Just a season ago, Bryan Murray came to Washington to coach a hockey team that struggled daily, won rarely and commanded little respect.
"Last year, we were continually trying to catch up," he said. "Because they had started so poorly, when I got here my objective was to let the guys enjoy hockey, play offense, have fun." It wasn't too much fun for Murray, who joined the Washington Capitals after their disastrous 1-11 beginning in 1981-82.
But that's history. The new Capitals are skating through a 13-game unbeaten streak and Murray, in his first try coaching a National Hockey League team, is finding it can be a pleasant job.
"It's so much more interesting to go to the rink or the arena and be able to do some good things in hockey games and practices," he said. "It's just the ideal situation."
Indeed, how much more ideal could the Capitals be now, tied for second place with Philadelphia in the Patrick Division, and gaining on the first-place Islanders?
"We're a lot of games away from the finish, but I don't think I'm unrealistic to expect this to continue," Murray said. Even in training camp, he expressed similar confidence in the rebuilt Capitals, strengthened by new talent via offseason trades.
"The big thing we lacked last year was depth, enough good depth to be consistently competitive," he said. "We had three or four defensemen who played all right; now we've got Rod Langway and Brian Engblom. We've got four good lines. And we use a 'team' approach, with more stress on winning as a team than the individual's play."
If the Capitals have congealed into a group of all-for-one guys, Murray's work-ethic philosophy is primarily responsible.
"His overall approach to life is that he's striving to be competitive, be consistent, by way of working hard, playing fair and being tough," said General Manager Dave Poile. "Bryan doesn't play favorites, and he really does believe in what he's doing: an individual game plan, or where this team can go. That gets across to the guys."
Poile believes that the Capitals' new image will be that of the basic, hard-working hockey team. "Nothing fancy. The old identity is gone, and we need another one," he said. "Other teams seem to think of us as a team that doesn't quit. If that's the case -- someone called us the 'workaholic Caps' -- that's great, and that's what Bryan is. The coach is a big part of any team's identity."
Murray's design for the Capitals is very basic, sound hockey, which, he says, "is what we need with this team. We have a lot of young players, and if you stay with the basics, if you're willing to repeat enough drills in practice, you'll be better able to apply that in a game."
At the start of the season, Murray had thought he could introduce more intricate plays, but decided to stay with the simpler approach.
"Sometimes it can get a little boring in practice, but he does it for a reason," said Craig Laughlin. "Bryan said everything in the NHL is all repetition, and when you're facing a three-on-two or coming out of your own end, he doesn't want you to have to think about it. You should just react.
"Bryan's a very straight guy. He always tells you where you fit in," Laughlin added. "In Montreal, you were never sure. Bryan leaves no doubts. And you know he knows who can do what."
"It has taken time, because we had so many new guys," Poile said. "There were so many things to consider. We were hoping to be around the .500 mark by Christmas. It was Bryan's first full year as coach, and he had to figure out how to get the best out of what he had to work with."
Of the club's 2-6-1 start, Poile said, "I think I can be faulted at the early part of the season, deciding on leaving players like (Gaetan) Duchesne and (Glen) Currie in Hershey . . . we (Murray and Poile) have faced some adversity. We haven't had to work together under real pressure yet, but as far as I'm concerned, since day one, it's been great."
Riding the crest of a winning streak, Murray foresees no backsliding in the tradition of the old Capitals.
"It's a confidence thing. You can talk and talk, but until you do win, you'll never know you can do it," he said. "When I first came to Washington there was a question because I had never coached in the National Hockey League before. There are a lot of things you can do if you apply yourself.
"We've stabilized this team, and, now, I think we can only get even better."