Countless young players try out for NHL rosters during training camp. Just a select few, however, make it onto the opening-night roster and even fewer have an immediate impact on a team.
Back in 1976, the New York Rangers selected Medicine Hat Tigers right wing Don Murdoch with the sixth overall pick in that June’s Entry Draft. Murdoch was on the smallish side, standing 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, but the kid could sure score.
As a 17-year-old playing for the Vernon Essos in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, Murdoch scored 50 goals in 45 games and was the BCHL’s Most Valuable Player and an All-Star in 1973-74.
The next season, Murdoch moved up to Medicine Hat of the Western Canada Hockey League and set a rookie record for goals and points with 82 goals and 141 points. Murdoch was the WCHL Rookie of the Year in 1974-75.
In 1975-76, Murdoch was even better, netting 88 goals and 165 points and he was equally tough, spending 202 minutes in the penalty box.
But for some reason, five teams passed on Murdoch during the NHL Entry Draft. Washington selected defenseman Rick Green with the top pick. Pittsburgh followed with right wing Blair Chapman. Minnesota then opted for center Glen Sharpley at No. 3 and Detroit picked center Fred Williams with the fourth pick. The Cleveland Barons, at five, then took Swedish defenseman Bjorn Johansson.
New York Rangers General Manager John Ferguson wasted no time and took the soon-to-be 20-year-old from Cranbrook, British Columbia.
Right from the start, Murdoch could put the puck in the net and it was the North Stars, a team that passed on Murdoch, that quickly found out that the rookie, nicknamed “Murder” could score in bunches.
”Murder” burst onto the NHL scene like a comet. Murdoch scored two goals in his first game on Opening Night against the North Stars and goaltender Gary “Suitcase” Smith. It was the beginning of what promised to be a great season. A few nights later, in Bloomington, Minnesota, Murdoch put five pucks behind Smith.
Murdoch was off to a sizzling start.
“I’ll tell you, something like that you never forget,” Murdoch said. “It was Gary Smith in net. A lot of people have asked me; ‘What are the few highlights of your career?’ I have two. One was going to the Stanley Cup Final in 1979 and the other was scoring five goals in one game as a rookie and that was in Minnesota on Oct. 12 and Gary Smith was in net.
“I was there to be a goal scorer. That is why the New York Rangers and John Ferguson drafted me. And it was just one of those nights that everything I touched went in. It was something else. I can remember for the fifth goal, we were up 9-5 and we had a power play and Fergie (who was also coaching the Rangers in those days) says; ‘Put the kid out again,’ and we went out on a draw. Phil Esposito was my centerman and Phil told me to stand right here, there was 12 seconds left and the faceoff was in Minnesota’s end and he said; ‘Don’t move, I will get you the puck.’ And as sure as heck, Phil got the puck to me and I slapped it in the bottom corner for the fifth goal.”
In doing so, Murdoch accomplished something that only one rookie had ever done before. On Jan. 8, 1947, Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Howie Meeker scored five times against the Chicago Blackhawks.
”It was really crazy, especially being in New York,” Murdoch said. “It took off really wild. I had three goals in the other games and everywhere I went, all the reporters were flocking to find out who is this unknown guy. I had no idea at all it would be that quick.”
Murdoch was part of a brother act. Bob Murdoch had played for the California Golden Seals and was with the Cleveland Barons at the time his younger brother broke in with the Rangers.
“My brother Bob, who was always with me, was playing with the Cleveland Barons. He was with the Barons, the Oakland Seals and St. Louis. That was another highlight of my career when we first played the Cleveland Barons and skating out on the ice and seeing my older brother on the other side.”
Murdoch said he gained some valuable insight about being an NHL rookie from his brother.
“Yeah, he basically told me to keep my cool and to play hard,” Don Murdoch said. “Don’t get nervous or shell-shocked while I am doing my skates up and looking across at Phil Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Kenny Hodge, guys like that. He said; ‘Keep your cool and don’t go out there and get intimidated, just go out there and pretend you are going to make the team.’”
Getting off to a great start was important, so scoring twice in his first game took some of the pressure off. After all, Murdoch was a rookie on a team loaded with veterans and he needed to prove he belonged.
“I think I had a little confidence,” he said. “A lot of rookies they will go like 10 or 12 games and some kids will go 15 or 20 games without scoring a goal and that is like a big chip in your block. I scored my first goal in my first shift in the NHL, so I got that chip off real quick.”
Murdoch scored the first time he was on ice at Madison Square Garden before more than 17,000 people, which could be very scary for a kid from a small town in British Columbia.
“I was more shell-shocked than anything,” he recalled. “I had never played before a crowd of 18-19,000 fans. When I got across the blue line, my eyes would open up twice as wide and I just went to the net.
And Smith was the unlucky victim.
”I think I scored nine of my (32) goals against Gary. He told me at the end of the season, he said; ‘Don you owe me a new suit, I just got you in the League,” Murdoch laughed.
Murdoch never did buy “Suitcase” Smith a suit.
But, he accomplished something that Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Teemu Selanne, Sidney Crosby, Marcel Dionne, Esposito, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard never did. He scored five goals in a game, just days into his rookie career.
“They did a lot of things, I never did,” he said. “It’s one of my little perks I get to remember, I’ve got the tape of it. And it hasn’t been broken yet. Only Howie Meeker and I have the record. So it’s something I have to hang on to. Nobody can take it away from me.”
Murdoch scored 32 goals, a Rangers rookie record at the time, and had 54 points, which was also a club rookie record. His season was cut short by a torn tendon in his left ankle that was injured in a February 1977 practice. He finished second in the Calder Trophy voting to Atlanta’s Willi Plett.
The injury was the beginning of the end of a promising career. He would have two surgeries on the ankle and missed a part of the 1977-78 season with a slipped vertebra. He also had a shoulder problem.
Murdoch also had personal problems, including an arrest for cocaine possession that ended with a suspended sentence and a 40-game NHL suspension in 1978-79. Murdoch’s star had burned out and in the 1980s and he became a career minor leaguer and then an NHL scout once his career ended in 1986.
Murdoch’s career took off like a comet. A goal on the first shift, five goals in his fourth game, but a comet quickly blazes through the skies and then it’s gone.
Much like “Murder’s” career.