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Troy Murray: A Blackhawk Through and Through

by Carter Baum

"O

h my. Oh my. Oh my."

 

As breathtaking as Alex DeBrincat's fifth goal of the season was just seconds earlier, John Wiedeman's reaction was not to the action in front of him at the United Center. 

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, Troy Murray is in the booth," the team's radio voice said, in shock, noticing his longtime broadcast partner standing behind him. "Stop the game. Troy. Is. Here."

 

For the better part of 40 years, Murray's name has been synonymous with the Blackhawks. He skated 688 games over 12 seasons as one of the franchise's best two-way forwards. When he retired, he jumped into a role as an award-winning broadcaster for the last 20 years, 15 as a color analyst alongside Wiedeman. And he's one of the pillars of the illustrious Blackhawks Alumni organization, which not only connects and supports anyone who has ever worn the sweater, but gives back to the community many have come to call home.

 

An Alberta kid who moved to Chicago at the age of 19, he fell in love with the city, the organization and the fans. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone more emblematic of the Blackhawks than Troy Murray.

 

"Knowing the Wirtz family," former teammate and TV analyst Eddie Olczyk said, "he exemplifies what they stand for. There is a trust factor. There is a respect factor. There is a way that you carry yourself and Troy has been the ultimate Blackhawk both on and off the ice."

 

"For a lot of people, when they think of the Chicago Blackhawks, (they) think of Troy," added Wiedeman.

 

For the first two months of the season, though, there's been a void around the locker room, the team's road trips and the broadcast booth as Murray's focus has shifted from the job he loves to the fight of his life. As the team gets set to host Hockey Fights Cancer night on Sunday, it will be an emotional moment for all when Murray returns to the United Center ice for a ceremonial puck drop before the game, alongside 15-year-old Devin Pittges.

 

"To know that you have the support and the love and the thoughts and prayers from the fans, it just means the world," Murray said. "I'm out there dropping the puck, but I'm representing everyone who is going through the fight. It's not about me, it's about everybody."

The Player

 

It's safe to say the 1980 NHL Draft was one of the most impactful drafts in Blackhawks history. The team picked future Hall of Famer Denis Savard with its first selection at No. 3 overall. Later in the sixth round, they selected Steve Larmer, a top-five name in franchise points and goals. And in between the two, in the third round at No. 57 overall, the team selected a rugged centerman from the St. Albert Saints in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Troy Murray. 

 

He played two seasons collegiately at North Dakota before jumping right to the NHL level for a handful of games with Chicago for the playoff run of 1982, a five-game defeat in the conference finals. From there, Murray was off to the races. 

 

"He's a guy that I took notice of when he came into the league out of North Dakota," said Olczyk, then an up-and-coming teenager from the Chicago suburbs who later played alongside Murray during his first three seasons in the NHL. 

 

Murray became the ultimate shutdown centerman for the Blackhawks for the better part of the next nine seasons, regularly drawing matchups against Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman and the like of 1980s NHL stars. If not for an empty-netter with two seconds to play, Gretzky's all-time streak of 51 straight games with a point would've ended at 45 a few weeks earlier in Chicago at the hands of Murray and the Blackhawks. The Great One to this day still counts Murray among the best to ever do it. 

 

But he wasn't just a one-trick forward. Murray was able to contribute offensively with the best of them, too, posting 66-, 99- and 77-point seasons in the height of his tenure from 1984-87. He earned the Selke Trophy with his 99-point campaign in 1985-86 as the league's top two-way forward, one of three Blackhawks forwards to ever earn the award.

 

"He played against all the best players of other teams pretty much his whole career," Savard said. "We played almost a decade together and that was a pretty good one, two punch in our days. We had our line, Savard, Larmer and (Al) Secord, and (Curt) Fraser, Olczyk and Murray as our top six guys. We had a pretty good team in those days and Troy was a big part of it. He came to play."

