They celebrated that March evening with dinner, eating at a small Spanish tapas restaurant in the middle of Helsinki, Finland.
It seemed the perfect anomaly in the circuitous hockey career of Panther defenseman Cory Murphy.
Since graduating from Colgate University in 2001 as an undrafted defenseman, Murphy had been playing hockey in relative obscurity in Europe. From Finland to Switzerland and back to Finland, Murphy had built his reputation as a skilled defenseman and power play specialist.
He was dedicated, could pass the puck harder than anyone you ever met, and had exceptional vision.
But how many teams were really looking for a 5-9 defenseman in the old, clutch-and-grab NHL? How many were interested in a 29-year-old who had never been given more than a glancing look?
“To me it seemed at times like he was kind of in a vacuum,” said Murphy’s mother, Beverly, who lives with her husband Harold in Kanata, Ottawa. “People knew he was playing over there, but…out of sight, out of mind.”
Murphy was happy in Finland. “I was living in a great city, playing hockey and I was in a good situation,” he said. “I didn’t dwell on not being able to play in the NHL.”
But in the same breath, Murphy admitted; “Every player wants to get back. Everyone dreams of playing in the NHL. I don’t think I ever gave up on that.”
Six years after beginning his career in Europe – six years after living in two different countries and traveling to 10 more - Murphy’s long and winding road has finally delivered him back to North America and the NHL.
Just days before being chosen to play for Team Canada in the World Championships, and after being named the MVP of the Finnish Elite League, Murphy signed a two-year deal with the Panthers.
In the span of days, Murphy went from anonymous to celebrated. His perseverance had finally been rewarded. It was after signing with the Panthers that Murphy celebrated by going out to dinner with Paul Baxter, his coach last season at HIFK Helsinki.
“It was quiet restaurant, just a little Spanish place that’s actually below my apartment in Helsinki,” recalled Baxter, a former assistant coach with the Panthers. “But it was an exciting moment. It was fun for me to see someone his age finally get an opportunity. He deserved it. He worked hard for it. And he was thrilled.
“He was like a little kid.”
Born again at 29.
FROM COLGATE TO FINLAND
Harold Murphy can walk to Scotiabank Place from his home in Kanata. “It used to be a farmer’s field when Cory was a small,” said Harold, a retired emergency manager for the city of Ottawa about the Senators’ home rink. “Things change.”
Not his son’s love of hockey. Cory Murphy started playing when he was five and traveled to Russia as a 14-year-old during summer hockey camp. Although Murphy showed promise playing juniors, he went undrafted due to his size.
Ironically, Panther coach Jacques Martin remembers Murphy playing tier II hockey in Ottawa.
“I remember the kid a little,” Martin said. “I’m sure at that time he wouldn’t have even been on the radar screen because of his size. In the old days, you wouldn’t have even considered players his size. Now it’s more acceptable because of the new rules.”
Murphy’s resume was strong enough to earn a scholarship at Colgate University, where he was a four-year starter and finished his career as captain and the school’s third, all-time leading defenseman in points. Along with earning a degree in political science, Colgate afforded Murphy the opportunity to meet agent Bill Zito.
Zito, who has developed players like Devils’ defenseman Brian Rafalski and Bruins’ goalie Tim Thomas by sending them to play in Finland and Sweden, remembers watching Murphy for the first time.
“It was his senior season at Colgate and I actually went to watch a kid playing for Harvard,” Zito recalled. “There was a guy skating across the middle of the ice and Cory stepped into him and took the kid’s block off. He took a penalty, Harvard scored on the power play, and as Cory was coming out of the box the kid he hit kind of tripped him.
“Well, the coach left Cory on the ice, and as soon as the puck was dropped it went into the corner and Cory rushed the kid going for the puck. I mean he skated across the ice and ran the kid. Now that was a penalty. But I was thinking, ‘Who is this little guy that can make such an impact?’ ”
Murphy wasn’t going to be drafted or get invited to an NHL camp. “But I knew I wanted to keep playing hockey in the best league I possibly could,” he said. “(Zito) didn’t want me to play in the minors. He didn’t think I would develop there. So for me, a smaller guy, Europe was the place to be.”
According to Baxter; “When you go to some countries you’re committed to the money and you’re kind of giving up on the NHL. But guys who still have a dream of playing in the NHL go to Finland and Sweden.
So Murphy moved to Finland in 2001 and began building his dream. Zito didn’t know if Murphy would find his way back to the NHL, but he noticed his game improving in 2003-04 during his first year playing for Ilves. “That’s when I started thinking that, in the right situation, he had a chance,” Zito said. “The league (NHL) was going to be changing. Little guys were no longer going to be a pariah.”
Murphy’s promise came to fruition last season when playing for HIFK Helsinki, where Murphy finished the season as the league’s 11th leading scorer, top defenseman and league MVP.
Murphy credits his success in part to Baxter, who was named coach in December. “He helped me a lot mentally,” Murphy said. “He helped me focus.”
Baxter, an eight-year NHL veteran, used Murphy as many as 37 minutes a game. There was little he didn’t like about the Panther defenseman.
“He has exceptional vision,” Baxter said. “He passes the puck unbelievably hard, right on the tape, and when his team has the puck he’s a dynamo. And for his size he’s not a liability defensively. He skates into the puck. He accelerates into it and changes angles so it’s tougher for a forechecker.
“And let me tell you, he doesn’t play down to his size. I have never seen him bail out. Ever.”
Zito slowly started receiving inquiries about Murphy. “But it’s much safer to be right 80 percent of the time as a scout than trying to hit a home run with a guy Cory’s size,” he said. “You really have to put yourself out there.”
The Panthers took that chance. They called Zito, scouted Murphy, and assistant general manager Randy Sexton called Colgate coach Don Vaughan, who just happened to be his teammate at St. Lawrence.
“He was trying to get a feel for the kid,” Vaughan recalled. “I told him about his skill and, from a character standpoint, there’s no better.”
A QUARTERBACK FOR FLORIDA
Martin is cautiously optimistic about Murphy’s future with the Panthers.
“We have to put things in perspective,” Martin said. “I see him as a fifth or sixth defenseman. You don’t want to throw him to the wolves right away. The one thing I like about him is he’s going to be a power play specialist. I think he can be an excellent quarterback on the power play and he’ll help our defensive core.”
Baxter is less cautious.
“In my opinion, he’s a top four (defenseman),” he said. “He’s not as big as Dan Boyle, but, and I’m being diplomatic, he has every bit the offensive skills of Dan Boyle. That kind of vision. That kind of imagination.”
And a better shot? “I would say so,” Baxter said.
When told Martin projects him as a quarterback on the Panthers’ power play, Murphy said; “I hope so. That would be great.” But Murphy figures whatever Martin has planned is going to be OK.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “It’s something I didn’t spend all my time thinking about but it’s a great to finally get a chance to play in the NHL. It’s the best league for a reason.”