Last Tuesday, Rob Murray’s travels took him from Anchorage to Boise, Idaho, with a Seattle layover. It was hardly the type of bus excursion Murray regularly took between New England’s AHL rinks.
“No day trips,” Murray said. “But it’s a short road trip. Here, a road trip can be two weeks.”
For Murray, here is the ECHL. More specifically, Alaska. The former Providence boss is in his second year coaching the Alaska Aces. The club was en route to Boise for a midweek game against the Idaho Steelheads. From there, the team was scheduled to take a four-hour bus ride to West Valley City, Utah, for a two-game series against the Utah Grizzlies.
It is a grind Murray found acceptable to the alternative.
From 2003-08, Murray served as an assistant to Scott Gordon in Providence, and for the next three seasons assumed the lead job. In the spring of 2011, following a second straight year without a playoff appearance, Murray was dismissed as Providence coach.
The Bruins informed Murray he could be reassigned to pro scouting. A day before committing to the new gig, Murray became aware of the Alaska opening. It would require a backward step. But the bench, not the press box, is where Murray feels at home.
“At first, it was scary to think of moving all the way to Alaska,” Murray said. “It was taking a step back, essentially, and going to a lesser league. But at the end of the day, I wanted to continue to coach. I want to continue to help players develop.”
It was the slow pace of development in Providence that cost Murray his position. Management was wary of how prospects such as Zach Hamill and Joe Colborne struggled, at times, to find their professional rhythm.
The Aces do not have an AHL affiliation. Ownership’s mandate to Murray is to win. Last season, Alaska went 43-18-11, and Murray was named ECHL Coach of the Year. He coached several former Providence players, including goalie Adam Courchaine and defenseman Bryan Miller.
This season, Alaska was 18-8-0 through 26 games.
“At the end of the day in Providence, development of certain players was more important,” Murray said. “Here, I don’t think I’ve changed my coaching ways. I have more freedom to play who I want. I don’t think my coaching style has changed at all. There’s more of an emphasis on winning here.”
This year, because of the lockout, Murray has had four ringers on his roster: Scott Gomez, Brandon Dubinsky, Joey Crabb, and Nate Thompson. All are Anchorage natives. Instead of signing overseas, the four opted to sign with the hometown club to keep their games sharp.
“Having these guys come back, they’re giving back to the community and back to the minor league system they grew up in,” said Murray. “People think the world of them for it. They’ve been great, very gracious. They’re not bigger than the team. Anything the team does, they’re there.”
Of the four, Thompson is the most familiar to Murray. The Lightning center played under Murray in Providence for three full seasons. Had the Islanders not claimed Thompson off waivers at the start of 2008, he might be a Bruin.
The Bruins liked Thompson because of his character. It’s the same quality Murray sees in Thompson now, even two tiers below the NHL. Through 24 games, Thompson had seven goals and 21 assists. On Dec. 8, Thompson logged his first ECHL fight.
“Nate’s the same guy,” Murray said. “Obviously, his game’s improved since he was in Providence. He’s got that quickness, ability to protect the puck, and get to the net. But the thing about Nate, even though he’s at the East Coast League level, his game hasn’t necessarily changed. He has the ability to play more of an offensive role than he does in Tampa Bay. But the underlying theme is he’s still a checking centerman. He’s our top penalty killer, top faceoff guy, a last-minute-of-the-game type of guy. Those things haven’t changed about Nate.”
When the lockout lifts, Thompson, Dubinsky, Gomez, and Crabb will likely return to the NHL. It’s not the case for Murray. All the coaches are in place in the NHL. It’s too early for AHL clubs to fire any of their coaches. In all likelihood, Murray’s first crack at a promotion to the AHL will take place next summer.
“I’m hoping to come to this level, do well, and have another chance to move back up,” Murray said. “Sooner than later, I suppose.”
CALLED TO ACTION
Thornton gets firsthand look
Early in November, Shawn Thornton was one of 13 players to participate in a bargaining session in New York. Erin, Thornton’s wife, helped convince the tough guy to see firsthand the machinations of negotiations.
“If this season gets lost and the next one, and you never, ever get a feel for what was going on, you’d be bitter about it for the rest of your life,” Thornton recalled his wife saying. “If you don’t get to voice your opinion in a room, you won’t be able to sleep at night.”
As a player, Thornton’s career is on the back nine. This should have been Year 1 of his two-year, $2.2 million contract. It could be the final contract of his career.
So the 35-year-old Thornton, as much as anyone, wants to play. During the bargaining session he attended, Thornton appreciated the opportunity to make his voice heard, although he was taken aback by the nature of bargaining.
“Eye-opening experience,” Thornton said. “I was amazed at how slow the process is when you’re actually there. It’s a lot of meetings, a lot of talking in circles, a lot of talking about the talking in circles, then going back in and talking in circles some more. It was eye-opening. It teaches you to have a little more patience. I recommend everybody to do it at one point if they get the chance to go down and see it. It’s still frustrating. Whether you’re there or you’re not, it [stinks]. It was good to go down. If I’m needed again, I’ll go down, but I haven’t been called on.”
Upon retirement, Thornton plans to work in media. Former teammates Shane Hnidy and Aaron Ward have transitioned from the ice to radio and television.
The microphone, however, will have to wait. During the lockout, Thornton has not been tempted to pull the plug and launch his next career.
“If I have to go out, I want it to be on my own terms,” Thornton said. “I worked too [expletive] hard to get here to let somebody else dictate that.”