 

The only thing that stood in the way of Murray's Blackhawks teams from one, or multiple, Stanley Cups were the Oilers of the '80s -- largely considered one of the greatest NHL dynasties of all time. Murray's hometown team eliminated Chicago in the conference finals en route to a Cup in 1985 and 1990, as well as the 1982 conference finals, where the Oilers went on to fall victim to the fourth straight Islanders skate of Lord Stanley. 

"I'd be hard pressed to say that Troy is not a top 10, when it comes to center ice men that have ever played for the Blackhawks," said Olczyk, who believes Murray had the tools to eclipse 120-130 points as a strictly offensive-minded center. But that wasn't his style. "He was, an incredible offensive player, but really understood how important it was to play on both sides of the puck and play on a defensive side and maybe give up some of that offense."

 

"He played a bit behind me in the sense that I was the guy getting the points and all the accolades," Savard said. "But I will tell you, if you have to make a choice at some point for a player, between him and I, you wouldn't have any issues having Troy Murray on your team instead of Denis Savard. That's how I see it."

 

As the Blackhawks re-tooled in the late '80s and transitioned into the '90s, Murray's off-ice presence became a catalyst to the team's on-ice success. 

 

"I was there when (Mike) Keenan was there, kind of crazy days," recalled longtime Blackhawk Chris Chelios of those teams. "[Murray] was kind of the buffer with Keenan. Mike liked him a lot. We had a pretty good team, won the Presidents' Trophy (in 1991). But when we faced adversity, Troy was kind of the guy who settled guys down because it was chaos with Keenan. Absolute chaos. Troy managed to handle it pretty well. Quite laid back, but when it came time to crack the whip, Troy spoke out."

 

"He's so well-respected and well-liked," Chelios added. "Since '91, he's the one guy of all my teammates that I've really kept in touch with all these years."

 

After capturing the 1990-91 Presidents' Trophy, Murray was dealt to Winnipeg in the first of several stops over the final years of his playing career, including a brief return to Chicago and stops in Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Colorado, where he won a Stanley Cup in 1996, his final year in the NHL. At 34, he returned to Chicago and signed with the IHL's Chicago Wolves for the 1996-97 season before retiring. 

 

Of the seven pro teams he skated for, Chicago was always home. When he played in other cities, he never sold his Chicago home, only renting everywhere else. There was really no doubt in his mind that sooner or later he'd return 

 

"I came here at 19 and I never left. I always thought that I would be back home in St. Albert at some point, but just year after year this basically became my home," he said. "For me, I've always been a Blackhawk. I got drafted by them and it just became a part of me. The organization, the city became a part of me."

The Broadcaster

 

After hoping around from city to city late in his playing days, Murray knew he wanted to stay put in one place while he and his wife Konnie started to raise their family. Through he would've loved to stay in hockey and opportunities were there for him to jump behind a bench, he knew the volatility year to year was a lifestyle he wasn't keen to pursue. Instead, he took a steady job trading stock commodities in the heart of the city at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, looking out for his team at home first -- the same way he did his team on the ice for years earlier. 

 

A year later, in the fall of 1998, the Blackhawks approached Murray about working part-time as a studio analyst and in 2003, when color analyst Dale Tallon moved into a role in hockey operations, the team asked him if he was interested in moving into broadcasting full-time. 

 

"In that situation, I would be back on the road full-time traveling, so that took some consideration of what I wanted to do," Murray said of discussing the offer with Konnie. "She said 'If you don't take it, you might regret it. If you do take it and you don't like it, you can always quit.' Which I thought was great advice. 

 

"So I thought, 'Ok, I'll do it.' And here I am how many years later."

 

Murray worked alongside Hall of Fame play-by-play man Pat Foley for two seasons on the team's simulcast across TV and radio before the broadcasts were split and he was asked to take on color duties for the radio side. It was there he was paired alongside a veteran NHL broadcaster in Wiedeman, someone he didn't know at the time, but clicked with almost instantaneously. 

 

"I had already respected him long before I ever met him," recalled Wiedeman, who was a Blackhawks fan years before he joined Murray in the booth. "Saw him play at the old stadium a lot and always liked the way he played. Boy, he brought passion to the game. He played to win… I knew that if that was the way that he played, he had to be a solid person.

