by John McGourty
Oilers' centre Rem Murray has the neurological disorder Dystonia, which forced him out of hockey after the 2003-04 season while he was with the Nashville Predators.
Despite regular injections of Botox, Edmonton Oilers centre Rem Murray is not just another pretty face.
The drug derived from the deadly botulism bacteria is best known for smoothing facial wrinkles, but it also has other remarkable medical uses. Botox is used to counteract the effects of several neurological disorders, including cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. It has also been used to treat severe headaches.
Murray has the neurological disorder Dystonia, and it drove him out of hockey after the 2003-04 season while he was with the Nashville Predators.
"Dystonia is involuntary muscle contractions and there are different types of dystonia," Murray said. "It happened to be in my neck. This muscle that pulls my head to the left is overactive and it's constantly in spasm. It's bigger than the one on the other side of my neck and working to pull my head to the left. It's one of those things that they don't know the cause and there's no cure. They're just treating the symptoms. They say it can be from a blow to the head and sometimes symptoms don't appear for five or six years. It's hard to pinpoint anything that could have happened. It's just something that I have to deal with. I never had any history of concussions, maybe sometimes a hit where you see 'stars', but nothing I ever reported.
"Around October of 2003, I started to feel a slight, uncontrollable pull on my head to my left. It's a pretty scary feeling when you don't know what's going on with your body. You can't control something like that and it's pretty frustrating. I went through it for a long time and symptoms got worse and worse to the point where I had to tell somebody. I tried to hide it, but I'd be going into the faceoff and my head would be pulling to the left."
Being guys, Murray's teammates teased him about what they thought was an innocent idiosyncracy.
"The guys saw it and they thought it was just something I'd do before going into the faceoff circle," Murray said. "Nobody's sensitive in the locker room, but they felt bad about it afterward and they were supportive. There was a lot of kidding going on, which was fine with me because I like that kind of stuff."
In 2001-02, Murray was traded from Edmonton to the New York Rangers, who dealt him the next year to Nashville. He retired after that season due to the pain of dystonia. He thought his life was over. Worse, he was sure the remainder of his life would be compromised by the disorder. He's the father of three young children.
"There were low points every day. One of the lowest points was when Nashville was eliminated from the playoffs and I thought that was the end of my career," Murray said. "Another was the end of the lockout and I wasn't playing, the other guys were playing again and I thought that was the end for me.
Murray's not the first athlete to keep to himself a problem that might drive him out of the lineup.
"It certainly affected the way I played. There were times guys were beating me to my right and instead of following them, I'd be turning around the other way to go after them because my head was leading me that way already. Once it affected my play, I had to tell somebody. I had a tremendous amount of pain. I probably could have lived with the muscle spasms. The pain was the worst part of the whole experience.""
Murray went on his own to a hospital and basically hit the lottery in the emergency room.
"I talked to a guy who went 15 years without the proper diagnosis. Doctors thought it was psychological or one of those things that they couldn't pinpoint. He saw five different doctors. I was fortunate the neurologist on call, Dr. Anthony Lange, when I went to the emergency room at Toronto Western Hospital, made the proper diagnosis. The recommended treatment was Botox injections and I've been getting them every three months. I tried every thing I could possibly think off. The first thing was muscle relaxers. That didn't seem to help. I got a small dose of Botox in January 2004 and that helped tremendously with the pain. Every time I received an injection I felt much better. I also did a lot of work with an osteopath in Toronto, Dr. Manny Francis, and did a lot of manual work. That got me thinking about playing again."
It was a long road back, due to inactivity, and it cost him financially. Once he returned to playing, he had to repay the insurance company.
"I didn't work out for the longest time. I tried it in stretches but it was too painful and too distracting," Murray said. "That was frustrating because I was letting my body go. I went a whole year without doing anything physically. As professional athletes, if we go a week without working out, we feel our body deteriorating. When I work out, I feel good, so not being able to do that was another bad part of the experience.
