Andy Murray is hardly singing the Blues at Western Michigan
Ex-St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray has become a success in the NCAA
WMU's first-year bench boss has gotten his Broncos off to a strong start
Murray replaced Jeff Blashill, who left to take a job as a Red Wings assistant
So, Ken Hitchcock replaces Davis Payne behind the bench in St. Louis and one career coach is back in the NHL, where most who step behind the bench aspire to ply their trade. But there are only 30 such jobs in the league, so head coaching lifers go where the next opportunity/challenge presents itself. Some, like Hitchcock, get multiple chances at the NHL level to make a difference in various cities. Others never make it back or simply choose another direction. And while their coaching journeys are not intertwined directly, this tale has a distinct Blues thread running through it.
Hitchcock replaced the man who replaced Andy Murray -- a vagabond himself who is now a first-year NCAA coach at Western Michigan University. Last weekend, his fourth-ranked Broncos (who are 6-1-3 overall, 4-1-1 in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, as of this writing) traveled to Ann Arbor to take on Red Berenson's third-ranked Michigan Wolverines. The two teams didn't disappoint, splitting the weekend series, with Murray's charges winning in dramatic fashion, 3-2, by virtue of a goal-mouth scramble marker in the final minute of game one.
On-ice drama aside, the meeting between two former St. Louis Blues coaches -- Berenson likewise coached them, winning the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year in 1981 -- was the first ever at the collegiate level. Berenson took over at his alma mater in 1984 and has been there ever since, running one of the most successful programs in the nation. His is a different story than most because Berenson was a pioneer as a college player making the NHL ranks back in the '60's. After playing 987 NHL games, he took a conventional path into coaching as a retired player by joining the Blues' staff as an assistant. Six year later, he broke from convention again and his tenure began at Michigan.
Murray's route to becoming a college bench boss was more circuitous, including tours with the LA Kings and assistant duties with the Hershey Bears of the AHL, which led to the same role in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers and later the Minnesota North Stars and Winnipeg Jets. Murray has international experience on his resume as well. He's coached in Switzerland on two different occasions and headed up Canada's national team program from 1996 to '98.
If that isn't varied enough, Murray has also coached school-based teams before: in the late seventies at Brandon University and one season at Shattuck St. Mary's prep in Minnesota, the post he held before the Kings gave him his first NHL head coaching job.
His move from prep to the NHL certainly was more unique than his ending up at Western Michigan after the NHL. When pressed, Murray confessed, "Coaching college hockey was always on my bucket list. I've always lived life to try to do it all. Well, here I am."
In Murray's case, it isn't as if U.S. college hockey was foreign to him. All three of his children played it: Brady at North Dakota, Sarah at Minnesota-Duluth, Jordan at Wisconsin, and all are now playing professionally. As Murray puts it, "I put it out there that coaching college was something that appealed to me. When Jeff (Blashill, WMU coach) took the assistant coaching position with the Detroit Red Wings, things began to happen. Some former players of mine from the NHL approached me to gauge my interest (in Western Michigan). But Jamaal Mayers (a WMU alum) was the one who said 'coach, we need you.' That was it."
And that's it: Another stop along the way in a career of giving it his all in trying to doing it all. After all these varied years of experience, are there any surprises for Murray at this level?
"No, not really," he says. "My kids prepared me for all of the 'other stuff' that goes along with coaching a college team. Even with the warning, I'm adjusting to the administrative side of it. But the atmosphere at the games and the commitment of the athletes on and off the ice is truly amazing."
Indeed. This coming weekend's home series against Michigan State (the games are Friday and Saturday nights) are nearly sold out.
The players, too, had to adjust to having a new coach after just one season under Blashill. Sophomore Chase Balisee, who grew up in California, remembers Andy Murray behind the Kings' bench. "It was a shock at first when we heard coach Blashill was leaving. Then it was unbelievable when we found out that coach Murray was coming."
Balisee feels his team has "picked right up the way we finished last season," which saw the Broncos vie for the CCHA title and go on to the NCAA Midwest Regional. "There hasn't been too much that's different. We're just excited for the season."
So too is Andy Murray -- back behind the bench where he belongs. He gets off the NHL coaching carousel that Ken Hitchcock is still riding and the one Red Berenson opted out of oh-so-many years ago. They all have ties to the St. Louis Blues, but the real bond is that all three are doing what they want to do, and for Murray, his lifelong pursuit has him in Kalamazoo with a checkmark beside WMU on his bucket list.