Twenty-six hours after meeting Bryan Murray for the first time, Washington Capitals' owner Abe Pollin yesterday entrusted the 38-year-old coach with the task of guiding the last-place Capitals to respectability.
Murray became the Capitals' eighth coach in eight seasons, with a three-year contract and a promise from Pollin that he will "consider major trades and minor trades," and that "everything and anything is available," including future draft choices and all players on the current roster.
Roger Crozier, who has been interim coach and general manager since last Thursday, when Pollin fired Gary Green as coach and Max McNab as general manager, will continue as acting general manager. Pollin said Crozier will be considered for the job of general manager.
Murray, like his predecessor Green, was named coach of the Capitals after having served as coach of the Hershey farm club. Murray was selected from a list of about 100 possible candidates, although only he and Don Cherry -- former coach at Boston and Colorado -- actually were interviewed. Fred Shero, former coach of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, apparently was disqualified because he would not meet Pollin without agent Mark Stewart. Phil Esposito, despite reports out of New York, never was contacted.
"Don Cherry is a very fine gentleman and I was very impressed with him," Pollin said. "If I hadn't met Bryan Murray, he probably would have gotten the job. He had some conditions I was troubled with or was concerned about. He wanted sort of a Billy Martin-type condition here, where he would be in total control . . . But he was a fine candidate."
Pollin later said, "I talked to hockey people all over the country, then I met this man (Murray) yesterday for the first time. I spent 2 1/2 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 gonna bring the Capitals out of their doldrums.
"I don't consider this season over," Pollin added. "We have a shot at the playoffs. I leaned toward Bryan because he knows the organization and the players respect him. Anybody else coming in would need three weeks to get acclimated and in control, and by then the season might be over."
Murray, the players' candidate, had handled the Capitals' practices Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, after sharing bench duties with Crozier during Saturday's 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers. He returned to Hershey Tuesday night for a hockey banquet, then was asked to come back yesterday morning, both to run the morning practice and to meet with Pollin again.
"I figured he would either give me the job or tell me why I wasn't getting it," Murray said. "I was in such a hurry to find out which it was that I was stopped for speeding on the way down. They let me off because I had Quebec license plates. I was pleasantly surprised at 10:15 when I was told the job was mine."
"I think we've got to be tougher," Pollin said. "I think this hockey team has played patsy. I think you'll see a change in that department. Those who do not perform up to their capabilities will not be here."
Pollin anticipated a negative response from fans who might have looked for a big-name coach and he said, "I understand the frustration of the fans. No. 1, I'm a fan myself, or I wouldn't be here."
Pollin also said, "The Capitals to date have been the major disappointment and the major failure of my business career."
Said Pollin: "I take full responsibility for the sorry state of the Washington Capitals to date and I underline 'to date . . . ' It has not been for lack of commitment, lack of effort or lack of pouring bucks into the team, many millions of bucks . . . I'm not a quitter. I think this team has the material to be a competitive team.
"Bryan is a winner, a tough disciplinarian, and the players like him and respect him. He is a better coach than Gary Green. I think Gary didn't achieve. He lost control. I don't think Bryan will lose control. They need a firm hand and he will supply it.
"Although I think we have the basic personnel to be competitive on the ice, we are going to consider major trades and minor trades. A team in our situation can expect to hear from vultures, but the vultures will not feed on us. Trades will be made to the benefit of the Washington Capitals."
Already, two deals reportedly are under discussion, including a multiple-player swap with the struggling Calgary Flames.
Murray guided Hershey to a record 103-point output last season, after taking the Regina Pats to the Western League title and Memorial Cup final the year before.
Murray, a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, began his career in the mid-1960s, coaching high school hockey and basketball and junior hockey in Ontario. He became athletic director and hockey coach at his alma mater in 1968.
Murray left McGill in the early '70s to teach high school physical education in Shawville, Quebec, near Ottawa, and coach Tier Two junior hockey. He won the Centennial Cup, the Tier Two national championship, with the Rockland Nationals. Then the chance came to coach Junior A at Regina. Murray left his family in Shawville and took the big gamble, never thinking it would pay off so quickly.
"I used to drive many miles to coach junior hockey after teaching school," Murray said. "Realistically, coaching in the National Hockey League was not one of the things I was aiming for, although any hockey coach at any level naturally has that in the back of his mind."
Although Murray actively pursued the Capitals' job when Green was fired, he comes here with his eyes open. The Capitals have deep-seated problems and Murray knows it will take time to solve some of them.
"From watching three practices and one hockey game, I'm aware that a number of players are not at the right level of conditioning or weight they should be at to play at their capacity," Murray said. "There has been too much standing around at practice. I run an activity practice. We don't stop for an hour and a half. The teaching can come elsewhere.
"A week ago, the Hershey Bears could go out on the ice for 30 minutes and put on a demonstration of puck handling and passing that would impress you more than the Washington Capitals. We realize we need a couple of weeks, but the players here will be much improved in that respect.
"We need to be more aggressive, but you can't have one person as a hitter. I have to encourage a number of people to do that. We do have a couple of young people in Hershey who perhaps don't have the talent to make a major contribution yet, but they are willing to hit. I can't make promises; all I can promise is we will not be pushed around physically.
"I think we have the players in the organization to make us a contender. I think the Washington Capitals can be in the top 10, 11 or 12 teams. But we will need certain changes or additions to put us in the upper echelon of the league."
Murray's appointment was a major victory for Crozier, who had backed Murray and may not have stayed if Cherry had been selected.
"People aren't going to come into this building with Bryan Murray as coach and push us around," Crozier said. "If they get two points, they're going to have to pay for it. We plan on changing the attitude of this organization and change the attitude of the fans. We will change this into a winning organization and an exciting one."
To the fans who have heard all this before, Pollin said, "I've made promises to the fans and broke 'em, so I don't want to make a promise . . . I'm asking the fans to have patience. I've asked it before, I continue to ask it."
Of the seven previous coaches, including one-game interim boss Crozier, only two, Milt Schmidt and Red Sullivan, had previous NHL coaching experience before stepping behind the Capitals' bench.
One oddity of the current arrangement is that Murray is coaching his younger brother Terry for the first time since Terry, 31, was in high school.
"We've been in this situation before," Terry said. "It's no problem. I'm sure he'll treat me like any other player."