Underappreciated Murphy a model of consistency

Updated: November 5, 2004, 12:12 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

When Larry Murphy was five years old, his father discovered there was an opening in the hockey program at the local outdoor rink and enrolled is youngest boy. The other kids were all a year older, and Larry had never played hockey.

"I'd never even skated," Murphy recalled.

Larry Murphy
APLarry Murphy helped the Red Wings win two Stanley Cup championships.
His first coach put Murphy on defense and told him that he shouldn't go past his own blue line in case the play reversed and Murphy wasn't able to get back into his own zone.

Murphy's father, who passed away three years ago, soon built a rink in the backyard of the family's Scarborough home and the moratorium on forays into the offensive zone ended shortly after. And it is a tribute to Murphy's self-effacing manner that he laughs politely at the suggestion that perhaps this humble start might have had a lasting impact on his, well, methodical skating style.

Ha, ha. Good one. Writers.

If there's ever a special wing in the Hall of Fame for the humbly underappreciated, perhaps even the misunderstood, the big defenseman who enters the Hall with the class of '04 would enjoy a place of prominence.

When Murphy finished his career in 2001, his 1,615 games were more than any other NHL defenseman in history (he has since been passed by Scott Stevens), and he still ranks fourth overall in games played. His 1,830 total games including playoffs are fifth all-time.

He won four Stanley Cups and was three times named to the NHL's second all-star team. Twice he was acquired by teams at the trade deadline and proved to be the missing piece to the Stanley Cup puzzle.

Yet Murphy, who played for six teams in his 21-year career, was always appealed more to teammates than to fans who often seemed to want more, expect more from the good-natured defenseman.

Never blessed with blazing speed, possessing only an average shot and never one for delivering bone-crunching hits, Murphy not only survived but excelled using his considerable hockey smarts.

"He was good because he read the plays so well. He never got flustered," said Scotty Bowman, who had Murphy in Pittsburgh and Detroit, winning two Cups in each city. It didn't matter what situation Murphy was placed in -- overtime, regular-season game, up a goal, down a goal -- he was consistent, Bowman said.

Mike Gartner was traded along with Murphy to Minnesota at the 1989 trade deadline, and the two lived together in Minnesota before Murphy moved on to Pittsburgh. Later, the two were reunited in Toronto.

Murphy had what players call a "long wick," Gartner said, a defenseman who holds the puck until the right play opens up.

"There was a long period before Larry would panic. Guys would be peeling off, and he'd still have the puck."

If there is a moment that illustrates Murphy's station in hockey, it was during the 1987 Canada Cup. On one of the most important goals in Canadian hockey history, the game-winning Wayne Gretzky-to-Mario Lemieux drop pass, shot to the top corner, there is a man standing alone at the side of the net, waiting for a pass or a rebound. That man is Larry Murphy. He has often happily described himself as the most famous decoy in Canadian hockey.

"My goal was always to be the most effective player. If I was going to be at my best, I had to be mentally sharp," Murphy said.

After winning a Memorial Cup in Peterborough in 1979, Murphy was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings with the fourth overall pick in 1980. Without missing a beat, the young man who'd rarely left the Toronto area moved into a beach house in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and delivered 76 points, an NHL record for rookie defensemen.

Roommate Jim Fox still remembers the street address and the player. An Ontario native, Fox knew Murphy's reputation was as a player who logged incredible amounts of ice time.

"When he got to the NHL, he just did the exact same thing," said Fox, a longtime analyst for the Kings. "He didn't get tired. The thing that is amazing is that he missed no games. The total games he missed were nothing."

Indeed, in 21 NHL seasons Murphy played fewer than 75 games only once (not including the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season).

On the ice, the Kings were the perfect fit for Murphy.

"I came to a team that had lots of room for me on defense. I'd have had to play my way off the team," Murphy said.

In the beach house, things didn't always go so smoothly. There were several calls to the electric company before the boys realized they had to throw a breaker to engage power. And there was the time third roommate Greg Terrion tried to light the gas water heater, located in a tiny, enclosed room, with an ignited roll of newspaper.

"There was a huge boom. I remember he went flying back. That's how it started for us," Murphy said.

David Poile was in his second year as general manager in Washington when he acquired Murphy for Brian Engblom and Ken Houston in October 1983. Murphy got off the plane with his shoulder in a sling.

"I was like, 'Oh no, this is going to be the end of me,' " Poile recalled.

But Murphy got healthy and joined a defense corps that included Scott Stevens, Rod Langway and, the following year, Kevin Hatcher. Murphy and Langway, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, were partnered.

"Our defense was as good as anybody's in the league and that deal was a huge piece to the puzzle," Poile said. "He played half the game every night and he was never hurt."

But fans in Washington became restless with the Caps' perpetual playoff disappointments, and Murphy became the lightning rod for some of that discontent.

Langway was a fan favorite with his solid, stay-at-home style while Stevens and Hatcher were menacing presences. Murphy, although solidly built at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, somehow played against type.

Even though Murphy would go on to win two Cups in Pittsburgh, the scenario played out again in Toronto when he was dealt there in 1995. The Leafs had come close to erasing a generation of Stanley Cup futility, advancing to the Western Conference in 1993 and 1994, but were in a period of decline when Murphy arrived.

Murphy did not mesh with a talent-starved team and, in spite of playing in his hometown, was subjected to merciless catcalling by the Maple Leaf faithful and attacks in the local press.

"It was really hard to watch and Larry didn't say a thing," Gartner said. "It was really terrible. It didn't seem to bother him, but it sure bothered us as his teammates. It was nasty and he just wanted to come in and do his job."

In the moments before the 1997 trade deadline, Toronto general manager Cliff Fletcher found a home for Murphy in Detroit. The Leafs received future considerations while the Red Wings got the missing piece of a Stanley Cup puzzle 42 years in the making.

"It wasn't an easy decision to go to Detroit," said Murphy, who had a no-trade deal with the Leafs. "It wasn't a slam dunk. As rough as things were in Toronto, I really didn't want to leave."

A short drive from his wife and three children, Murphy found himself paired with perennial Norris Trophy candidate Nicklas Lidstrom, and the two played together almost exclusively through the first three years of Murphy's stay in Detroit.

"We were looking for somebody to add some defensive experience in 1997," Bowman recalled.

He and assistant Barry Smith, who also knew Murphy from their days in Pittsburgh, liked the fit between the up-and-coming Lidstrom and the veteran Murphy.

"They both complemented the way they played," Bowman said.

The Red Wings surprised many by winning the Cup in 1997, and although Mike Vernon was selected Conn Smythe Trophy winner, many believed Murphy deserved MVP consideration.

The Wings won another Cup the following spring, but when injuries limited Murphy to 57 games in 2000-01, the Wings did not re-sign him and he retired.

Murphy and his wife, Nancy, are building a horse farm outside Detroit (a recent fall left Murphy's wife with a badly broken ankle that required surgery, jeopardizing her mobility at the Hall of Fame ceremony), and Murphy has been providing analysis for Red Wings games and for high-definition NHL broadcasts.

"There's a lot less pressure," Murphy jokes. "It doesn't matter who wins."

One of the keys to his new job has been learning to criticize players.

"At first I was real soft on it. Now, the approach I have, if a guy gives away the puck, they gave it away. I think that's as far as you need to go. I don't get into name-calling, 'This guy's is a bum.' I stay away from that," Murphy said.

We would have expected nothing less.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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