearing playoff time in 1989, Larry Murphy and Mike Gartner were packaged and sent to the Minnesota North Stars, with Washington receiving Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse in return. Then, in December 1990, Larry changed teams again, this time going to Pittsburgh with Peter Taglianetti in exchange for Chris Dahlquist and Jim Johnson. "Only one trade shocked me," Murphy admits. "That was when Minnesota sent me to Pittsburgh. Why in the world would Pittsburgh want me? They already had Paul Coffey and Zarley Zalapski." Little did Larry realize but Coffey was soon shipped off to Los Angeles and Zalapski was traded to Hartford.

During the first season wearing a Penguins' jersey, Larry Murphy achieved the ultimate reward -- winning the Stanley Cup. "I was very fortunate, the way things worked out," he smiles. "Every hockey player dreams of winning the Stanley Cup ahead of everything else. As you approach 30, you begin to wonder if it's ever going to happen for you."

Larry contributed much to the victory, collecting 23 points in 23 playoff games during the spring of 1991. "Being part of a Stanley Cup championship team was always a priority and winning under the late Bob Johnson, with his positive attitude and enthusiasm, made it even more special," Larry reports. "The greatest feeling in the world is to have the Cup passed to you."

During August 1991, Coach Johnson was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Scotty Bowman, the Penguins' Director of Player Development, handled coaching duties. In November, Bob Johnson died, throwing the team into a funk. But the team rallied under Bowman. Larry scored 21 goals in 1991-92, the fourth of five times he'd crack that plateau. The Penguins went on to repeat as Stanley Cup champions — a tribute to a strong team, the legacy of a friend and mentor in Bob Johnson and strong leadership from Scotty Bowman. "He was a brilliant tactician and provided me with the opportunity and sound direction," says Murphy of his coach. "Playing under the leadership of Scotty Bowman gave me some of the greatest moments of my career."

Larry's best season with Pittsburgh was 1992-93 when he scored 22 goals and 63 assists for a career-best 85 points. That season, Murphy was named to the NHL's Second All-Star Team for a second time.

At the Entry Draft in 1995, having been named a Second All-Star for a third time, Larry was traded by the Penguins to Toronto for Dimitri Mironov and a draft pick. "When I was growing up, I was a diehard Leafs fan. But that Leafs' dressing room might as well have been 10,000 miles away then, because I never thought I'd ever play for them." His salary of $2.35 million made him the best-paid member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, above Felix Potvin, Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin and former teammate Mike Gartner. Expectations were exceedingly high for both Larry and the Leafs. Unfortunately, returning to his hometown proved to be heartbreaking for Larry, who was booed every time he touched the puck. Murphy seemed to symbolize an overpaid and underachieving team in Toronto. "That was a real test," he admits. "That was pure pressure. If you get used to playing under that, you should be able to handle anything."

Mercifully, in March 1997, Larry was traded to Detroit for future considerations, which amounted to nothing more than paying two-thirds of the cost of his salary. Reunited with Bowman, Larry was employed more effectively, paired with Nicklas Lidstrom on the blueline to form an outstanding defensive duo. That same season, Murphy was part of a Stanley Cup celebration with the Red Wings. "It's amazing how one phonecall can change your destiny," he shrugs. "Considering all the b.s. that happened, this (the Stanley Cup celebration) was beautiful. It was sweet and it was a total team effort." Larry and the Wings won a second successive Stanley Cup championship in 1998.

Larry played as a member of the Detroit Red Wings until his retirement after the 2000-2001 season. Even up to the end, Larry was quick to say, "I look forward now to playing the game as much as I ever have, even when I was a kid. I still get a charge out of playing the game." In 1,615 regular season contests, Murphy scored 287 goals and 929 assists for 1,216 points. During playoff action, he scored 37 goals and 115 assists for 152 points in 215 games. "I think I played better the latter part of my career than early on," says Larry. "I don't know why. But I do think it is important for a player, no matter how old he is, to believe that he can improve as a player every year."

He was just the fourth NHL defenseman to collect 1,000 points, joining Denis Potvin, Paul Coffey and Raymond Bourque in that esteemed club on March 28, 1996. In February 1999, Murphy passed Tim Horton's 1,445 career games played as a defenseman to set a new record in longevity. "I look at the number of games and it didn't feel like I played that many," he smiles. "I take more pride in my consistency than anything else."

In 2004, Larry Murphy, along with fellow blueliners Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque and Builder Cliff Fletcher, was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Understated and under-heralded, Larry Murphy prompted The National Post to write, 'His skating is cautious rather than fluid, his play methodical rather than unabashed or bruising, his passing, virtually flawless, has a molasses-like quality.' Larry adds, "I couldn't shoot a puck 100 mph and I wasn't going to run a guy through the boards or skate through the whole team. My game and my whole career always had kind of a low-key approach. I'm happy with that."

In his Induction speech, Murphy stated, "To be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, in such esteemed company, is an honour and a privilege. On these walls are the greatest players ever to play the game. To be included in this group is an affirmation of my career."

Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Manager of Publishing and Editorial Services.