|Former Pats captain, Regina's Garth Murray|
Some would argue he was the Regina Pats top performer in their last Memorial Cup appearance and he’s coming home early for this one.
“Usually we come back for July and August,” explained Garth Murray, a former Regina Pats captain who starred for his hometown team from 1997-2002. “This year we flew back early for the Memorial Cup and then we’ll head back to Europe for the summer to get ready for the season.”
“Muzz” as he was affectionately known by his teammates and some fans, tallied a point-per-game in the 2001 tournament as a strapping 18-year-old forward and couldn’t pass up a chance to see his beloved Pats—and his pal, assistant coach Brad Herauf— take another crack at junior hockey’s biggest prize.
Now living in Denmark where he met his fiancé as he coaches in Europe, Murray has almost total recall of the last time Regina hosted the national title.
“It’s definitely 100% deja vu on all levels,” he said, referring to the fact both that team and this year’s version of the Pats were bounced from the WHL playoffs in the first round and forced to sit for the better part of 2 months.
Head Coach John Paddock gave this year’s team just one week off before commandeering everyone back to the rink to ensure nobody gets into any bad habits before the tournament. Murray and his teammates, coached by Lorne Molleken, took a bigger break than that in retreating to Kelowna.
“We had 3 weeks off where me, (Barrett) Jackman, (Kevin)Korol, (Garnett) Exelby and a bunch of guys went out west just to get away from it all.We were trying to get away from the embarrassment of losing to Calgary in that first round.”
The ‘01 Pats had been heartbroken by a game 6 elimination to the Calgary Hitmen at the Saddledome by way of a devastating breakaway goal by Hitmen superstar Pavel Brendl in the dying moments.
But once returning from the Kelowna vacation, it was all business, “Looking back, I think we competed as hard we could in practice. I remember one day where the coaches and managers weren’t happy with us and so they bag skated us all practice back and forth through our defensive zone positions. But 7 weeks is 7 weeks and there’s not much else you can do with all that time off.”
Having said all that, Garth insists the break isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.
“A layoff like that is tough to deal with, but all the other teams are winning their league, have an ensuing celebration, have to scramble to get everything together for a flight to Regina, and they’ll be nervous for their first game too. So, it levels the playing field a bit in the way of rust and feeling comfortable on the ice.”
Each edition of the Queen City kids made a flurry of deadline trades to upgrade rosters that produced disappointing results over the first half. Some will suggest half a season isn’t enough time to build a unit cohesive enough to win a Memorial Cup. Not so, says Murray.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I think guys can gel together quickly. Especially with Regina. They’ve got some top-notch hockey guys so I don’t think that was an issue thenand I don’t think it will be now.”
The Pats of 17 years ago would start the tournament slowly, dropping their opening two matches, both 5-2 losses to the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League and Val-d’Or Foreurs of the Quebec league respectively.
“I thought we actually played relatively well considering everything. To be honest, some goals just got in that shouldn’t get in and it really killed our momentum and when you’ve got a team that’s trying to find our game after being off for so long and we didn’t get the results that we wanted. We didn’t get all of the saves that we needed in those first 2 games.”
A goaltending change from that season’s starter, Donald Choukalous, to backup Chad Davidson after those back to back losses sparked the Pats to a 5-2 triumph of their own in the final round robin match over the eventual Memorial Cup Champion Red Deer Rebels (including a goal from Garth) to stave off elimination and force a tie-breaker. The goaltending change would once again pay dividends in shutting out Ottawa 5-0 in a game Murray pushed past a throng of 67’s defenders to set up the 2nd goal and insurance marker by Kevin Korol.
But that’s as close as the world’s oldest major junior hockey franchise would get that spring. A crushing 4-3 overtime loss to Val-d’Or in the semi-final would end the dream. The team would leave the ice to a standing ovation from the Agridome (now Brandt Centre) crowd that stifling hot Saturday afternoon.
Murray would go on to captain the Pats a year later in a season that included a brief stint with John Paddock’s Hartford Wolf Pack in the American Hockey League for the 2002 playoffs. His playing career would span 10 more years in the pros including more than 100 games in the NHL with the Rangers, the Habs, Panthers, and Coyotes.
The summer of 2011 was hard on the hockey world with the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak who were all fighters at one time or another. It was especially rough on “Muzz” who had been a teammate with the Pats, albeit briefly, of both Boogaard and Rypien. Grinding it out in the minors filling a similar role of those guys drove him into thinking about life after playing which ultimately led to the coaching career he now has.
So where in all of that does his Memorial Cup experience rank?
“Top 3 for sure. First NHL game would probably be number one, even more than my first NHL goal because it’s always your dream to play in the NHL. And then playing in the World Juniors and playing in the Memorial Cup at home. Those would probably be my top 3. Not necessarily in that order but definitely those 3.”