 

"I have pretty deep feelings for who he is and what he is and our relationship. It (the chemistry) was always right there…. The best teammate I ever had, no question. And the great thing about him with color is that he had a burning passion for the game that never wavered once he left the ice as a player. He loves talking about the game."

 

"Working with John has been tremendous. I love the guy," Murray said. "He's one of the best play-by-play guys in the league, by far, I think. The relationship that we've been able to have over these years has grown. He's just a good human being and I really enjoy working with John. I think our chemistry kind of relates to our broadcast. It's been 15 years of pleasure."

That chemistry, friendship and pure knowledge of the game permeates through the airwaves of Chicago. The duo has been named the 'Best Play-by-Play' team three times by the Illinois Broadcasters Association and served as the only local broadcast calls for the three Stanley Cups of the last decade-plus. 

 

Murray is so passionate and dedicated to his role -- one he doesn't consider a job -- he has fought tooth and nail to be in the booth for nearly every game since he started working with Wiedeman. Only a health scare for his wife and the passing of his mother have caused Murray to miss a handful of games alongside his radio partner in their 15 years. 

 

"I remember one night we were in Colorado and Troy had the flu and he felt so bad, he could barely keep his head up," Wiedeman said. "But I remember he had his top coat on, he had a scarf around his neck to keep himself warm, he was kind of shivering in the booth, but he worked all three periods. He worked pregame, postgame, intermissions… I remember telling him, 'Bud, you don't have to do this. If you don't feel well, I can handle the broadcast.' He said, 'Nope. I'm here.'"

 

Which brings us back to that booth reunion in early November. 

 

For the seven games prior, Wiedeman worked alongside a rotating cast of more-than-qualified voices trying to fill the shoes of Murray as he focused on cancer treatments and his own health. The play-by-play man has raved about the talents of those temporarily occupying the seat next to him, but, simply put, they're not Troy. 

 

"I wanted to surprise him," Murray laughed. "The setup in our booth, I'm behind and a little bit up, so unless you really turn around and look, you're not going to see somebody. I kind of stepped back and even if they did kind of glance back, they wouldn't be able to see me. 

 

"I just kind of piped in there (after the goal) and it was really emotional for me, but John didn't realize what was going on. Then all of the sudden, he kind of pieced things together, he turned around and he saw me standing up there. That was a pretty emotional moment for John and myself and everyone in the booth. It was just great."

 

"I turned to my left and there was Troy. And I just thought, 'Oh my God, Troy is here. That is so great,' We went to our first break, I pulled my headset off, ran up the stairs and gave him a big hug. Told him I loved him." Wiedeman said, still visibly emotional at the moment weeks later. "Even if we didn't win the game, it was a great night just seeing him again, seeing him in the booth, the place that we was our second home for 15 years. 

 

"I hope I see a lot more of him in that booth."

The Leader

 

Outside of the booth over the last 20 years, Murray has continued to ingrain himself in every aspect of the organization.

 

From strolls around the front office to joking around in the press box to still looking after those in the equipment and training rooms who looked after him for so long as a player, he livens most rooms he walks into and remains the calming leader he was as a player to so many in the years since. 

 

"He's become a fabric in this community," Olczyk said. "I'm so lucky that he's one of my best friends and he's made me better in a lot of parts of my life, not only in the days of playing, but as a person, as a husband, as a father, try to be a community leader. You talk about pretty much wearing almost every hat in the organization -- on and off the ice, you look at the roles that he's had… he's a spokesperson for the franchise and has been for a long time. He's done an amazing job selling Blackhawk hockey and being an incredible ambassador for the franchise."

 

"For myself, Troy has always been like a mentor and someone I've looked up to and that I've really enjoyed having the chance to be around him throughout my career, through the good times and the bad," fellow No. 19 Jonathan Toews said. "Especially when things get difficult as the captain, he's always had a word of advice for me here and there. Just an incredible friendship. He played in Winnipeg. He played at North Dakota. He wore number 19 in Chicago. There's a lot of ways where I'm trying to fill his shoes."

