Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Murray’s Final Days As GM Anything But Peaceful

Senators GM Bryan Murray is just one of those guys. Likeable, even when delivering bad news.

He has that mysterious but undeniable calming influence whenever he gets in front of a camera, with that shock of white hair and grandfatherly tone, telling us not to panic despite the latest crisis he has to deal with, whether of his own doing or by circumstances out of his control.

When the proverbial shit hits the fan, as it always does with this born-dramatic franchise, Murray always seems to have a way of holding the strands together, whether that’s the strands of hope for the fans or the strands of their own sanity. And that’s on top of keeping his own cool. He’s mostly composed in public, even when his own neck is on the line, but those darting eyes sometimes hint at a man who can be highly emotional about his job.

We only get to see glimpses of it when the cameras pan to his box in the rink where he studiously hovers over a steaming cup of coffee, twitching every time a chance is missed or a big goal is scored on the ice. His reaction is usually to drop his pen, shuffle some papers and blink a lot. But don’t let that fool you. Murray is as competitive and gets pissed-off as anyone when things go south.

We saw a glimpse of that when cameras caught Murray screaming at Los Angeles Kings broadcaster Jim Fox in the Corel Centre hallways after a fight filled game in 2005 when he was the Senators coach. It was an epic rant by Murray which went something like this: “You say I can’t control my guys? That’s a fu**ing cheap shot on your part. You don’t have the right to fu**ing cut me up. I’ve never done anything like this in my fu**ing career. For you to say that is fu**ing wrong. You’re full of shit. You yappy little prick.”

You can say one thing about Bryan Murray. He’s a hell of a communicator.

While not dropping any F-bombs in his very public role as the respected and well-liked elder statesman of the franchise, you have to think he drops one on occasion in his own office, thinking out loud about some of the problems he’s facing in his twilight years as an NHL executive.

Losing Daniel Alfredsson and having to explain to the public how it happened on his watch was one of the more painful episodes of his tenure here. Firing three coaches in four years was another grueling experience, as rebuilding the roster just a few years removed from a Stanley Cup final appearance and trading fan favourites like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly for draft picks and prospects.

Through it all he faced the fans with sometimes brutal honesty and kept the people who buy the tickets on-board with the program, all with that same disarming humour and tone.

Contrast that with Murray’s more volatile boss, owner Eugene Melnyk, who not only conducts himself much differently in public and elicits direct anger from the fans, but is arguably Bryan Murray’s biggest headache these days.

The latest in an increasing number of very public fiascos was Melnyk going on Toronto sports radio yesterday (as he always does, virtually ignoring the local Team 1200 in the process) and attacking Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and deputy mayor Steve Desroches for a perceived unfairness in the casino process. He’s claiming losses of close to a $100 million dollars the past decade and doesn’t know how the team will “survive”. Coincidentally, his President Cyril Leeder abruptly resigned from every city board he could think of, which is very unlike Leeder, who is well-known for his commitment to the community. There are also hints the Senators won’t be involved civically in the future (outside of charities) unless Watson and his fellow martians start playing ball with the team.

Before that it was a potpourri of ugliness, from forensic investigations into Matt Cooke’s skate slicing of Erik Karlsson, a public battle over bonus money with former star Dany Heatley, unproven allegations of shaky finances, a drastically reduced team budget and the Alfredsson affair which turned sour after a promise of fair money to the franchise icon was broken by the organization, at least according to Alfie himself.

Melnyk granted the Ottawa Citizen an interview and, in my view, disparaged the character of the city’s favourite adopted son in a see-through pre-emptive strike before Alfredsson’s first local news conference. Contrast that with Murray’s words the day Alfredsson left, when emotions were still high and an aggressive stance would have been understandable. Instead, Murray’s words were filled with respect towards Alfredsson and a genuine regret at losing him in the free agent process. He even called it “devastating”, which are words that rarely come out of a GM’s mouth. It showed an empathy with how the fans felt and went some ways in calming the situation down (although his immediate trade for Bobby Ryan was the real balm). In contrast, Melnyk was still angry and defiant an entire month later, which seems to be his most defining characteristic lately.

Yet, despite being handcuffed with an internal team budget that forced him to balk at Alfredsson’s asking price, Murray has assembled a young contending team that’s ready to make some real advances in the standings this season and win some goodwill back from the fans. Meanwhile, Melnyk is out there spitting venom. Let’s be honest here. We’re all just waiting for him to mutter the familiar words “move the team” any day now, aren’t we?

