From Houston to the Stanley Cup Finals

by Ryan Stanzel

Rem Murray doesn’t care how much money it cost him for a chance to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Murray, who played for the Houston Aeros from October through March of the 2005-06 season, estimates that after taxes he’ll lose money this season. After all, he had to pay back a million-dollar insurance settlement after a rare nerve disorder called cervical dystonia nearly ended his career. Doctors thought he’d never play again, so he’s had to give the money back with wages earned from his time with the Edmonton Oilers, who begin the Stanley Cup Finals at the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday.

Was it worth it?

“There’s no question,” the 33-year-old Murray told last week before leaving for Greenburgh, N.Y., where the Oilers began preparations for the Finals while awaiting the end of the Eastern Conference series. “Obviously money was an issue, but I wanted to do it for my peace of mind. I would have been happy to finish the season in Houston and make a playoff run there, but to be able to be in the Stanley Cup Finals at any point, and after what I’ve been through, is indescribable. It’s unbelievable.”

October seems a long time away for Murray, who has played 560 NHL regular-season games and 55 more in the post-season before battling for the Stanley Cup. Cut late in training camp from perennial Cup contender Detroit, a team he and his Oilers teammates would end up eliminating, Murray was left without a team, after a year and a half away from the game.

“I probably wasn’t ready to play (in the NHL) at that point,” Murray said. “But being able to go to Houston, I had a lot of fun with the guys. I got a lot of ice time to get my game back to where I needed to be. I was lucky and fortunate to get the opportunity. So many guys in Houston deserved to be in the NHL.”

Murray was a big part of the Aeros’ dominating start to 2005-06, anchoring the team’s second line and playing a big part in the development of top prospect Patrick O’Sullivan.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without the Aeros,” Murray said. “I have a special place in my heart for the organization and the guys I played with.”

Then, his past came calling.

The Edmonton Oilers, the team that gave him his first pro contract in 1995 and he made his NHL debut with a season later, were hurting. They were dropping in the standings, and injuries were taking their toll, especially up front. The Oilers had been scouting Murray, and made the call.

Murray was on a flight to Edmonton on March 4 and made his re-entry to the NHL less than 24 hours later as the Oilers topped Nashville, 3-2.

But, the wins weren’t coming — Edmonton lost its next four games with Murray in the lineup — and suddenly, Murray’s ice time wasn’t there. Bolstered by the acquisition of goalie Dwayne Roloson from Minnesota and forward Sergei Samsonov from Boston, the Oilers surged into the Western Conference playoff race.

Murray was a healthy scratch for eight straight games late in the regular season before scoring his lone NHL goal of the season in the last game, a 4-2 win over Colorado.

“It was tough,” Murray said. “Obviously as a player you’re competitive and want to play, but it was probably best for me. I wasn’t ready for the pace of play. I was able to skate after practice and get my conditioning back, to get back to where I needed to be.”

The playoffs have been a different story. Murray played in all 17 games during the first three rounds, registering three assists. His top two time-on-ice games came in the final two games against Detroit. He played around 11 minutes in each of those two contests.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable as games go,” Murray said. “I think I’m back to where I was before.”

Murray was a key cog in the Oilers’ five-game win over Anaheim in the conference final. He had two of his three playoff assists in the series, while averaging nearly 10 minutes of ice time on Edmonton’s fourth line over the last three games.

In Game 3, Murray helped set off an early wild celebration at Edmonton’s Rexall Place by tying up goalie Ilya Bryzgalov behind the net, leading to Toby Petersen’s goal – the only tally of the opening two periods – in a crazy 5-4 Oilers win.

Murray then set up Ethan Moreau’s goal to give Edmonton an early lead in the series-clinching 2-1 win in Game 5 back in Anaheim.

Murray saw extensive time on the penalty kill in that game, as Edmonton knocked down 10 of the Ducks’ 11 power play chances. While scoring stars such as Samsonov took a lesser role (8:28 of ice time), Oilers forwards with the ability to play in many situations took to the ice. Murray also won six of eight face-offs in the game.

“The guys on our team sacrificed their bodies, blocked shots and did whatever it took,” Murray said. “Even though they had 11 power plays, we were able to kill them off by keeping them outside. Roloson has been stellar for us all throughout the playoffs. The D-men did a great job clearing bodies out in front of the net.”

“They were a tough team,” he added. “But we were able to survive it. We were down 6-on-3 late with their goalie pulled. To be able to survive that and know we were going to the Stanley Cup Finals, it was a dream come true.”

It was after that game that Murray began to realize what an influence the Oilers were having on their city.

“The atmosphere here is bananas,” Murray said. “They are so hockey crazy, so hungry for the Stanley Cup. Even in the first round, they were going crazy. But when we won in Anaheim the other night, I called my wife, and they were honking the horns on the street at 4 a.m. There’s a street called Whyte Avenue, and there are 50,000 people on it after the game. The building, they don’t stop the whole game, no matter what the score is.”

Even after the playoffs are through, Murray has things to look forward to, besides playing with his three children – a task that he couldn’t do when his cervical dystonia symptoms were at their worst. Murray was Edmonton’s nominee for the Masterton Trophy, given to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. Past winners of the Masterton include cancer survivor Saku Koivu and Bryan Berard, whose serious eye injury nearly ended his career.

Similarly, Murray was Houston’s nominee for the AHL’s Fred T. Hunt Award for sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey.

“I was blown away,” Murray said. “I only played nine regular-season games with [Edmonton], and for them to nominate me is special. Anytime you’re up for an award like that, and you worked hard to get back to where you were at, it’s always nice. But just to get back to the NHL is a thrill for me.”

Aeros fans continue to monitor Murray’s progress, often following Oilers’ games in internet chat rooms and on message boards.

Murray said he still talks to his former teammates in Houston, frequently text messaging during the playoffs. “I made a lot of friends,” he said. “Those guys were great to me.”

But Murray prefers to look forward, and not back. He plays every night in front of his wife and kids, just months after wondering if he’d ever play competitive hockey again.

“My oldest daughter (four years old) has gone to all the games,” he said. “She brings her pompoms. She actually fell asleep during one game. I’m not sure how she did that in our building. My middle son sits at home and watches the games. He can’t stay up that late, but he loves watching games on TV.”

Should the Oilers prevail, Murray will become just the second Aero to have his name inscribed on hockey’s most beloved prize, the Stanley Cup; Blake Sloan claimed the Cup in 1999 with Dallas. Like Murray, Sloan also began that season with the Aeros.

“It’s been an incredible year,” summed up Murray. “It’s been so much fun. After we beat Anaheim, just sitting in the room, I was numb. I’m playing in the Stanley Cup Finals after everything that’s happened.”