COLUMBUS, Ohio – When his hockey helmet was an uncomfortable fit and his minor hockey games were played at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, it was difficult for Connor Murphy to imagine an opportunity like this.
Two days ago, he boarded a plane bound for Helsinki, Finland, with 26 of the best American-born hockey players under the age of 20. Is it a surreal experience? Absolutely; and for a down-to-earth kid who cut his hockey teeth in Ohio’s capital city, it’s the ultimate realization of a dream.
Murphy, a first-round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes and defenseman on a talented Sarnia Sting (OHL) club, is vying to represent the United States at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship for the first time, and join longtime friend and fellow Columbus native Sean Kuraly at this year’s tournament in Russia.
And like many young men with the same aspiration, Murphy is humbled by the mere thought of donning the United States sweater.
“This is such a great honor,” Murphy told BlueJackets.com. “Any time you get the chance to represent your country, you want to make the most of it. We’re thankful to have the New York Rangers open their training facility to us earlier in the week, and it was amazing to be in that room and skate on their ice.
“Now I’m even more excited to get overseas, play some exhibition games and focus on our day-by-day process. Hopefully we can stay focused on that, have some fun and enjoy some success together.”
Murphy, whose father, Gord, was an assistant coach with the Blue Jackets and is currently a Florida Panthers assistant, couldn’t help but reminisce about the many minor hockey tournaments he played while growing up in Columbus. Murphy recalls playing for the Columbus Capitals, the Columbus Cardinals and having the chance to represent central Ohio in prominent national tournaments, as well.
The list of tournaments included one significant victory that got Columbus amateur hockey some legitimate attention, Murphy said.
“We were beating teams from Detroit, Toronto, and Buffalo,” Murphy said. “We had success here, some good seasons, and it’s cool that Sean and I are in the spot we’re in right now.”
When the Blue Jackets began play in 2000, many youth hockey teams in the area began playing games at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, and it remains a popular pre-game destination for fans walking the concourse of Nationwide Arena.
“We practically grew up with the Blue Jackets playing games in the Ice Haus from day one,” Murphy said. “I remember going on the ice for practice and having people watch us from inside the arena through the window.
“We’d come off the ice then head over to watch the Blue Jackets play, which was cool to be around and have the chance to watch your role models in the NHL.”
As a young American defenseman, Murphy’s list of role models included Phil Housley, a longtime NHL defenseman and one of the most accomplished U.S.-born players in hockey. Housley played for eight NHL teams in a career that spanned 1,495 games, and he’s the second-highest scoring American in hockey history (1,232 points, second to Mike Modano). Though Murphy’s style of play is more stay-at-home and less offensive, he looked up to players like Housley who were trailblazers for USA Hockey years ago.
And you can imagine his surprise when finding out Housley would be Team USA’s head coach at the World Junior.
“It was so awesome,” Murphy said. “To be honest, I didn’t even know he would be coaching the team until this summer, and I thought it was really cool. Having him as our coach is great, especially with all he’s brought to our game and to USA Hockey.
“He’s a great guy, someone to look up to and he’s been a great coach for us. I’m looking forward to the tournament getting started and having the chance to play for him.”
And when the tournament begins, Murphy knows he’ll have one set of eyes glued to the television, computer, iPad or whatever means necessary all the way through: his father’s. Gord was also a defenseman in the NHL and by way of his playing career, Connor was able to witness firsthand the professional athlete’s way of life and what it takes to reach the highest level.
Despite Connor spending the hockey season in Canada while Gord is in south Florida, the lines of communication have always remained open.
“My dad has been an amazing role model for me, and he’s been there every step of the way,” Connor said. “He’s someone I’ve always looked up to and wanted to be like him when I got older, and hopefully have the same success that he’s had.
“He and my mom have supported me so much and my family has been right there with them. He’s taught me just about everything I know about the game and I credit a lot to him. He’s just a great dad and a great coach, too.”
As a teenager with NHL aspirations, one of Murphy’s most important developmental steps was latching on with the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program in Columbus.
It enabled players like he and Kuraly to learn the appropriate work habits of NHL players and prepared them for life in junior hockey and college hockey, while improving their game with a high level of competition.
“That’s when I really started working out and getting serious about being in top shape,” Murphy said. “We used to do some really intense workouts in the Ice Haus on the platform above the bleachers, and it taught me about hard work and what it takes to get better.
“It’s great to see where the program is now and how it’s been growing, and I’m proud to say I was a part of it.”