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Shoalts: Bryan Murray was one of the good guys

Bryan Murray was the general manager of the Ottawa Senators when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in June, 2014. He stayed on as GM till stepping down in April, 2016. He remained an adviser with the team.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Early Saturday afternoon, Sportsnet hockey reporter Chris Johnston sent out a tweet that spoke for everyone who ever spent any time with Bryan Murray: Tough news. A day no one in our sport ever wanted to see come. Heartfelt condolences to the Murrays and the [Ottawa Senators].

But it was a day we all knew would come, ever since June, 2014, when Murray, then the general manager of the Senators, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. The doctors told him it was terminal, that he probably had it for 10 years. A regular colonoscopy probably would have caught the disease early enough to save him.

But NHL general managers lead the busiest of lives and regular physical checkups, by Murray's own admission, were too easy to put off. Murray, an NHL lifer with 36 years in the league as a coach, general manager and executive, died on Saturday at 74. He is survived by his wife, Geri, and daughters Heide and Brittany.

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Related: Bryan Murray looks back on the long hockey legacy he'll leave behind

People around the NHL, from players to coaches to scouts to executives to reporters, knew Murray as one of the good guys. He was funny, wise and sarcastic in a way that leaned more to dry wit than snark. But Murray was tough when he had to be with players, and gentle with reporters who knew too little about the game – a game he dedicated himself to after a few turns as a high-school teacher and small-business owner in his beloved hometown of Shawville, Que., about an hour west of Ottawa.

Murray was also a realist who refused to feel sorry for himself following his cancer diagnosis. In a 2016 Toronto Star story, he said: "I've have an understanding of it. I've had a good run. I could never feel sorry for myself after the people I've met, young kids going through far worse. More than myself at this stage. I guess I've accepted the fact I'm not likely to be pushed around in a wheelchair very long at some stage in my life. Maybe that's not all bad."

Rather than quit his job as Senators GM and try to experience the sides of life his career left no time for, Murray vowed to stick with hockey. After all, it was his passion, although Murray put it a little differently. "It beats sitting on the couch," he said.

Murray spent a lot of time publicly warning others not to make the same mistake he did and get a regular colonoscopy. He also worked to raise money for colon cancer research.

"I don't know why I didn't," Murray told Michael Farber of TSN. "One of the comments that came back to me on a regular basis was, 'You're healthy, you're from a family that hasn't had any disease whatsoever, we can maybe wait.' But that's also my fault in that I should have demanded [a colonoscopy], or at least asked for it, but like a lot of men do, I put it off."

He remained the GM until April, 2016, when he stepped down and handed the job to his assistant, Pierre Dorion. But Murray stayed with the Senators as a senior adviser to Dorion and team owner Eugene Melnyk. Murray's dignified but fierce fight against cancer struck a chord with everyone in hockey, especially those around him.

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"Bryan has been so instrumental with us and with this run, obviously with the moves he's made, and just seeing him around the room and the attitude that he brings, it's pretty amazing," defenceman Marc Methot told Sportsnet.ca during the Senators' late-season drive to the NHL playoffs in 2015. "He's in there, he still cracks jokes with his dry sense of humour. It's inspiring for us to see that. God, you come to the rink and you complain about a couple of bumps and bruises here and there.

"And then you see Bryan walk in there and he's kind of strutting in the room. It makes you realize that things aren't so bad and it's just a game and we're lucky."

Even though Methot and the Senators lost in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, Murray said their unlikely run to the last playoff spot in March and April made the players a special group to him. Someone asked if that helped his fight with cancer. "No question," came the answer. "If you have to go through this shit, you might as well enjoy it with a group like this as well."

Murray was equally droll in happier days, when he was head coach of the Senators and they were at the start of a playoff run that took them to the 2007 Stanley Cup final. Ray Emery, a young player with a penchant for misadventure both on and off the ice, established himself as the Senators' No. 1 goaltender that season.

But Emery missed the Senators' flight to New Jersey for the start of the second round of the playoffs against the Devils. Benching him was out of the question due to the importance of the game, so Murray was asked by reporters if he planned to fine Emery. "Let's see if we win or not," Murray said.

Murray deserved more success than he ever received in the NHL, even though he had a 620-465-131-23 record with the Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks and Senators. He never won a Stanley Cup, though he came close a few times.

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The 2007 Cup final was the only one he ever made as a head coach, despite 1,239 games behind the bench, starting with the Washington Capitals in 1981. The Senators lost in five games to the Anaheim Ducks.

He also made two other appearances in the championship final as a GM, with the Anaheim Ducks in 2003 and in 1996 when his third-year expansion team, the Florida Panthers, made a Cinderella run to the Cup final. The Ducks team that beat his Senators in 2007 was put together in large part by Murray himself, who quit to return to his first love, coaching, with the Senators in 2005.

The move to Ottawa was also made for family reasons, to be close to Shawville, where he grew up in a family of 10 children. The Murrays were a hockey family, as Bryan's younger brother Terry played and coached in the NHL, and even succeeded him as the head coach of the Capitals, moving up from assistant coach when Bryan was fired in 1990. Tim Murray, Bryan's nephew, worked for him for years as a scout and then had a run as GM of the Buffalo Sabres that ended in April.

"I came back to Ottawa thinking I'd coach for about four years and then I could ride off into the sunshine and retire," Murray told NHL.com earlier this year, when he became the first person to be placed in the Senators' ring of honour. "I've been here now 12 years. I don't know that I ever envisioned that. Obviously I'm very happy it took place."

At one time, Murray thought he would spend his whole life in Shawville. He returned home to teach after graduating from university and later owned a sporting goods store and a hotel. He also took up coaching in the Central Junior Hockey League.

But after his Rockland Nationals team won the Centennial Cup, the national championship for Tier II junior hockey, Murray was offered the job of head coach of the major junior Regina Pats in 1979. His wife Geri wasn't sure about a move across the country, so Murray told her he would try it for one year.

Murray won the Western Hockey League championship in his first season and two years later was in the NHL with the Capitals.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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