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Bearcat Murray still as popular as ever

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

It's 10:30 a.m., the Sweetgrass Deli and Eatery on the main drag of Okotoks, Elizabeth Avenue.

Out on that same street six decades earlier a young Jim Murray would race one of his dad's horses up and down, hoping one day to become a jockey.

Never in his wildest daydreams back then could he have imagined how his life would play out, the places he'd see, the friends he'd meet, the experiences he'd have.

There is, quite simply, nobody remotely like him.

That balding pate. A moustache nearly the rival of Lanny McDonald's. The bantam-rooster jauntiness. That homespun way of speaking. The crinkly smile.

"Hey, Bearcat,'' hails a customer, stopping in at Sweetgrass for a coffee. "How are things going?"

Things, the little feller in the No Fear ballcap assures him, are going fine. Just fine, thanks.

The Ol' Polticker, the unofficial mayor of Okotoks himself (with apologies to actual mayor Bill Robertson) … drum roll please:

Bearcat Murray.

"My favourite hockey story?'' the 84-year-old Murray answers. "Gotta be Lanny."

Gotta be 1989. Gotta be May 25th.

"Crispie,'' recalls the 'Cat, referencing coach Terry Crisp, "comes to me, I'm going to say before the fourth game (of the Stanley Cup final) and says: 'Bear, we've got three extra guys. Nobody's hurt. Who would you sit out?'

"So I told him.

"They drop the puck, start the game and all three of them guys I mentioned are playing. So I guess I knew where I stood with the coach, right?

"Anyway, next game, same thing. 'Bear, who we gonna sit out?' I said: 'Well, you didn't listen to me last time …' 

"And he says: 'Shut up, you little (blank) and tell me.' I told him I'd sit out the same three.

"Lanny, of course, wasn't one of the three. I thought he should be playing. I was upset he wasn't playing. So were a lot of people. And a lot of the players.

"Drop the puck again, those three guys I listed are playing again. What sense is this?

"Next game, we're in Montreal, at the Forum - chance to win the Cup - and, sure enough, here comes Crispie.

"So I say to him: 'Crispie, save your breath. I know what you're going to ask me. And let me put it this way - I don't give a s-- who you sit out. You've got to play Lanny. You play Lanny and win the Cup.

"He says: 'You smart little (bleep), you've been trying that for three games.'

"I says: 'Yeah? Play him!' And I walk away."

The rest is history.

Lanny McDonald played that night. The Flames won 4-2 and celebrated their lone Stanley Cup triumph.

Over two decades have passed since Bearcat Murray retired as team trainer in 1996, but his popularity, his profile, is as immediate as ever.

Such a long journey from the day so long ago when Cece Papke offered a young man just back from Saskatchewan and dissatisfied with a career in the oilpatch ("I wasn't really a big city-sales-type guy") the job of trainer for the first-season Calgary Centennials of the Western Major Junior league.

A young man who grew up in the teeth of the depression.

"My dad,'' says Murray proudly, "to this day has the record for longevity as grain buyer for the Alberta Wheat Pool … 55 years. Pretty good. A really good athlete, too. So was my mother.

"My dad was the one who used to call me a Little Potlicker.

"That's where I got that expression.

"It's a Dirty 30's slang word but he always said the reason was because that after my mom made a cake, I'd grab the pot and lick it clean.

"I didn't understand but I was quite proud that my dad called me a Little Potlicker.

"Some people swear, say the F-word.

"Me, I always use 'potlicker.'"

Murray's dad, Alan, the youngest of six boys, was actually the original Bearcat. The owner and editor of the High River Times - Charlie Clark, father of future Prime Minister Joe Clark - hung the nickname on the young Al Murray in the late '20s.

Murray had just moved from Killam to High River to play hockey and work at the grain elevator ("We've got this little guy coming in here from Killam,'' is how the son remembers the father's introduction in the paper, "and he's a Bearcat").

