- George Johnson, NHL
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Bryan Murray has been around long enough and is wise enough to understand that the most dangerous adversary in the Stanley Cup finals will not be Martin Brodeur or John Madden, Daniel Alfredsson or Patrick Lalime.
No. It is narcissism, fallibility, gullibility.
While the whole of the hockey world might be only too eager to sit around dreaming up bigger, bolder, more sumptuous adjectives to describe the astounding, amazing, incredible, jaw-dropping, out-of-this-world exploits of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the architect of their improbable run turns a deaf ear. And suggests -- no, demands -- for the sake of all concerned that his players do the same.
Murray is adamant that his Ducks not be too happy, too pleased with themselves, too comfortable. Ego is an all-too-human frailty that can, he knows, be fatal.
"Our run to the Cup final in Florida seven years ago was a fantastic achievement,'' Murray is saying from his office at the Arrowhead Pond. "Certainly nobody expected anything of us that year. We went into Pittsburgh for Game 7 (of the Eastern Conference finals) and won 3-1, if I remember correctly. And we did get carried away with the whole thing.
"We did get caught up in what was happening. And, I must say, paid for it in the finals. We had such a narrow margin of error then, we were up against such a good team, and maybe we started to pay attention to what was being written about us.
"And we were screwed.
"That's a lesson you don't forget easily.
"This team, great credit to Mike Babcock, has been able to focus on the task at hand since the playoffs began. Our philosophy has been: Win a series, go out for a beer and celebrate, by all means, but be ready for work the next day.''
He won't say so, not out loud where people can hear, anyway, but Bryan Murray thinks this year, these Ducks can go those Panthers one series, one step, better.
And why on in the name of Disneyland not? This Anaheim team is, in terms of individual talent, at any rate, vastly superior to Murray's lovable rat-infested Panthers of 1996. And, not in any way to diss or demean the
Ottawa Senators or New Jersey Devils, but neither compares with the Colorado Avalanche of seven years ago.
In order, Anaheim has laid waste to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the regular season's best in the West, and a gutsy bunch of overachievers polished enough to be down 3-1 in consecutive series and still crush the title hopes of the highly fancied Avs and Canucks.
If anything, the Ducks, so reliant on goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere through the opening shock-fest against Detroit, are gaining strength and a quiet self-belief as these playoffs grind on. Oh, diminish their accomplishment in the last round by complaining that they "only" beat the Minnesota Wild, but those same Wild piled up 16 goals in the final three games against a very good Vancouver team the previous series, remember. And the Duckies swept them at their own game.
There are storylines everywhere you turn. Giguere, of course. Rob Niedermayer, back from the dead. Old Stumpie, Steve Thomas, set to compete in his first final in 19 NHL seasons. Paul Kariya, sacrificing himself for
the cause. Defenseman Keith Carney, out there every shift against Sergei Fedorov and Mike Modano and Marian Gaborik. And on and on and on.
Murray, then, is the largely forgotten hero of the piece. His fingerprints are all over this show, the way Fosse's are with Chicago. Oh sure, he did inherit the odds-on-favorite Conn Smythe Trophy winner Giguere, and Kariya, and the vastly-underappreciated Steve Rucchin, but talk to the people out Anaheim way and it's Bryan Murray bringing a sense of humanism to the franchise that has made the difference. As much, if not more so, than adding familiar names the caliber of Petr Sykora and Adam Oates and Sandis Ozolinsh, and revitalizing Thomas and pushing all the right buttons with Niedermayer.
During the Pierre Gauthier era, there was, they'll tell you, a negativity, a pins-and-needles uneasiness that spread like a rash throughout the organization. Murray arrived, threw open the windows, and everyone, from players to office staff to arena personnel, has fallen in love with the view.
He believed in Babcock, and hired him in lieu of someone with a more proven track record. Many even close to the scene were disappointed at the time. Well, they're not disappointed anymore.
It's all happened so quickly. Think of the San Jose Sharks, just north up the road apiece. They built and built and built, improving six consecutive seasons before firing Darryl Sutter, GM Dean Lombardi and taking a wrecking ball to the foundation. These Ducks have gone further than the Sharks could manage, in one season!
That says much about the coaching and the commitment, but also about the man upstairs, pulling the strings.
"I honestly believed that we'd turned a corner in the second half of last year,'' Murray will tell you. "The final 38 games we were something like 18-15-3. But we couldn't score enough. And that had to be addressed.
"We added Sykora and Oates and Ozolinsh. But, if you break down the additions and subtractions -- we dealt away Shields at $2 million and brought in a very, very good goaltender in (Martin) Gerber for $450,000, for example -- we didn't increase our payroll THAT much. Still, in saying that, ownership here told me 'Do what you have to in order to make this team better.' They've been fantastic. When I did want to do something, I didn't need to make 10 phone calls the way I had to in other situations I've been in.''
Perhaps no player epitomizes the Ducks resurgence more than Niedermayer, a trade-deadline day pick-up. A total dud in Calgary and during his final, fizzling seasons in Florida, thought of as uninspired, laconic to the point of comatose, the big centerman has been a revelation during the playoffs.
He's playing lots, playing big.
"Rob,'' explains Murray, "is a terrific kid, someone who needs a definitive job. If you're expecting 20-25 goals from him every season, you're going to be disappointed. But if you say to him 'Robbie, Lemieux's your guy tonight. He can't score', he'll go out and shut Mario down. In '96 for us, he went up against Lemieux, Lindros, Forsberg. He's someone who'll score you 10-12 a year, be very capable defensively, and when the playoffs start will be one of your top three guys.''
Right now, it's impossible (outside of Giguere, naturally) to pick the top three Ducks. They've been that well balanced. Twelve wins in this postseason, eight players have scored game-winning goals. They're 10-1 in one-goal games. This, be warned Jersey or Ottawa, is no mirage; no bit of Disney special-effects magic.
"Did I expect so much so soon? No,'' replies Murray. "When I got here I felt we had to change the culture, the attitude. Paul Kariya worked hard every night but people just thought of us as a one-trick pony. There were a lot of good players here, more I think now than people understood. What they needed was support. That was our aim.''
That is their glory.
"We haven't gotten to where we want to be yet,'' says Bryan Murray, tempering his enthusiasm, understanding the unspoken danger of buying into your own publicity. "But an awful lot of good people deserve an awful lot of credit for what we've accomplished so far.''
One, though, surely, above all others.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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