The Cult of Durchsetzungsvermögen

Los Angeles Times Magazine
Nov. 18, 2001


Television crews and harried journalists pack a small room at the Los Angeles Kings training base in El Segundo, some perching on chair backs for a better view. They're here to gather reactions to the news that two of the hockey club's scouts perished the day before in the World Trade Center inferno. Many millions will witness this early, raw reflection on the tragedy in an intersection of national catastrophe with the culture of ice hockey, a sport that in the best of times baffles most Americans--even most American sports reporters.

Hours earlier, shaken Kings players saw the private grief of their stoic general manager, a rugged ex-star with 1,589 penalty minutes on his career rap sheet. Now Coach Andy Murray will be the Kings' public face. Asked to reminisce about chief scout Ace Bailey, a colorful former player, Murray states an ethic he will insist on honoring. "I will only talk about Ace and Mark Bavis together," Murray says, naming the younger, lesser-known scout who also died on board United Airlines Flight 175.

When reporters press, Murray instead draws the bigger picture. "We're talking about a tragedy for all of mankind. On our team we have Slovaks, we have a Swede, we have a Finn, we have some players from the Czech Republic, Americans, Canadians. In some ways we're symbolic of the world right now, pulling together." Revelation: Andy Murray, whose team surprised the hockey world with its success last season, is no inarticulate jock.

Neither is he a Phil Jackson or Tommy Lasorda, both made-for-L.A. coaching icons whose inflated personalities fill the camera lens, any camera lens. Murray is more solid than flashy, and like so many around his game is a stickler for honest hard work--qualities he wants in the team, which is being remade in his image from the squad that until recently relied on memories of the magnificent Wayne Gretzky for its identity and fan appeal. With the Kings coming off their most successful season since Gretzky left town in a huff, the team's most marketable commodity right now might be Murray, a 50-year-old former college professor with bachelor's degrees in political science and education and a master's in sports management.

He's likely the only coach in the National Hockey League to quote Nelson Mandela in his training camp welcome to players, and it's not his lone distinction. Murray played hockey on the frozen rivers of tiny Souris, Manitoba, as a boy, and for Brandon University 25 miles up the highway, but he never skated professionally. Sales manager of his dad's General Motors dealership in Brandon when he fell into coaching, his best stories emanate not from NHL arenas but from the cantons of Switzerland, where he coached town teams, and from Germany, where he coached the former East Berlin police team.

Above all, he is a dad who hurts at missing these years with his three growing children. While he's in Los Angeles for his third season with the Kings, Murray's wife Ruth and the kids are home in Faribault, Minn. The situation was never more than barely tolerable, and with the world so radically changed, with insecurity seemingly universal for the foreseeable future, Murray is increasingly pulled between his responsibilities.

***

Andy Murray's long hockey road trip began after his father died suddenly--a heart attack in the spring of 1981. They had run the family dealership together in Brandon while Andy coached the university team and taught night classes. He was 30 and had lived all his life on the Manitoba prairie, 90 miles above the U.S. border. When a team in Kloten, Switzerland, offered him the head coaching job, he gave up the plains for the Alps. "I thought I needed to develop," Murray recalls between sips of soup sitting at a table overlooking the Kings' practice rink. "And I just kind of wanted to get away too, after what had happened." He picked up German, made friends, had some wild times--when his team played Zurich in a championship game, for instance, riot police in gas masks came in to hose down zealous fans. He even got Ruth to coach a kids team in Kloten. "She didn't really want to, but I kind of signed her up for it," he admits. He got her to take a coaching class once by promising to take ballroom dancing lessons. "She took the coaching course and I haven't quite gotten around to the dancing course yet."

When he won in Switzerland, the pros called. Murray came to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers and then the Minnesota North Stars, where he experienced the competitive intensity of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the most grueling championship derby in sports. Then it was back to Lugano, Switzerland, another NHL assistant job in Winnipeg, then Berlin. In 1996, he was asked to take over as head coach of Canada's national team, high honor in a land where boys still grow up wishing to touch Lord Stanley's Cup and play for their country. Murray's players brought home gold from the 1997 world championships. "To be in a foreign country and hear your anthem being played, it doesn't get more dramatic than that," he says.

At the Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, he helped coach a Canadian team that flopped with a fourth-place finish, but Murray's reputation was on the rise. He was a finalist for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks head coaching slot that went to Craig Hartsburg, a former NHL player. When he didn't get it, Murray went home to Faribault for a job that wouldn't stand out on his resume, except for the flags it raises. He agreed to coach for a season at Shattuck-St. Mary's Academy, the hockey-powerhouse prep school across the street from the family's current home. Murray could be home much of the winter, and there was satisfaction in motivating high school boys to play better. They won the U.S. national championship, but only after Murray rejected a mid-season offer to return to the NHL as an assistant in Vancouver. "He said, 'I can't leave these kids. I made a commitment to them, and if I leave it looks like I walked out on a commitment,' " says Bob Miller, the Kings' longtime broadcaster.