A decade or so later, Charlie Clark would re-christen Alan Murray's son the Bearcat, for his exploits on the outdoor rinks of the day.

Bearcat has become so synonymous with the Flames - that white sweater he favoured with the Flaming C logo across the chest - that it's practically impossible to picture him anywhere else. 

In point of fact, though, the New York Rangers can claim to be the first NHL team he worked for.

The spring of 1980. The WHA Calgary Cowboys had folded and Bearcat was in the employ of the Western Hockey League Calgary Wranglers. The junior season was a wrap, meaning Bearcat and a few people, including the coach at the time, Doug Sauter, were hoisting a few brews in commiseration.

"The phone rang,'' recalls Bearcat. "It was John Davidson, phoning from New York. J.D. and I knew each other from our Calgary Centennials days. I hear Dougie say: 'It's okay with me but you better talk to him.'"

Their conversation, as well as Bearcat can recollect it, went something like this:

"Hey, J.D., what's happening?

"Sorry you guys lost out. I need a favour. Can you come to New York?"

"What the heck for?

"We're having a really big problem with our trainer-equipment guy. The guys are really having a bad time with their skates. I need a skate-sharpener. We're going into playoffs in a week or so. We need someone. You're not doing anything."

"That's true enough. I'm not doing anything but inventory. Sure. Okay."

"We'll pay for everything. That the good news. The bad news is you leave at 6 a.m."

Bearcat called wife Shirley, packed in a hurry, flew to LaGuardia Airport and assisted the Rangers through the playoffs, two rounds. 

Phil Esposito was in Gotham at the time. J.D. in goal, of course, Ron (Ohhh La La) Duguay. Bubba Beck. 

"And the guy who married the super model (Carol Alt) … what was his name?'' murmurs an exasperated Bearcat. "(Ron) Greschner! That's it! Ron Greschner.

"I knew all those guys.

"Anyway, the first team we beat was Atlanta. We'd heard, like a lot of people, rumours that that franchise could be relocating to Calgary.

"We found out later that between the second and third periods of the fifth game - the night we eliminated them - Cliff Fletcher walked into their room, he was really mad, we were winning, and told them: 'Boys, you're 20 minutes from Calgary.'

"I've always said I went to work for the New York Rangers so we could beat Atlanta and send them to Calgary so I could get a job."

The Atlanta trainer, Norm Mackie, had planned to move north with the franchise. But Mackie walked into the back door of the Calgary Corral, took one look at the old barn and its spartan working conditions, turned on his heels and left.

The job was Murray's.

Over the ensuing years, his outgoing, homespun personality and distinctive look made him as famous any of the players he was hired to care for.

What other trainer, any sport, can boast of his own fan club? This guy can. 

The Bearcat Murray Fan Club originated in Boston, met for (countless) drinks at the Penalty Box pub under the causeway before Bruins' games and preached the Bearcat doctrine.

They hatched the idea watching TV the night Bearcat waded into the stands one night at Northland Coliseum to retrieve his son, Al. Al-Cat had gone into the pews after a Gary Suter stick was swiped by an Oiler fan.

During the ensuing chaos, Bearcat severely sprained his ankle and blowing kisses to the camera as he was being bundled into an ambulance.

"They decided right then and there that I was their guy."

The founders actually designed club stationary and went to the trouble of having t-shirts stencilled.

"I'd never heard of these guys,'' laughs Murray. "We're in Boston for this game. During the warm-up, Bobby and I had to stand over near their bench. Charlie Simmer is playing for Boston.

"Well, I know Charlie. And he comes down the boards, close to Bobby (long-time equipment manager Stewart) and I, and hollers: 'Bear! I see all your relations are in town.'

"And I say: 'I don't have any relations here. Don't know what you're talking about.'

"Charlie skates away, takes another shot on net, skates back and says: 'Yes, you do. Over there.' And he nods up int the stands. 'Your extended family?' And so I look."

