It’s not often a player goes back to junior after playing against top NHL performers in the senior men’s world hockey championship.
But Ryan Murray is an exception.
Last spring, Murray, then 18, became the first teenager to suit up at the world championship held in Finland and Sweden before he was drafted. The defenceman was the second-youngest player to compete in the tournament since former NHL star Paul Kariya in 1993.
Murray’s strong showing prompted the Columbus Blue Jackets to choose him second overall in this summer’s NHL entry draft. But the White City, Sask., native now finds himself back in the WHL for a fourth season with the Everett Silvertips due to the NHL lockout.
“It’s definitely different,” he said following a recent game in Vancouver against the Giants. “You go from playing with the men and some of the best players in the world back to junior.
“I just want to take what I learned at the world championships, how guys prepared and just try and teach some of the younger guys here, just kind of show them what it takes.”
Based on his experience at the worlds, Murray, who turned 19 on Thursday, is considered ready for the pro ranks. But due to age restrictions in the expired collective bargaining agreement between NHL owners and players, he can’t play in the minors.
There is no question this will be his final WHL campaign. If the lockout scraps the entire season as it did in 2004-05, he will be eligible for the NHL or the minors in 2012-’13.
The only question is how soon he will give up his captaincy and elder statesman status with the Silvertips to become a rookie with a rebuilding Columbus club?
“I just want to do as well as I can here, focus on winning here in Everett and just, really, doing what I can,” said Murray, who has four points in as many games. “I want to be a dominant player in the league while I’m here and just be prepared if I get the call up to Columbus.”
Murray displayed his dominance Friday as the Silvertips beat the Giants 5-3 despite being outshot 37-21. He recorded an assist and finished plus-three on the night as Everett posted its first win of the season.
“We’re fortunate — forever how long we have him — for our young kids to see exactly what Ryan Murray’s all about,” said Everett coach Mark Ferner. “It’s pretty obvious (what he means to the team) considering how he played close to 40 minutes, if not more.
“He’s a horse. He just never gets tired. What makes him such a special kid is how he treats people. He doesn’t get down. He doesn’t complain about anything. He goes about his business. He’s the hardest worker off the ice, he’s the hardest worker on the ice and he makes people around him better.”
Murray got introduced to the game early, as his father, a former player, who is now an electrician and mother, a nurse, put him in a pair of skates at the age of two.
“Once I learned to walk, I learned to skate,” said Murray.
He followed in the strides of his older brother, Nathan, who plays for the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, while his younger brother, Troy, was selected 10th overall by the Kootenay Ice in this year’s WHL bantam draft.
In addition to the immense hockey skill developed at an early age, Ferner said Murray has a considerable amount of character.
“I’ve been involved in hockey a long time, and I’ve never seen a kid like this,” said Ferner.
And the coach has seen some talent in his time. Before joining the Silvertips, Ferner guided the Vernon Vipers to consecutive Royal Bank Cup titles. He also spent 17 seasons as a journeyman pro, mainly in the minors while appearing in 91 NHL games with Detroit and Anaheim, and has played and coached with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers.
While Murray works on improving the offensive side of his game, the coach deploys him as a teaching aid.
“We can put him in any situation, obviously,” Ferner said. “But as an organization, hopefully, the things that Ryan does on the ice, off the ice, habits, details, looking after himself, rubs off on our kids.”
Pending the duration of the lockout, Murray has a chance to play for Canada’s world junior entry again this winter after helping it win a bronze medal last Christmas.
Despite the forced demotion, Murray has no problem being back in junior, said Ferner. He added the defenceman called him and apologized for missing the start of Everett’s training camp because he was taking part in a Blue Jackets’ development camp and the Canada-Russia Challenge.
Nail Yakupov, the player selected ahead of Murray in the draft, decided to bypass his OHL club, the Sarnia Sting, and play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
But Murray opted to stay in North America instead. Ferner said his return demonstrates his commitment to the Silvertips franchise and WHL.
“I thought about (going to Europe), I guess,” said Murray, who believes he is ready for the NHL. “But I guess (the NHL) have the rules here where you’ve got to go back to junior.
“It’s all complicated stuff, so I just let my agent (Rick Valette) deal with that. He thought the best move would be to come back here for the time being.”
In the meantime, Murray answers his teammates’ questions on what some NHL stars are really like (“normal people, just like us”) and waits for his pro career to begin.
“I’m just going to work as hard as I can,” he said. “If I do get an opportunity in Columbus, I’ll do whatever I can to take advantage of it.”