In Florida, we’ve been blessed to have a talented former NHLer join us for the past couple of weeks. Bob Murdoch played over 700 games in the NHL with Montreal and Los Angeles and Calgary. He coached the Chicago Blackhawks and the Winnipeg Jets. He’s still got great moves and it never seems to bother him when we fumble his pinpoint passes or fail to get the puck back to him at the point.
“It doesn’t matter what level you play at,” he tells me. “In the NHL or here, players are always chatting on the bench. If only I’d done this or you’d done that, we’d have had a goal. Things like that.”
With his brother Doug, one of our regulars, we retire to a nearby pub for grilled cheese sandwiches and beer.
I put my tape recorder in front of Bob and ask him to tell me about a long ago skirmish he had with John Ferguson.
First, let me tell you about my first training camp with the Montreal Canadiens. This would be in 1970, after I’d played with Canada’s National team and the Nova Scotia Voyageurs in the American League.
Before the camp opened, we were all invited into a big hall and general manager Sam Pollock was there to talk to us. Sam was a hockey legend, right?
There were about 100 of us in the hall. Remember, the Habs had some great players back then–a lot of Stanley Cup winners in the room. But the team had lost the Cup the previous year.
Now Sam addresses us and says sincerely, “I want you to know that you’ll all get your chance. We lost last year and every position is open. Every one of you has a chance to be a Canadien this year. There’s not one spot on the team that’s guaranteed.”
Pretty impressive, eh?
Then he walked out and a trainer took over. He had a list of all the players. He’d call out some names. “Beliveau, Cournoyer, Lemaire, Laperierre, Lapointe, Ferguson…” And he rhymed off 21 names—all big names. He said, “You fellows go to Room A and get your photos taken in your Montreal uniforms.”
Then he read off another 21 names—including mine. “You fellows go to another room and get your photos taken—in Voyageurs uniforms.” The Voyageurs were Montreal’s farm club.
The sixty players who were left would have loved to have their photos taken in any uniform. But they were ignored. No photos for them. And yet Pollock had just said, “Every position is open—every single one. You all have an equal chance.”
In those days at training camp, you’d have games to play. No conditioning program. You’d suit up and play in tough scrimmages, with a referee calling penalties, right off the bat.
So on my first shift, somebody threw the puck into the corner and I raced after it with John Ferguson breathing down my neck. He was a veteran, eight or nine years older than me. We bumped in the corner and I knocked him down. I saw it was Fergie on the ice but didn’t think anything of it. I got back in front of the net when suddenly there was a flurry of activity. Fergie jumped me from behind and grabbed me and tossed me around. Then he dropped his gloves and started pounding me. He beat the shit out of me and we each got five minutes for fighting. Well, he got five minutes for fighting, I got five minutes for receiving. We went to the penalty box and he’s cursing me. There was a glass partition separating the two boxes. He starts yelling through a crack in the glass and—can I swear?—okay he’s screaming, “You fucking rookie! I’ll get you! I’ll cut your eyes out when we get back out there.”
Well, geez, it was the fastest five minutes I ever spent in my life. I’m thinking, what am I gonna do? I’ve got to challenge him again or I’ll get no respect at all. So we get back on the ice, the coaches leave us out there and when the puck is dropped I go over and give him a little bump. Just a nudge to let him know I’m not terrified of him. Well, he drops his gloves and proceeds to kick the shit out of me again. So we’re both banished to the penalty box for another five minutes.
Here I am, in my first scrimmage. I’ve been on the ice for all of 30 seconds and already I’ve had the shit kicked out of me twice and I’ve taken ten minutes in penalties. Fergie’s still fuming and screaming at me. While I’m in the box, I remember thinking, Look, I’ve got a college degree. I could be teaching school somewhere for 25 grand a year. This professional hockey is a horrible profession. It stinks.
And that was the start of my life in pro hockey.
Bob makes an interesting comment about the role of the tough guy in hockey back in his era.
“The tough guys in hockey in my day were key to winning the Stanley Cup. All the Stanley Cup winning teams in the 70’s and 80’s had great players but their tough guys were the toughest in the league. So the contending teams were able to play with a level of comfort.
‘Take the Calgary Flames when I was an assistant to Bob Johnston there. We’d play the Oilers all season long and often in the playoffs. To me, the key was not matching Gretzky and Kurri and Messier but it was having players who could take on McSorley and Semenko and whoever else they had.
I remember one year—1986—we picked up Nick Fotiu. Not a great player but he gave us some toughness. Later in the season, the Oilers threw out McSorley, Semenko and Don Jackson. So Bob Johnson countered with Fotiiu, Tim Hunter and Neil Sheehy. And everybody waited for the fireworks.
Nick Fotiu came close to the boards and he said to his mates, “Well, boys, we all know why we’re here. Let’s get it on.”
A moment later, the gloves were off and the fights erupted.
And we neutralized the Oilers’ toughness. I’m sure that’s one reason we were able to put them out and go on to face Montreal in the finals that season. That and the fact our goalie Mike Vernon was unbelievable.
When I played, I always enjoyed giving the tough guys in the league a little bump, a little elbow or shoulder. One night Dave Semenko and I got into it—jawing at each other. Now we drop the gloves and the referee and linesmen move in and try to keep us apart. Well, I’m struggling to break loose and the officials are yanking on my jersey. Finally, the referee says to me, “Murdoch , you dumb bastard, settle down or I’ll let you go.”
Hockey players are often told the three words they should fear the most is “Let ‘em go.’”