Those principles became more like baggage when the Kings hired Murray in 1999. To some local media, Murray was a mere high school coach asked to replace NHL royalty: Larry Robinson, a Hall of Fame player with the Montreal Canadiens and the Kings but a confessed burnout case as a coach. The press and some fans had demanded another big name, but after a sequence of poor seasons the Kings had decided to take the PR hit, declare the Gretzky years finally in the past, and wean themselves off expensive names with star power. "We were looking for a coach with a lot of experience, and Andy knew our team," says Dave Taylor, the general manager and architect of the Kings' new strategy. "He came in with a whole binder on how to improve the L.A. Kings." Murray's analysis was simple in its message. The Kings might have enough talent to make the playoffs, but they were too easy to play against. Hockey had evolved into a game of skating speed and team intensity, and the Kings lacked both. They needed bigger and better skaters certainly, but first they had to find a new sense of purpose. Murray calls it the German quality of Durchsetzungsvermögen, the determination to persevere like a badger and win the hundreds of one-on-one battles that occur in a game.

"There wasn't enough of that here, in my opinion," he says. And he had to instill that new work ethic, and win, without spending millions on stars. The Kings may have the richest owner in Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz, but he demands the team make business sense. Murray would have to get more out of the players already there. No problem. "I don't know any other way to coach," Murray says. "When I got here I told them I expect them to play with the same intensity and passion as my team at Shattuck-St. Mary's." This forced players earning $2.5 million to $3 million a year to accept some prep school trappings. Have your helmet strap buckled when you step on the ice. Rush to the coach's side when he blows the whistle in practice--last man in takes a punishment lap in front of everybody. Murray has other rituals, such as pacing in front of his players between periods of games and timing his practices to the exact minute, but so far even the veterans haven't rebelled. "Last year was probably the most fun I've had in four or five years," says defenseman Mathieu Schneider, a Stanley Cup winner in Montreal who re-energized his career after signing with the Kings before last season. "He's not a yeller or screamer. That's something that I appreciate in a coach."

Even players who spend time in Murray's doghouse say they respect his methods. Two seasons ago, Murray publicly faulted forward Bryan Smolinski for being easy to play against. Under pressure from the coach, Smolinski elevated his game, and Murray calls him the Kings' best player last season. "He pushed me hard. I needed to do some soul-searching to really see it, but finally I figured it out," says Smolinski, who has been invited to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. "You can't settle."

In Murray's first season, the Kings improved their record by 25 points (two for a win, one for a tie or overtime loss), posting a record good enough to make the playoffs. But they failed to win a postseason game. Last season, for the first time in the team's mixed history, the Kings earned 90 points in consecutive seasons. In the playoffs, they stunned the hockey world by eliminating the favored Detroit Red Wings in an exhilarating series decided in front of the Staples Center faithful by a frenzy-inducing goal in sudden death overtime. In the next round they put a scare into the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the Colorado Avalanche, before losing the decisive seventh game. The performance changed minds about the Kings and hiked Murray's status.

Now comes this season, a more daunting test on and off the ice. The Kings' playoff upset alerted the league to the team's rise and raised fans' hopes. For the first time since Gretzky left, they expect a contender. But this also is the first season the Kings' new austerity means they begin play without a premier star. Rob Blake, the captain and best player, was traded late last season before he could become a free agent and command a huge payday. This summer, the popular Quebecois boy-man Luc Robitaille defected to the hated Red Wings after the Kings low-balled him in contract talks.

Now the lone pure goal scorer is Ziggy Palffy, an occasionally brilliant Slovak who has not yet grown into a true money player or a full convert to Murray's work ethic. The Kings this season will count on goalie Felix Potvin, a reclamation project who excelled after joining the Kings in a trade last season, and on coaxing more out of their journeymen. Since Murray arrived, trades have added gritty forwards Adam Deadmarsh and Kelly Buchberger, veterans of Stanley Cup teams, and steady defenseman Aaron Miller, all of whom are intended to be role models for Murray's desired passionate style of play.

Another big and rugged newcomer, Jason Allison, joined the Kings in an October trade full of meaning. The deal came after the Kings' season began poorly, and it sent away two veterans, Glen Murray and Jozef Stumpel, whose reluctance to play a physical style irked the coach. Allison, counted on to be the team's top playmaker, signed a three-year contract for $20 million, which showed that the Kings will spend money for the right kind of elite player.

