|Murray combined with Eddie Olczyk and Curt Fraser to form "The Clydesdale Line."
In today’s NHL parlance predicated on the intentionally vague, it might be described as an "upper body injury." But during that bygone Blackhawks’ game in Vancouver on November 21, 1990, what happened to Troy Murray was downright frightening.
"By the time the ambulance took me from the rink to the hospital, I had stopped gagging and could breathe again," he recalls. "But I still didn’t know where my teeth were. Finally, the doctor in the emergency room took an X-ray and pointed them out to me. ‘There they are,’ he said. ‘You swallowed them. They’re in your stomach.'"
Murray laughs as he reconstructs the incident, because that’s what hockey players do. And for several years on some very good Hawks teams, he was a stalwart two-way performer, which is why he will be honored at the United Center with a Heritage Night before tonight's visit by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Murray will not be merely a ceremonial guest, for he is the veteran WGN radio analyst for all Blackhawk games beside play-by-play broadcaster John Wiedeman, whom Murray praises as a "true professional… always prepared."
The same label could be applied to Murray, who toiled for the Hawks throughout the 1980s, accepting various roles, not the least of which was the thankless chore of shadowing Wayne Gretzky. In 1985-86, Murray broke the mold normally attached to the Frank J. Selke Trophy awarded to the "forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game" by also scoring 45 goals and assisting on 54 others—no small accomplishment when abiding by the creed of "none against." He converted a penalty shot at the Stadium in 1987 and remains the last Blackhawk to do so on home ice.
In 1996, Murray moved on to the Colorado Avalanche, where Joel Quenneville was an assistant coach for the Stanley Cup champions. Asked about his contributions to the victory tour, Murray replies humbly, "well… I was Peter Forsberg’s roommate."
But what Murray will be remembered for above all in Chicago was his stability at center on a line with Eddie Olczyk, a native son who played on the right, his off side, and left wing Curt Fraser, who was tougher than the New York Times crossword puzzle. Pat Foley, then and now the voice of the Blackhawks, nicknamed them the Clydesdales because they were three rather sizeable horses. That’s fine with Murray, who pleads, "as long as you don’t write it was because we were slow or because it had anything to do with us liking Budweiser. Eddie doesn’t drink."
The Hawks’ physical motif was well-suited for their fellow Norris Division foes, but every once in a while, particularly in the playoffs, the up-tempo Edmonton Oilers supplied the opposition, and that meant Murray’s assignment was to stick to "The Great One" like a cheap suit. During warm-ups, Murray recounts certain "conversations" with a few of Gretzky’s protective teammates such as Dave Semenko, but Troy’s task was to check, not trash talk.
"My directions were pretty simple," he says. "If I had the puck, or we had the puck, then go. But as soon as the Oilers got it, I had to find Gretzky. He was smart. When we lined up, he would often stand next to another one of our players, maybe Eddie, meaning if I went toward Gretzky, it would be like 2-on-1 against him, creating more room. And they could really move. Look at that team. Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr in goal. If you had taken Edmonton out of the equation, a lot of teams would have had a chance, including us. We had some terrific talent, but we just kept running into the Oilers. Like basketball – the Knicks, Phoenix, Utah, all those teams were great, but they couldn’t beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Gretzky was tremendous. Best I ever had to play against. If you held him to two points a night, you were doing your job."
Gretzky, contacted earlier this week, said he ranks Murray among his top three shadows, along with Boston's Steve Kasper and Brent Sutter of the New York Islanders.
"Troy was strong and mobile," said Gretzky, who concurs with Murray's assessment of the NHL pecking order at the time. "Chicago was one of two teams that always seemed to have to go through us in Edmonton. Tony Esposito was near the end of his career, and no disrespect to Murray Bannerman, but we had Grant Fuhr the whole time, a Hall of Fame goalkeeper."
Upon retiring after stops in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and the IHL Chicago Wolves in 1997, Murray worked as a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. But the opportunity to talk hockey was too tempting. He and his family—wife Connie and three children—have lived here for years, and summers at home are as enjoyable as winters around young Hawks such as captain Jonathan Toews, who also starred at North Dakota without knowing the basis of that generic statue in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
"When I got to Chicago and met Troy, I realized… it’s him!" says Toews, who was born in 1988, six years after Murray led the Fighting Sioux to an NCAA championship. What Toews and company are doing with the Blackhawks reminds Murray of how Denis Savard, Doug Wilson and Steve Larmer resurrected interest during the ‘80s, when the Stadium again became a destination point.
"That night in Vancouver?" says Mike Gapski, still the Hawks’ head athletic trainer. "Very scary. Not life-threatening, because he was breathing. But dangerous."
Murray was hit by a puck in his lower lip, splitting it open. Such was the impact that it dislodged his bridge. It caught in his throat. He was gasping for air and choking on the teeth, so he couldn’t verbalize that the problem went well beyond the bloody mess about his chin.
"Finally, I swallowed them, I think on the ride to the hospital," Murray says. "After the doctor found them in the X-ray, he fixed up this garden hose and stuck it down my throat with forceps on the end. You know how you put a quarter in a machine and try to grab a toy? Well, with suction and that clamp, they pulled them out of my stomach. I was conscious the whole time. Something about keeping your gagging reflexes… well, I was gagging, but I left there with my teeth and a sore throat."
The Hawks flew to Calgary the day after with Troy Murray aboard. Was he in Mike Keenan’s lineup for the next game? Of course. That’s what hockey players do.