Looking back, it wasn’t so much a surprise that Matt Murray was one of the first to leave the bus that day. After all, he had been riding it for a good 10 hours, and being six-foot-four, he probably needed to stretch more than anyone else on the team.
What was surprising is that he didn’t ask to get off earlier.
That would have been the normal reaction after Murray, a 17-year-old playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds at the time, was called to the front of the bus en route to a game in Peterborough and told that the team had suddenly acquired a better, older goalie in a trade.
Upon hearing the news, some goalies might have called their agent and requested a trade. But Murray, who was in his NHL draft year and playing for a championship-calibre team that started the 2011-12 season with 10 wins in its first 16 games, swallowed his emotions and waited for the bus to reach its destination before rushing off.
After all, he wanted to be the first player to extend a welcoming hand to Jack Campbell, the guy who was presumably there to ruin Murray’s life.
“To be honest, I was pissed off. I was extremely pissed off,” Murray remembered of the trade for Campbell, an 11th-overall pick who a year earlier had won gold at the world junior championship. “But at the end of the day, you’re part of a team and you’re part of something bigger, so I wasn’t going to let any hard feelings linger or anything like that. I knew exactly who Jack Campbell was and he was kind of everything I wanted to be at the time. He was a first-round pick and he had already signed an NHL contract. He was one of the best goalie prospects in the world. And Jack happens to be one of the best people you’ll ever meet.”
Last season, now playing in the NHL, Murray took over the role Jack Campbell had once played in his career.
Murray was the hot-shot prospect who, after setting minor-league records for the longest shutout streak and most shutouts in a season, was called up to the Pittsburgh Penguins in February and took over the No. 1 job from Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray led the team to a Stanley Cup championship.
Thirteen months later, Murray is technically still a 22-year-old rookie. And based on his stats — 28-9-4 record, 2.34 goals-against average, fifth in the league with a .925 save percentage — he should be in the conversation with Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for the Calder Trophy.
But listening to Murray, he doesn’t sound like someone who is on the path to becoming Canada’s next great goalie. He doesn’t even sound sure that he’ll be in net for Game 1 when the playoffs start. Maybe it’s modesty. Or maybe, with the Penguins not trading Fleury at the deadline, it’s the knowledge that plans can change in a hurry.
As Murray knows, one day you can be the starter, the next you could be called to the front of the bus for for bad news.
“It definitely opened my eyes to it being a business and that you always have to be on your toes and be at your best,” Murray said of the Campbell trade. “If you’re not, someone can come in and take your spot. It feels like I’ve been battling for the net ever since.”
Matt Murray’s first battle for the net came when he was an eight-year-old defenceman playing in Thunder Bay. He knew then that he wanted to play goalie, but the league had a rule where everyone had to play forward or defence and take turns in net.
So Murray, who doesn’t like speaking up or being a me-first player, waited his turn. And waited. And waited some more until finally in the final game of the season he got to put on the pads.
He had always been a gifted athlete, but it seemed like he was made to be a goalie. As a kid, he was tall and skinny.
“He was a passionate learner,” his mother, Fenny, said. “He’s got his dad’s calmness going through the world, but he’s got my drive, which says ‘I didn’t sign up to lose.’ It’s about winning, not getting the shutout, for him. It would be 6-5 and I’d say, ‘Oh Matt, how are you feeling?’ And he was like, ‘We won didn’t we?’ That’s all that matters to him.”
Winning mattered so much that Murray was determined to get better at his craft. With few goaltending coaches in Thunder Bay, he and his dad flew to Toronto when he was 10 years old for a week-long summer goaltending camp with Jon Elkin. They have come back every year since.
It was Elkin, said Murray, who took him to the next level.
“Goalies can move side to side, can get into the butterfly, and utilize the same technique, but some guys have a certain fluidity, poise, that’s special,” said Elkin, who is now the Arizona Coyotes goalie coach.
Technique, however, only takes you so far. After three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, Murray was putting up respectable, but not jaw-dropping numbers. There was something missing. For all his calmness in the net, Murray lacked that killer instinct.
“In goaltending, it’s not always two plus two equals four,” said Elkin, who was hired to be the Greyhounds goalie coach in Murray’s fourth season. “There’s lot of variables that don’t add up and you have to scramble and make it up as you go along and learn to read and react. That part started to click for him as a 19-year-old. That was the last essential ingredient he needed.”
Sometimes, like when he was pulled after the first period in a game against the Sabres earlier this month and then allowed four goals in a shutout loss to the Flyers in his next start, Murray has to remind himself that he’s still a rookie.
“I’ve been really good at times, and I’ve been really average,” Murray said of this season, which began with a spot on the young North America team at the World Cup of Hockey. “I don’t want to be too hard on myself, because it’s my first year.”
Indeed, Murray has won a Stanley Cup but he doesn’t feel like a seasoned veteran. He is still learning about consistency, about flushing a bad game down the drain, and about getting better. More importantly, he’s learning that he doesn’t have all the answers.
“I think it definitely feels like my first full year,” Murray said. “The playoffs are such a different animal. The challenges you go through in the playoffs are completely different than what you go through in the regular season. I definitely feel like a rookie and like I have a long way to go. I’m definitely nowhere near where I want to be.”