In a fair world, Murray would be on the verge of going out a champion whenever he decides to retire (probably sooner than later), handing the reins to his nephew Tim Murray or Pierre Dorion and staying on as an advisor, the celebrated architect of a stable franchise. He’d be riding next to Alfie in the parade car, both hometown heroes.

He may still get to go out a winner, but his job just gets tougher and tougher every time his owner gets hold of a microphone or puts financial limits on the hockey side. This should have been an easier few golden years for the silver-haired veteran.

I remember seeing Murray on that weekend, two days after Alfredsson’s departure, walking out of a grocery store and across a parking lot, carrying a bag of groceries to his car like a normal schlub. Lots of people walked by and didn’t recognize him. There were no “good luck this year” outbursts or even whispers of “Hey, isn’t that...”. I passed him and noticed that same pensive look on his face, maybe wondering what went wrong, or more likely just wondering what he was going to cook on the BBQ that night.

Pretty soon the worries of running this team for a hockey mad city won’t be his problem anymore, but in my imagination, that day he seemed to me like a man with some heavy weight on his shoulders.

Imagination or not, it’s a good bet he’s feeling that weight going into this season.


Anonymous said...

Wow. That was good. Some great writing Jeremy. Not sure I agree with everything written, but the writing was enthralling.

If anyone is reading this comment before the blog post, get yourself some popcorn before reading the post.

Brian V said...

This is the first I've read that BM is leaving as the GM "pretty soon" or that these are his "final days". Is this just speculation, or have you heard something concrete? Or maybe "pretty soon" means in the next 5-10 years? And final days means 1825-3650 days?

Well written, but I'm confused now.

Jeremy Milks said...

Brian, I can see the confusion and should have elaborated more. Murray is in the last year of his deal and well past retirement age. Hopefully he stays on a few more years but the end is likely coming soon. I can see him taking on more of an advisory role when the time is right. It could be next year.

Anonymous said...

I think your affection for the man or team may be clouding your view of him.

I'm also a Senators fan but when I see him walk to a microphone I fine he looks slow, lost and overcome by events. He finger-points, blames his predecessors and does everything but hold himself accountable for anything that happens.

You got to the heart of the matter when you mentioned Timmy being the next GM. Having surrounded himself with family members and friends and having an owner that has very little hockey knowledge, Murray has been able to put together at team that is...average. There's an excellent young defenceman in Karlsson whose skating isn't up to par anymore, a goaltender good in spurts of 15-20 games and a dog's breakfast of forwards, with an aging and sore-backed Spezza with another perenially injured Michalek and the rising Ryan.

I can't wait until he's gone, until Timmy is gone and until Luke is gone, that we can get someone that is, perhaps, less affable but that treats this job as a business, seriously and that has one and only one objective and that's making the Ottawa Senators brand the best, the absolute best, in this country (as befits its station in the Canadian capital) and the entire league.

That won't happen under Murray, because he's happy just being here.

Agree on Melnyk though, the guy's a loon and I hope we never hear from him again.


PvR said...

Seems Sal is a glass half empty kind of person.

Oman said...

...or maybe Sal's a Toronto fan! Hazza!

But seriously. Good article Mr. Milks. I feel the same way about BM.

I'm actually most disappointed with Alfie after this past summer. I expect BS from Melnyk and JP Barry, but I think Alfie is the victim of his own pride and perhaps the negative influence of his agent. The whole press conference where he criticized the team for not making good on their salary cap avoidance plan did no good in my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

Sal has some good points, yes BM is not perfect. However, it is remarkable what we have been able to accomplish over the past 2 seasons with (1) no real stars, (2) significant injuries and (3) most importantly, maintaining the third lowest payroll in the entire NHL.

Think about the last point really hard - no one with a spend anywhere close to the senators made the playoffs let alone the second round!

The biggest issue with this franchise is the looser, leather jacket mullet sporting owner. He's damaging for the franchise, community and city.

IMO Bryan Murray can stay as long as he wants. Also believe Luke Richardson is doing a great job in Bingo - crap look what he's done for JG Pageau. A hat trick in the playoffs as a rookie, come-on! That's legendary.