Bryan Murray, the first coach to lead the Caps to the playoffs, dies at 74

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(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

Bryan Murray, who raised the Washington Capitals from the depths of the NHL into a constant playoff presence, passed away Saturday at the age of 74. He had been receiving treatment for incurable colon cancer since 2014.

“Bryan Murray’s strength and character were reflected in the teams he coached and the teams he built over decades of front office excellence,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “While his warmth and dry sense of humor were always evident, they were accompanied by the fiery competitiveness and determination that were his trademarks. As we mourn Bryan’s passing, we celebrate his many contributions to the game — as well as his courage. The National Hockey League family sends our deepest condolences, comfort and support to Bryan’s family, his many friends and all whose lives he influenced.”

The Capitals’ existence had been one of misery before they promoted Murray, then 38, from Hershey of the American Hockey League early in the 1981-82 season. He was the team’s eighth coach in eight seasons.

“I talked to hockey people all over the country, then I met [Murray] yesterday for the first time,” team owner Abe Pollin told The Washington Post’s Bob Fachet upon hiring Murray in November 1981. “I spent 2½ hours with this man. I’m a people person. I go with what my heart tells me and what my gut tells me. My gut tells me that Bryan Murray’s the guy that’s going to bring the Capitals out of their doldrums.”

Pollin’s gut was right. Though the Capitals didn’t make the playoffs that year, they did finish with a 25-28-13 record with Murray at the helm. They had just one victory when he took over.

Things changed for good in 1982-83, the first season Murray was paired with General Manager David Poile. The Capitals won 39 games, 12 more than their previous high, and advanced to the playoffs for the first time, even taking a game from the Islanders before succumbing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the Patrick Division semifinals. The next year, after leading Washington to its first 100-point season and first playoff series win, Murray won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s coach of the year.

Five more playoff appearances followed, capped by a 1988-89 season in which the Capitals won the division for the first time in franchise history.

“Bryan, by education, is and was, a teacher,” Poile said in 2015. “He knows the X’s and O’s of the game of hockey really well and I don’t think there’s anyone who will dispute that. But, first and foremost, he’s a teacher. As a teacher, he really knows his players. He knows how to communicate with them. He knows how to push their buttons and he’s got a great way, a unique, way about him.

“Some that don’t know him would say he’s a little sarcastic from time to time. The way he talks to them, he gets to them and he gets them to understand what it takes to play. He gets them motivated. As a teacher, he just loves to be influential on players’ careers and he is and has been for his coaching and managing career.”

But with playoff appearances came the playoff disappointments that now are standard in Washington and, after the Capitals won just 18 of their first 46 games in the 1989-90 season, they fired Murray and replaced him with his brother, Terry, causing some consternation in a family that included 10 brothers and sisters. At the time, Bryan Murray ranked eighth in terms of winning percentage in NHL history. He went on to coach the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, located about an hour southeast of Murray’s Quebec hometown. Murray led the Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, where they lost in five games to the Anaheim Ducks.

While serving as general manager of the Ottawa Senators in July 2014, Murray learned he had Stage 4 colon cancer that had been present in his body for seven to 10 years, according to doctors. There was no hope for a cure, only to prolong his life for as long as comfortably possible via chemotherapy.

“Let’s go to extra overtime and keep playing like the game we played against the Islanders many years ago and we went to four overtime periods,” Murray said at the time. “Let’s just keep it going as long as we can, be as healthy as we can for that time, and enjoy what we have as we do it.”

Murray is survived by his wife, Geri, and daughters Heide and Brittany.

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