As Joe Murphy sat in hockey purgatory this week, wondering if any NHL team would give him another--perhaps his last--chance, he forced himself to think positive thoughts. The Boston Bruins had suspended the talented winger indefinitely for insubordination after he allegedly screamed profanities at Coach Pat Burns on the bench.
First Murphy's agent, Jay Fee, had to convince the Bruins to place Murphy on waivers Tuesday rather then let him dangle for the duration of the season until his grievance could be heard. Then Fee contacted 10 to 12 teams urging them to speak with Murphy to get his side of the story of the Boston incident. Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee was among those Fee called, but McPhee never took him up on his offer.
After conducting their own investigation, the Capitals decided to gamble on the 32-year-old, claiming him off waivers, assuming the remaining $300,000 of his salary and putting him on the top line with Adam Oates and Chris Simon for Saturday's game in Nashville.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Murphy said from his home in Chicago. "I was pretty confused about the whole situation. I didn't know what was going to happen. I was pretty depressed and down and really worried about the situation.
"I'm so happy Washington picked me up. The more I looked at the club's ownership group, what's going on with the team there and the commitment of the organization, the more excited I got. I really want to win and I'm so excited about it."
Murphy, who has not spoken publicly about the Boston incident, was the first American to be chosen first overall in the college draft (by Detroit in 1986) and, since 1990-91, has scored at least 20 goals in each season in which he's played at least 40 games. Last season with San Jose he scored 25 goals--a total that would have been second on the Capitals--and his speed and scoring ability could give the Capitals a big boost for the playoffs.
But there is a risk. Murphy, who will skate with the team for the first time Saturday morning, has been labeled hard to coach and to play with, and Washington is his seventh team. The Capitals are the hottest team in the league since Christmas and they have established great chemistry and camaraderie. McPhee said if Murphy jeopardizes that, he's gone, but the Capitals are expecting the best.
"We think we're a mature enough team to accept a player like Joe and give him an opportunity to succeed," Coach Ron Wilson said. "He's got to show us he's committed to playing our game, the game we've established the last six weeks, and I don't think it will be a problem.
"You hear all different kinds of things that happened in Boston and I can't comment on any of that until we sit down with Joe and find out what the problem was and tell him what the rules of engagement are here. I think we have a situation that will be good for him, and hopefully it will work out. Maybe he can be the guy that finishes off what Adam Oates creates."
The Capitals have been searching for a right winger to complement their top center all season, auditioning everyone from Glen Metropolit to Peter Bondra. No one has stuck. Murphy, who was a teammate of Oates's briefly in Detroit, has a scorer's touch and is enthused to play Washington's system, in which the wingers forecheck aggressively. He immediately enhances the team's depth and creates more healthy competition for playing time.
"That's unbelievable," Murphy said when told of his new linemates. "Adam is one of best playmakers in the league and [Simon] is having a great season overall. Playing with them would be awesome. I really look forward to that."
McPhee figured at least four teams beneath Washington in the standings would be interested in Murphy. His reputation may be what scared them off. There are legendary stories about him, like once allegedly telling Mike Keenan, his coach in St. Louis, that "Joe-Joe can't go-go, Joe-Joe's tired" when tapped to take a shift.
Montreal defenseman Eric Weinrich, who used to drive to practice with Murphy in Chicago, said Murphy was infatuated with drinking and selling tea. Once, Weinrich said, Murphy held up a bag of tea and asked him what he saw. When he told Murphy all he saw was a bag of tea, Murphy replied, "It's Twinings, W-I-N, win, win."
"He's an interesting guy," Weinrich said. "He's really intense, but you know what, he was as talented as anybody I ever played with. He's a bit of a loose cannon but that might be what makes him so dangerous out there. He's unpredictable."
Capitals winger James Black, a former Blackhawk, was warned by his Chicago teammates about Murphy when he was called up from the minors. He played on a line with Murphy and Denis Savard, ended up hanging out with Murphy in Chicago that summer and was won over by Murphy's ability to thrive under pressure and play big in big games--of Murphy's 34 career playoff goals, 10 were game-winners.
"I like him, he's a good guy," Black said. "He's a little bit of a different bird, but everybody is different in their own way. He can be a little focused and eccentric, but if anybody can deal with stuff like that it's Wilson.
"And he's a big-game player; he lives for that. I know a lot of teams passed on him, but it's great for us. He's really going to help us big time."