Sure enough, a dozen or so lushly-lubricated Bearcat-wannabes, outfitted in skull caps and bushy moustaches, are trying like mad to get the Little Potlicker's attention.

A second club chapter, in Montreal, originated by McGill University students, opened for business afterwards.

Images of him are legend:

Bearcat roller-blading around the concourses while the Flames practiced at the old Igloo in Pittsburgh, the Aud in Buffalo or Maple Leaf Gardens.

Bearcat racing onto the ice during a playoff against L.A. during Round Two of the '89 run to attend to a fallen Mike Vernon.

Complicating matters, the play kept going and the Flames scored a goal with Murray on the ice attending to his goaltender.

"Bernie Nicholls punched Vernie, hard,'' recalls Bearcat all these years later. "So he's on the ice, groggy, kinda going 'Aggggghhhhh …' Then all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose. Our guys all have their sticks in the air. And I said: 'Oh s--, Vernie, I think we're in trouble. I'm out here looking after you and we scored a goal.'

"He says: 'Really? What do you mean we're in trouble?'

"And I said: 'You little -- …'

"So I grabbed him and pulled him into the net in front of me, to hide me. Like an ostrich hiding his head in the sand."

The referee skated over and told Bearcat to get Vernon up or get him off the ice.

"Gretzky's beating on the boards, so mad, yelling, and the players on our bench are giggling. So I said to the ref, about Gretzky: 'Can you make him shut up!?' And the ref said: 'Gretzky, shut up or you're outta here!'

"And I said: 'Thank you very much.'"

Vernon's account:

"I'm lying there wondering when might be a good time to sit up and all of a sudden there's Bearcat kneeling overtop of me. 'Vernie, Vernie, are you hurt?' I told him: 'No, Bear, I'm fine.' And he looked worried, more worried than I'd ever seen him.

"We'd just scored a goal with him on the ice and Gretzky was going ballistic. I think Bear thought I'd better be hurt or he might lose his job."

Then there was the legendary night his Highness Prince Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre, now ruler of the sovereign Principality of Monaco and only son of Hollywood royalty Grace Kelly, was in Calgary to train at the Olympic bobsled track. 

Naturally, Albert attended a Flames' game. And, naturally, he consented to meet a local celebrity outside the dressing room. 

When introduced, though, a distracted Bearcat didn't quite catch the name of his regal visitor.

"How ya doin'? Bearcat Murray,'' the Bearcat exclaimed, extending a hearty handshake to a justifiably bewildered prince. "I've got friends in Prince Albert.

"Colder'n hell up there!"

Pure, wonderful, unvarnished Bearcat.

At 84, he's lost little of the old sparkle. 

Asked what, if anything, he misses about being on the inside of the hockey world, this man who now belongs in six Halls of Fame - including the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society and the Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers - takes his time before replying.

"The two hours before every game. I loved those two hours. Being in there with the players. I'd do anything to pump them up, get them going. I remember Sheldon Kennedy, when he was with us. Greatest laugh in the world, Sheldon. He was going through hell then, we didn't know it at the time. But I always tried to make him laugh.

"So I'd say those two hours. The rest of it, don't miss it at all. But those two hours …"

Sweetgrass may be Bearcat's office these days but all of Alberta, particularly the southern half of the province, can be considered his home.

"It's incredible,'' he concedes. "I don't understand it. I go to Calgary, to a function, I walk in, and for a lot of people it's 1989 again.

"Everybody wants to shake my hand. Everybody knows me.

"I don't know why.

"I just shake my head. My dad, if he was here, would say: 'Jimmy, it's just … mind-boggling!'"

A soft chuckle of reminiscence.

"That was one of his favourite sayings. I can still hear him say it: '… mind-boggling!'

"But it is.

"People still recognize you, make a fuss over you. I truly, truly do not understand why. But it's heart-warming, let me tell you.

"I've been one lucky Little Potlicker."


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