"I asked (agent) Tom Laidlaw to see if there was any interest in me playing again, getting an NHL contract or any opportunity to play. I figured if I had to give the insurance money back, it was probably better to go to a camp and see if I could play and if my health would hold up before I signed a contract. I had an opportunity to go to Detroit and got a great opportunity to play, but I probably wasn't ready to make the team. I probably wasn't ready for NHL hockey at that point."
"I signed a 25-game contract with the Houston Aeros and I just kept re-signing 25-game contracts. That way, if an NHL team wanted to sign me, I would have the opportunity (to leave Houston).
"Tom Laidlaw called Craig MacTavish to see if there was any interest at all. I had a good relationship with him when I left and I knew he would be honest with me. At the time, they had some injuries at centre, some depth problems, and they came to see me play. Over the Olympic break they gave me an opportunity and I signed early in March."
Murray was considered a "depth" addition, insurance in case a regular player was injured. But his speed came back quickly and he's always been a competitive, intelligent player. He's now centreing the fourth line between Ethan Moreau and Georges Laraque and playing important minutes on the penalty kill.
"Ethan and I have been really good friends so while I was going through this, I talked to him a lot," Murray said. "He was really supportive and you find out who your friends are when you go through something like this. I think guys were happy to see me come back (laughs). I know I was glad to see them and it's been a good situation. Ethan is a solid individual and a consummate professional. He does all the things that are necessary to win hockey games, kills penalties, block shots. He'll do anything to win and every team would love to have him."
It's a mutual admiration society. Moreau spoke up for Murray when the possibility arose that he could return to the Oilers.
"It's an unbelievable story," Moreau said. "He was out of hockey, retired and collected his disability (insurance.) His quality of life was altered and he couldn't do everyday things, play with his kids, golf, anything. It was devastating. We felt horrible for him. They didn't give him much hope. He sought out alternative ways to improve his condition and he got better. We were surprised that he was able to play again. He went to the minors. He felt his game progressed to where he could help an NHL team.
"When he contacted the Oilers, some of us in this room were very vocal and we let it be known that we thought he could be a piece to the puzzle that would help us win the Stanley Cup. It's turned out that way. In the last three weeks, he's gotten back to where he was. Remember, Rem was a 20-goal scorer and 40-point guy in the old NHL. Sometimes, that gets lost. Everyone thinks he's just a role player, a journeyman. He's a good player. You can't be happier for a guy and those are the kind of guys you want to win for. If we can win the Stanley Cup this year, that will be an unbelievable story for a guy who was out of hockey to come back and play an integral part of winning a Stanley Cup."
MacTavish admitted his hopes were greater than his belief when asked about Murray's return.
"He had to get used to the NHL speed coming from the American League and it takes players awhile," MacTavish said. "You wonder as a coach whether they are at the age where they have lost a step, or whether they will get that step back given the opportunity to play in practice with NHL players. He has gotten that step back and he's skating very well. He's always been the smartest player on the team. Certainly one of them. So positionally his play is impeccable. It was just a case of -- he didn't have a lot of confidence early after seeing him when he initially got here, but having had him practice the way that he has and certainly play the last few rounds, I have got a lot of confidence in him and you see his minutes growing because of that.
"He was brought in for depth. It was a good thing, obviously, when we lost (centre) Marty Reasoner, to get Sergei Samsonov, that we needed somebody at centre with some experience and it was a good thing that we got him. He's playing the type of hockey that he played before we lost him to New York and it's a great story for Rem. I couldn't be happier for him. We like to in a lot of ways base our philosophy largely on loyalty and he's a guy that we have a great deal of loyalty to, from the way that he played here.
"I always say when we get players like Rem back that the door swings both ways, and it's not always "because we wanted to get rid of you. ... I'm really happy to give him the opportunity and I mean, he's really filled a role for us. He's playing very well right now, but (what seemed a) pretty tragic story has a pretty happy ending so far."