Andrew Murray got his first taste of NHL hockey as a youngster growing up in the small Canadian Prairie town of Selkirk, Manitoba. Whenever the opportunity arose, he and his father would take the short drive down to Winnipeg to see the beloved Jets.
"I was a huge Jets fan," says Murray, now a few months removed from his own NHL debut. "We only lived about 40 minutes from the old rink there so my Dad took me to games.
"The last game I remember, we knew the Jets were leaving. They were playing the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs. That was exciting but it was obviously bittersweet. I'll always remember that."
A dozen years later, Murray is carving out some of his own hockey memories – and there's nothing bitter about them.
Selected 242nd overall by Columbus in the 2001 Entry Draft, the big 6'2", 210-pound banger fulfilled a lifelong dream when he logged 6:48 of ice time for the Jackets during a road game in Nashville on December 27.
At 26, Murray is much older than most rookies. And his long route to the NHL, which included stops in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, four years at Bemidji State in Minnesota and two more seasons as a regular with the Syracuse Crunch, has been less than conventional.
"It's been pretty neat," he says of his December call up. "I've been with the organization a long time. It's obviously nice to get rewarded and be here.
"It's really a dream come true to be playing in the NHL."
And a bit of a surreal one, too. In the mid 1990s, he was just a regular Manitoba kid that was part of the famous white out crowds at Jets playoff games. Now, he's lining up against NHLers he once considered heroes.
"It's funny, in the short time I've been here, I'm playing against guys I used to watch like Keith Tkachuk, Nikolai Khabibulin and Shane Doan," says Murray. "It's neat to say you played against those guys."
Those old Jets and everyone else facing Murray might not feel so warm and nostalgic about it. The physical forward is a handful on the ice, with a style head coach Ken Hitchcock considers an integral ingredient to winning hockey.
"The hockey term we use is that he's a heavy player," the coach says. "He's a really heavy player and I think that's where the game's going to now. If you look at teams in the league and look at the success, the game's going back to heavy, competitive players."
It might seem strange that someone with just 13 games of NHL experience would be considered a valuable asset to a club but so far, Murray has proven he belongs in what he calls "the greatest league in the world."
He scored his first NHL goal in just his third game, on the road in Anaheim, and then tallied again two games later in San Jose. Murray did miss six straight after suffering a concussion in St. Louis on January 8 but in his return against Dallas two weeks later, he scored what proved to be a huge goal in a dramatic comeback win over the Stars.
In a 2-1 road win against the Coyotes this week, Murray had one of his best games of his short NHL career, competing hard along the boards in a grind-it-out, playoff-style victory that snapped a four-game winless stretch for the Jackets.
"He's a very good player for us because he wins a lot of board battles, he comes up with a lot of pucks on the boards, he creates a lot of turnovers because of it," Hitchcock says. "Players like Andrew are going to be valuable players for a few years."
Getting to this point has been a long road for Murray. As a kid, he wasn't even sure he liked hockey, despite his Canadian roots. He remembers having his share of problems trying to skate as a three-year-old and getting really frustrated. At six he began playing organized hockey for the first time, recalling the days when he put his gear on watching cartoons at home rather than in a dressing room.
"I stuck with it," he says.
Murray did a have a rather prolific year in junior scoring 46 times with 56 assists in 64 games with his hometown team in Selkirk. Columbus selected him that year with its 11th pick, 242nd overall in the Entry Draft. Murray went on to Bemidji State from there, earning First Team All-CHA honors in his senior year (16-22-38, +11), a season in which the Beavers captured the league title. But two of the more formative years in Murray's career came over the past two seasons when he played for the AHL's Crunch.
In Syracuse, he began focusing on the finer details of the game that would eventually help him become an NHL-caliber player.
"My first year there, I was playing for (current Blue Jackets' assistant coach) Gary Agnew, which was great," Murray says. "He helped me out tremendously.
"The time I spent there really helped my game. It made me more of a professional, working on and off the ice."
Murray and the Jackets are now reaping the rewards of all that hard work. From young Jets towel waver to 26-year-old NHL rookie, it's been a lengthy journey for Murray, who says this time is just as special for his parents as it is for him.
"You think back to how hard it was to get here and everything you had to do, all the workouts, all the skates," he says. "It hasn't been an easy journey for me but sometimes that makes it more sweet."