Murphy Escapes Hockey Dungeon To Compete For The Stanley Cup

Posted: June 02, 1997

Larry Murphy was a half hour away from a long golf season, which is great if you're a corporate executive or, come to think of it, someone in just about any other line of work.

Not so if you're a hockey player with an interest in winning the Stanley Cup.

But putting up a challenge for the Cup was about the farthest thing from Murphy's mind back on March 18. As the clock inched toward 3 p.m. that day, when the NHL trading deadline would expire, Murphy was still a member of the dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs, and an extremely unpopular one at that.

About 2:30, the veteran defenseman got a phone call that would dramatically change the fortunes of his season. Would he waive the no-trade clause in his contract and go to the contending Detroit Red Wings? Or would he prefer to stay in Toronto and continue having his ears singed with boos each time he touched the puck?

Murphy didn't have to meditate long on that one.

``At the time, I certainly didn't have expectations of playing in the Stanley Cup finals,'' Murphy said yesterday, the day after he assisted on goals by Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman and paired with Nicklas Lidstrom to help keep Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom from taking control in the Red Wings' 4-2 victory over the Flyers in Saturday night's first game of the best-of-seven Cup final. ``I was 30 minutes away from a lengthy golf season. So, yeah, in that sense, this one's special for me.''

Murphy, 36, knows his way around a championship series, knows his way around the playoffs. He was on Pittsburgh's back-to-back Cup championship teams early this decade, and he's played in 165 playoff games in his 17-year career, scoring 32 goals with 96 assists. He's never been regarded as highly as a lot of other blue-liners because he's not a banger and his skills, polished as they are, remain subtle. Yet only Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque and Denis Potvin have scored more career points, and few defensemen have been more durable than Murphy, who had a string of 279 consecutive games broken in February.

There are those in Detroit who believe the last-minute acquisition of Murphy may have been the most critical addition to the team this season, Brendan Shanahan notwithstanding. At the time, coach Scotty Bowman was scrambling for the proper pairings along the blue line. Vladimir Konstantinov and Lidstrom were getting so much ice time there was fear they might wear down. Bowman even had Fedorov, his star center, on defense.

``It was the move of moves,'' said Jim Devellano, Detroit's senior vice president in charge of hockey operations. ``[Murphy] was the key addition because we felt we needed another capable defenseman. He's exceeded my expectations and played better than I thought he could at his age.''

Detroit wanted Murphy more than it wanted his hefty contract, which pays him $2.35 million this year and $2.45 million next season. The Maple Leafs agreed to pay a percentage for both years, and Murphy was released from what must have been hockey hell for him in Toronto.

For Murphy, it got so bad in Toronto that the fans booed his name when he was announced as a scratch from Detroit's lineup when the Red Wings played at Maple Leaf Gardens on April 5. With Doug Gilmour gone, Murphy was the team's highest-paid player, so the bull's-eye on his chest was easy for the fans to target.

``The problem in Toronto is we were losing a lot more than we were winning, and the people weren't happy,'' Murphy said. ``I looked at myself as the lightning rod of discontent. It got to the point where it didn't matter how I played, the response was the same. The only way it was going to turn around was if we started winning. I guess the expectations were that I'd be a different kind of player. I don't know. It was kind of a strange situation.''

Bowman said Murphy gives him the luxury of playing two sets of defensemen against the Lindros line. ``And he can make some good offensive plays,'' Bowman added.

Murphy's been around too long to get carried away by the Wings' Game 1 victory, and he knows he'll need plenty of help to deal with Lindros.

``The players keep getting bigger, stronger and faster, and Eric has raised the bar a little higher,'' Murphy said. ``Our attitude has to be that we're obviously not going to stop those guys, but we can certainly contain them a little. You have to include John LeClair with Eric because he's probably just as strong. All you can do is be aware of where they are at all times and try to make the right plays. Overall, we know we're going to have to play better because they're going to come at us with a better game next time. We didn't play well enough in the first game to beat them in the series. We'll have to raise our level.''

The Detroit defenseman was obtained from Toronto just before the trading deadline.

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