Connor Murphy has played on some big stages in his young hockey career, but his eyes were never wider when he found himself with more time and space than he ever expected in his NHL debut.
The native of Dublin, Ohio and product of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program had just been called up by the Phoenix Coyotes from the Portland Pirates, and as luck would have it, his parents (father, Gord, is a former Blue Jackets assistant coach) were able to make it to Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Ariz. to see their son’s first NHL game.
Battling injuries on defense, the Coyotes needed help for a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 16 and in many ways, Murphy made certain it was a memorable night.
Murphy, who admitted he was just happy to be in the Coyotes’ lineup, was paired up with All-Star defenseman Keith Yandle in what quickly became his "welcome to the NHL moment." It didn't stop there, though, and Murphy was even more surprised when he found the puck on his stick in the high slot late in the second period.
Time, space, room…the things you’re not supposed to get much of in the NHL, but the Lightning gave him a sizable lane to walk in and tee up a slap shot. Murphy made no mistake in beating Anders Lindback through a screen set by Martin Hanzal to bump Phoenix’s lead to 4-1.
Just like he drew it up, right?
"It was a cross country flight from Portland to Phoenix, so I had plenty of time to think about it," Murphy said, laughing. "Everything I've done since I started playing hockey has been geared toward one day playing in the NHL, and to get that call-up and play in the game was a dream come true. Everything I tried to do in that game, I tried to do it quick and do it simple because everyone says the game is way faster in the NHL.
"When I got the puck, I was shocked at how much room I had. I almost couldn't believe it. The last thing I was going to do was try to walk in and make a move...I just wanted to put a quick shot on the net, and thankfully there was a pretty big screen there."
Lost in the excitement of Murphy's NHL debut and his first NHL goal is that he wasn't just a warm body. Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett put him on the team's top defense pairing with Yandle, played him over 22 minutes in all situations, and showed no hesitation in using a 20-year-old on the blue line of one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
And to think how far the young man has come since his time in Columbus with the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program: Murphy, who without bad luck would have no luck when it comes to injuries, often wondered if he would ever get a chance in the NHL. On many days, he just wanted to feel normal again and be able to play hockey.
He had lingering back problems prior to his draft year and two knee surgeries in two years put his future in doubt and cut his junior hockey career short, but Murphy kept on pushing. He won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2012 World Junior tournament in Ufa, Russia, and anyone you talk to will say Murphy absolutely earned his debut call-up to the Coyotes.
"I had great support from my parents, and great work from doctors, trainers and with my last couple surgeries, I've done my rehab at Ohio Orthopedic Center For Excellence on Sawmill Rd.," Murphy said. "I've been so lucky to have people in my life to help keep me in the right mindset and help me keep pushing when adversity happens. Getting to the NHL really does get you more excited to try and get back there, and now I know what it takes to be a player at that level."
A big part of that support group is Ed Gingher, program director and head coach of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets developmental team based in Columbus. That's where Murphy got his start and got noticed by the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), and Gingher has seen the highest highs and lowest lows in Murphy's young career.
Through peaks and valleys, there has been one constant with Murphy, Gingher said: his dedication and work ethic. No matter the obstacle, Murphy was willing to do whatever he needed in order to get back on track to his ultimate goal.
"For him to be as mentally tough and resilient as he's been, and continue to work at it and get better, I couldn't be more happy for him," Gingher told BlueJackets.com. "It was a surreal moment seeing him score that goal; from a program perspective, we have our first player who's made it to the NHL. But for it to be Connor was awesome, because it couldn't happen to a better kid. All he's done is put his head down and work.
"(The injury trouble) hasn't derailed him - it's made him stronger. There are a lot of guys who wouldn't have approached that adversity in the same way Connor did, and it's a real credit to his character."