Checking in on the issues
The NHL’s three must-have provisions are a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, no cap on escrow and no outside-the-system buyouts, and a five-year maximum on player contracts. According to one agent (Agent A), there’s wiggle room on the first and second items: the CBA and compliance issues.
“Give them their eight plus two,” the agent said, referring to the 10-year CBA, which includes an opt-out after eight seasons. “It allows the league to go back to the sponsors and say they have eight to 10 years of labor peace. It’s a win-win for everyone. The fact that the players are fighting that issue is beyond belief to me. They’re arguing for the sake of arguing. It makes absolutely no sense.”
There’s a bit more concern about the compliance issues. Players are worried about how cap-tight teams will remain competitive and fill their rosters without buyouts as a tool.
But the primary sticking point is the hill the NHL says it will die on: five-year deals. Right now, that hill is making Mount Everest look like a speed bump.
“I fully support the players on this one,” the agent said. “They should fight on this one.”
The league wants to eliminate long-term, back-diving contracts (Shea Weber, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter being just the examples agreed to by the Flyers).
The players believe a five-year cap would create two tiers: the elite and all the rest. Because general managers would not have term to attract players, they would have to offer more dollars to sign top-level talent. In turn, that would leave less money for the rank and file.
Another agent (Agent B) used Evgeni Malkin as an example. Malkin’s deal expires after 2013-14. Under the five-year rule, Malkin wouldn’t be able to secure a 12-year, $104.4 million contract like Sidney Crosby. Malkin, said Agent B, would most likely ask for a five-year, $60 million deal, conceivably the maximum average annual value he could receive. GM Ray Shero would then have less money to sign complementary players.
“I would not give in on five years,” said Agent B.
For now, the NHL is not budging off five years. Even though a seven-year cap on contracts would prompt the players to lace up their skates.
“If the league had a brain in its head and went to seven years, I guarantee you that guys would say, ‘Let’s vote on this right now,’ ” said Agent A. “Enough kids are antsy enough to play. If the league gives back a little, there would be a push for player votes.”
Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton projects to be on Team Canada’s No. 1 defensive pairing when the World Junior Championship begins Dec. 26 in Ufa, Russia. If the lockout ends during the tournament, it is undecided whether Hamilton will be released from his commitment to report to Bruins camp. “I’ve had discussions with Hockey Canada,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “It’s an ongoing discussion. They recognize there’s a good chance he can make our team. But I anticipate we’ll have another discussion prior to them breaking camp before Europe.” An in-tournament departure would leave the Canadians without one of their best defensemen. But Hockey Canada has usually not stood in the NHL’s way in player personnel matters.
With colder weather arriving, local ice gurus are busy with backyard rink construction. Pleased to report that reader P.J. McNealy recently committed to naming his Natick establishment the Falla Forum in honor of the late Jack Falla, the king of backyard rinks. McNealy had been planning to flood the rink on Monday or Tuesday. “Hockey is alive and well in Natick, with Falla, McNealy, Micelli, Kelleher, Knapp, and Metcalf happily replacing the missing Charas, Bergerons, Seguins, and Thorntons,” McNealy wrote in an e-mail. Here’s to a literal deep freeze instead of the figurative one in NHL labor negotiations.
Not quite done
If his career is over, Jay Pandolfo appeared in 881 NHL games, scored 100 goals and 126 assists, and established himself as one of his generation’s most dependable defensive forwards. “It’s been a good career,” Pandolfo said. “But I still feel like I have a little left. You love playing the game and you want to do it as long as you can.” Because the Winchester native still thinks he can play, the left wing has been skating and working out in Boston alongside local NHLers during the lockout. Last season, Pandolfo averaged 10:55 of ice time per game in 62 appearances for the Islanders. The unrestricted free agent could be an inexpensive pickup, especially if injuries strike when the lockout lifts and players acclimate to NHL pace. “There’s no guarantee that I even do get a job,” Pandolfo said. “But I don’t want to not do anything, there’s some interest, and I’m not in shape. Just staying in shape to see what happens.”
If the lockout lifts, the Bruins are projecting to bring 15 forwards, 8 defensemen, and 2 goalies to training camp. Because camp will be abbreviated, Chiarelli doesn’t necessarily see a need for a spare goalie, although Niklas Svedberg is thus far proving to be a future NHL puck-stopper. “He’s been real good,” Chiarelli said. “Really, really competitive. Guys see that and they play better. He’s never out of a play.” . . . Agent B’s quick fix to back-diving deals: maximum of five-year contracts for players 37 or older. That would eliminate the dummy years that extend term and decrease AAV . . . Reader Joel Chace asked for a recommendation for the best hockey-related books. Everything begins and ends with “The Game,” Ken Dryden’s timeless memoir of NHL life. Not only is it the gold standard, but it also teaches Anglophone readers the best applications of French-Canadian curses. My other suggestion: Falla’s “Home Ice,” the best example of life as seen through the lens of a backyard rink . . . Former Bruin Derek Sanderson will be signing copies of his memoir, “Crossing the Line: The Outrageous Story of a Hockey Original,” Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. at Chatham’s Yellow Umbrella . . . Do not envy the reporters regularly covering CBA negotiations. With sessions sealed off, it’s the equivalent of reporting on a game you can’t watch. Very challenging to depend on your ears when you’re used to trusting your eyes . . . Bruins players recently received Christmas cards from Jeremy Jacobs. Doubt those are going on any mantles.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.