But competition for jobs remains a coach's best friend, and it was so palpable in training camp that young prospects fought with unusual frequency on the ice, hoping to impress. "I've never ever told a guy to fight since I've been coaching and I never ever will," Murray says. "All we've asked our players is to do the things they feel they need to do to make our team." His bosses like that.

"My favorite subject!" says Kings' president Timothy J. Leiweke, the point man in Los Angeles for Anschutz's sports and entertainment empire. "Murray's very hard working, very focused, very committed to what we're doing here." The coach flew to Europe this summer to share tips with the staffs of Anschutz's hockey clubs in Germany, Britain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He has become the Kings' best spokesman, always available for media interviews and friendly chats with fans. In the pregame introduction of the 2001-02 Kings at the season opener, the ovation for Murray began even before his name was called. That may be the most fun he's had all season. Once regular season play began, Murray's life became all about pressure and preparing: leading practices, watching videos, studying scouting reports, chastising players and referees. In his two seasons here he has seen little of Los Angeles. Before training camp, he sneaked off to a USC football game and got his first glimpse of the Coliseum: "Wonderful."

He spends many nights alone in his windowless, concrete-block El Segundo office watching hockey games around the world on satellite TV. Going at it 24/7 seems to help with being away from his family. "It will probably get tougher before it gets easier," Murray sighs.

***

"It was very difficult for them last year," his best friend from childhood, Gary Davidson, recalls. The family talked this summer about making the move to Los Angeles, but this is 11-year-old Jordy's year to join Sarah, 13, and Brady, 17, at Shattuck-St. Mary's. So Ruth and the kids are apart from Dad for another winter, and he gets another long, lonely season lived out of a hotel room, counting the days until the Kings' first road trip to Minneapolis. In the meantime, there's the cell phone.

"We talk probably five times a day," Ruth Murray says. "He calls and talks to the kids every day too, a couple of times." Andy likes to know the details of their hockey workouts and about school. Shattuck-St. Mary's requires every student to learn an instrument, so he's been listening to Jordy's first efforts on the cello. Ruth uses the calls to keep Andy filled in and to solve household mysteries, like where he put the lawn mower last summer.

Still, it became that much harder, for everybody, the morning those hijacked airliners smacked into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Murray used his cell phone to call home more than usual after the tragedy to assure the kids that he was fine and to talk about their homework and hockey practices, to act as if things were normal. He figures the family is safe in Faribault, population 20,000. Ruth and the kids have their own fears, though, about Dad's being 1,500 miles from home. "The kids are nervous about him flying so much," Ruth says. "With all that's happened, I really began to think whether it's all worth it."

Action could come in the form of uprooting the family and living full time in Los Angeles. They talked about it this summer and decided to stay put--for now. Or the Murrays could decide that being an NHL coach in Los Angeles is not worth the anxiety of separation. "I have those discussions in my head all the time. I thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing, but I don't have to do this," Murray says. "I guess the bottom line is that I want to be successful and I want the L.A. Kings to win the Stanley Cup, but it's not the most important thing in the world. I can go back to Shattuck-St. Mary's or I can go get in the car business."

He's also part owner, with best friend Davidson, of a junior hockey team in Salmon Arm, British Columbia. If being in Los Angeles becomes torture, "you have to reserve the right, whether there's a contract or not, to say enough is enough and this isn't working.'

In the meantime, don't feel sorry for him. "It's my decision," he says. The other possibility, of course, is that the Kings will revert to form and Murray will be fired. It's almost likely, given history. Of the Kings' 18 previous coaches, only four lasted beyond three seasons. It's hard to keep motivating hockey players after they've heard all your lines before. There were periods last season when Murray's insistence on playing with passion seemed to go unheeded by some veterans. All through training camp this season, he complained that some players weren't giving their all, and he acknowledged being powerless in this day of guaranteed million-dollar contracts to do much about it. This could be a telling year for Murray's reputation and that of the Kings. They lack the pure talent to skate with the top teams, so a dip in the standings wouldn't be a shock, but another good season would add some serious twinkle to the team's and the coach's rising stars.

Even with the slow start, Murray insists he isn't worried. "I'd rather dream about winning the Stanley Cup than have nightmares about being fired," Murray says. "That's not to say that losses don't kill me . . . yet in the morning I wake up and realize that I'm from a town of 2,000 people, and 1,999 of them would trade spots with me any day of the week. I'm a head coach in the NHL."

If only his family could see him in action more often.




©Kevin Roderick 2001

Not for publication without permission