 

Perhaps his most rewarding role, though, has been through the Blackhawks Alumni Association, where Murray serves as vice president in giving back to the local Chicago community while bringing together former Blackhawks from across generations.  

 

"I remember him and Keith Magnuson, really adament about how important it was for the alumni to still stay in touch with current players," Chelios said. "He worked with Cliff Koroll all these years to build what the alumni's up to now. That just says a lot about Troy, what kind of person he is... he's an unsung hero because he just did it quietly, didn't want attention. If it wasn't for him and Cliff, I probably wouldn't have done as much as I did."

 

"We take great pride in what we've done in the community around Chicago and the way that we've been able to continue the legacy of the Blackhawks through the alumni," Murray said. "The Wirtz family has been extremely generous with that in so many different ways. We've got great people, Cliff Koroll is a wonderful human being and is the president of the alumni association and he, like myself, came here as a young player and never left. Chicago kind of leaves that mark on a lot of us."

The Fight

 

Over the summer, that annual offseason excitement started to build as the months turned and training camp inched closer. It's hard to keep someone so passionate about the game away from it for too long. 

 

But there was something else Murray noticed into July and August. There was a lot of pain he began to experience, beyond anything that comes with being a 14-year NHL veteran. He turned to a close friend in Blackhawks head athletic trainer Mike Gapski for advice, though neither contemplated anything as serious as it was. 

 

"He called me and had some complaints of back pain and some issues," recalled Gapski, who started with the team back when Murray was still playing. "I told him to go see somebody… didn't know he had cancer until he announced it. I was in shock. Really in shock."

 

"All the sudden I get the diagnosis that it was cancer and everything changes in your life," Murray said. "For me, everything is uprooted. You kind of plan your year around the start of training camp, the start of the season and your life just kind of revolves around the hockey season, which I love… it's tough because it's such a fabric of who I am and what I love to do. To not be able to do that is very difficult."

 

Rightfully so, Murray has spent the majority of the last few months focusing on his battle. There are good days and there are bad, but he's fighting the only way he knows how: with everything he's got. 

 

"Some people would hear the diagnosis and they would just say, 'That's it. I'm done.'" Wiedeman said. "He's just not made that way. When he goes into a battle, he lets the other guy worry about him. He's taking on a really tough opponent, but in his mind, 'I'm going to beat it. One way or another, I'm going to find a way to beat it.'"

 

"There are a lot of people that are supporting Troy and praying for him. It is unique because I have breathed that same air and I think I just try to be there for him as he was for me," said Olczyk, who was honored during Hockey Fights Cancer night in 2017 during his own cancer battle. "There are emotional conversations at times, but you just try to be there and support him and support his family and tell him to keep fighting and keep battling."

 

That support from near and far over the last few months, Murray says, has been nothing short of inspirational.

 

"Until you've been on the other side of the equation, and I'm on the other side of the equation now, you don't really realize how much it means to that person to just get a text message or a phone message in support, saying 'We're thinking of you, we're there for you.' It's been just incredible," he said. "It really just kind of reinforces a lot of the things that go through your mind. Or if there's some negative things going through your mind and you get one of these positive messages, it just means a lot to have that support. It's really been amazing and humbling."

 

As Murray returns to the United Center on Sunday as one of many fighting such a horrible disease, the organization stands behind him in his battle, waiting for the day the void can be filled and the lifelong Blackhawk can return to the team that he loves. 

 

"All I would say to Troy is to know how many people care about him, how many people love him and how many people respect who he is as a person and that we're all thinking about him and sending him our best," Toews said. "He's got a pretty big team in his corner."

 

"It's been empty. It's not the same," Olczyk said of the season without Murray. "I know for me, whether it's being on a plane or walking around the press box, either at home or on the road, it's just -- it's empty and you think about him all the time. I miss him. We all miss him. We're looking forward to getting him back, getting him back on the road, getting him up in the booth with Johnny and just seeing the great Troy Murray."