"Isn't hockey fun?"

The words were tinged with sarcasm, but tempered with a smile. Bryan Murray had finished a double practice session with his Capitals, a day after they'd been beaten, 9-7, by Los Angeles.

"When you win, everybody's patting everybody else on the back," he said. "But you lose one and all the fingers point at one guy. Me. Hockey's just so much fun."

Occasional stumbles by his team aside, Bryan Murray gives the impression he really is having fun with all this NHL business. The Capitals, who face the Penguins in Pittsburgh tonight, have left behind their doormat days and are generally improving in the area Murray continually emphasizes: responsibility.

"All I ask is that we be more responsible," he said after the club's victory over Chicago last week. "All I ask is that players work up to their potential."

Murray has always made that simple demand of his teams. Perhaps not so simple, since "every team I ever took over was last place." Credit Murray with the turnarounds. Even with a senior men's team, the equivalent of recreation department basketball, Murray put players ("older guys, my age now") through dry-land training and made them winners.

"There's nothing else with Bryan," said Hershey General Manager Frank Mathers, who watched Murray coach the Bears to their best season two years ago. "He doesn't blast people; that's not his style. But he's hard on players, hard on himself. He wants people to get down to work."

Indeed, on one of Murray's junior teams, he cut 10 players in a single night because they weren't working satisfactorily.

"Cruel, isn't he?" said Terry Murray, his younger brother and the Capitals' assistant coach. But Murray defended himself: "It wasn't cruel. They weren't doing the job."

Unlike so many of his coaching counterparts, Murray has not spent most of his working life within the isolated world of professional hockey. While others were scratching out a playing career, he was majoring in physical education at McGill University, where he later became athletic director.

He returned to his hometown of Shawville, Quebec, to run the high school's physical education department, and began his association with junior hockey teams. "I was doing it because I enjoyed it and, once you start, it's like a bug," he said. "You want to get into it full time."

But few junior coaches are able to leap into a minor professional organization, let alone the big time. When someone suggested Murray was lucky to have made the transition, because so many coaches are trapped at the junior level with floundering teams, Murray said, "If I'd been like that, I never would have gotten out. Some guys are victims of circumstances, but others, who have teams that struggle year after year, they'll never make it out."

But Murray got out. He took his Regina Pats to the Western Hockey League championship in 1980 before going on to Hershey.

Now that Murray has reached the game's upper level, he's still no prima donna. He answers questions candidly, even before a game and after a loss. He actually smiles during the season--are you listening, Al Arbour?

"I try not to bring it home with me," he said. "When I'm not at a practice or a game, I spend time at home with my wife and daughter, going to a movie or shopping." The total hockey coach, with a Betamax in the bedroom and a blackboard in the kitchen, probably shudders at the thought.

Murray's own pace works for him and for the Capitals. He'll never be a Vermeil-like burnout victim. At Chicago Stadium last week, before heading down to the locker room, he strolled over to inspect the arena's famed pipe organ. Asked if he was aware of the music during games, he said, "Oh, when we score, I always hear music. Always."