Fresh out of captaining Princeton’s hockey team, Brent Flahr broke into pro hockey by selling tickets for the Florida Panthers.
But he had bigger aspirations and, as former Panthers General Manager Bryan Murray loved to tell it, Murray and then-assistant GM Chuck Fletcher kept hearing about this know-it-all account executive who had all the answers.
So Murray interviewed Flahr for a hockey ops job.
“I was nervous,” Flahr, who two decades later is Fletcher’s right-hand man in Minnesota as the Wild’s senior vice president of hockey operations. “Bryan’s first question: ‘Are you loyal?’ I’m like, ‘Yup, I’m a loyal guy and I’ll work hard.’
“He goes, ‘Do you drink beer?’ I was like, ‘Where’s he going with this? What has he heard?” Flahr said, laughing. “I didn’t want to lie, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a Canadian kid. I like to drink beer.’ He goes, ‘Perfect. I don’t trust anybody who doesn’t drink beer. That’s good enough for me.’”
Fletcher, the Wild’s GM since 2009, first met Murray in the summer of ‘91. About a year out of Harvard, Fletcher was applying for jobs. He had a final interview with the Detroit Red Wings, but Murray needed to move it up the food chain to owner Mike Ilitch before hiring Cliff Fletcher’s boy.
“Mr. Ilitch didn’t share Bryan’s enthusiasm toward hiring the son of the president and GM of their biggest rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and putting him in the front office with Bryan Murray and Nick Polano,” Fletcher said, laughing. “It came to a sudden halt. After Bobby Clarke returned to Philadelphia though, Bryan was hired in Florida. Bryan called me and said, “It’s three years too late, but I’m excited to work with you.’”
Murray’s hires of Fletcher and Flahr began a long working relationship and close-knit friendship that countless others in hockey were fortunate enough to share.
Sadly, that came to an end Aug. 12 when Murray lost his battle with colon cancer. He was 74.
Thankfully, Fletcher and Flahr were able to rush to Shawville, Quebec, and spend time with Murray at his bedside the day before he died.
“That’s not the state you want to see somebody. That was one tough human being, and I can’t imagine how hard that battle was,” Fletcher said. “But it was important to … thank him. I’m not sure if I’m still in the business if it’s not for Bryan Murray.”
Teacher at heart
Fletcher and Flahr, who will be back in Shawville for Murray’s funeral on Tuesday, say they owe their careers to Murray, whose NHL career began in 1981 as the Washington Capitals coach. Murray ranks 12th all-time with 620 coaching wins and managed the Red Wings, Panthers, Ducks and Senators. Even though he was gone, Murray’s fingerprints were all over the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup champion Red Wings teams and 2007 Anaheim Ducks Cup winner that happened to beat the Murray-coached Senators.
The Panthers went to the Stanley Cup Final during Murray’s first year in Florida and the Ducks went to the Final during his second year in 2003. He’s in the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame and was the first inductee into the Senators Ring of Honour.
For Fletcher and Flahr, it was not just the loyalty he demonstrated — Murray brought both to Anaheim, then Flahr to Ottawa.
It was the teaching. Murray was a teacher by trade. After graduating from McGill University, Murray returned to Shawville to teach school. He played senior men’s hockey and coached any youth team he could, from hockey to … basketball.
“Right from my first day working, he’d come in the office and say, ‘Let’s go grab a coffee and watch practice,’” Flahr said. “He was always asking what you thought, he never wanted guys that sat on the fence. He had an unbelievable way of communicating. He always had that personality that you never wanted to let him down. You worked hard for him. He’s easily the best talent evaluator I’ve ever seen.”
Bane of referees
Murray had a gritty exterior, but he loved to joke around. Hockey people are renowned for dry wit and sarcasm, but Murray took it to another level.
After trading one player in Florida, he told him on the way out, “When I gave you that retirement contract, I intended for you to retire after you played for us.”
After a GMs meeting in 2010, Murray told a reporter he talked trade with Fletcher, “but he didn’t indicate he was ready to help me out at all. I don’t know why. I gave him his start.”
When Fletcher wanted to snatch Flahr away from Ottawa, Murray wasn’t pleased at all and told Fletcher he’d only let Flahr go if Fletcher handed over the Wild’s draft list.
As a coach, during one screaming match with a referee, the ref finally asked why he was so angry. He pulled the ref in and said, “Just work with me here. These [players] are asleep.”
Murray could be emotional, loved to win and competitive. He respected the press but was dead honest and would let a reporter know if he didn’t like what he wrote. Murray’s one of the reasons GMs can’t go near the referee’s room anymore. He’d storm down there once a week after games.
“He was one of those guys that you never ask him a question if you were afraid of the answer. He was pretty blunt,” Flahr said.
“But beneath that veneer,” Fletcher added, “was as warm and friendly a human being as you could find. He was so loyal and cared about so much about the people that worked for him.”
What Fletcher will miss most about Murray are those many nights out to dinner at places like Murray’s favorite Fort Lauderdale pub, the Sly Fox, “where we’d sit around and drink beer and eat chicken wings and he would tell stories about growing up in Shawville or coaching or his time out in Regina or Hershey. He’d just tell you great stories, and he’d tell you about his life and talk to you about yours.
“You worked hard for Bryan, but he wanted you to have a beer and talk hockey after. Whatever your role was in hockey ops — equipment manager, medical trainer, scout or head coach — anybody, Bryan was going to spend time with you, get to know you and have some fun with you when the workday was done. He was just a wonderful guy.”
Murray never had a colonoscopy. By the time the cancer was discovered, it spread everywhere, there was no cure and doctors guessed the cancer had been in his body for a decade. Murray spent the last couple years of his life promoting the importance of getting regular-checkups.
Always the teacher, Murray hoped this would be his lasting lesson.
“If he had a colonoscopy, Bryan said maybe this doesn’t happen. He was honest and blunt about that,” Fletcher said. “He was adamant about trying to get that message out. That’s the type of person he was. He’ll be greatly missed by everybody in the game. I consider him my boss and mentor … but he was the greatest friend.”