By Mick Hatten
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — There are selfies, then there are moments you want to capture because it is doubtful that you will ever see them again.
For St. Cloud Blizzard defenseman Alex Murray, he had quite a few of the latter as he played for a team of Americans who play in the North American Hockey League in the 2019 Sirius Junior Club World Cup Tournament in Sochi, Russia. The NAHL team went 2-2 in pool play and took fifth place in the eight-team tournament, which was played Aug. 23-31.
Murray said that Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped the ceremonial first puck for the tournament, providing one of the unforgettable moments of his trip.
“To start the tournament, the Russians played the Canadians and Putin came down from the stands and he got on the ice and dropped the puck,” Murray said. “Everyone had their cameras out that was there. It was a pretty big deal.”
While they were in Sochi, they also went to the Skypark, which included some nervous moments.
“They had a skybridge there and in the middle of the skybridge, it’s 700 feet down (to the ground),” Murray said. “I took a couple pictures and videos from that and they had bungee jumps. Our coach didn’t let us do that because we were there to play hockey, but I saw somebody jump like 680 feet down. Pretty crazy to me. I was feeling sick to my stomach. Some of the guys on our team didn’t even want to go across the bridge. Probably 15 of us walked across.”
— St. Cloud Blizzard (@Blizzard_Hockey) August 17, 2019
The team began the trip in Moscow where they spent four days and that included some tourist stops at the Kremlin and Red Square.
Oh, and there was hockey. There were also teams from the Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland at the tournament. So what was the competition like?
“I thought most of the teams were at the NAHL (level),” Murray said. “The Russian team was a step above everyone else. They had eight NHL draft picks on the team, including one that went in the first round in 2018 (forward Grigori Denisenko, Florida Panthers).
“I thought most of the teams were pretty even to us. There was a lot of good talent out there, a lot of guys who were playing pro hockey as 19- and 20-year-olds. I thought it was good competition and we played pretty well.”
1 each from 24 teams
The NAHL team included 24 players, one from each team in the Tier II league. There were 14 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders and the team was coached by Scott Langer, who led the Aberdeen Wings to last season’s NAHL Robertson Cup playoff title.
The team was announced on July 10 and the Americans did not have a ton of time on the ice together before the games started.
“The team got together for the first time at this hotel, literally, a day before we left,” he said. “We had a practice, then an exhibition game (in Moscow) and we had another practice and then we went down to Sochi.
“We didn’t have that many practices together compared to the other teams that were used to playing together for whole seasons.”
The games in the tournament were played at Shayba Arena, which is a 7,000-seat multi-purpose arena located at Sochi Olympic Park. The games were played on an Olympic-sized rink (200 feet long, 100 feet wide), which was an adjustment from the NHL-sized (200 x 85) that Murray is accustomed to.
“When I got back and I practiced (Thursday), it felt like these guys are closer to me and I don’t have to reach out and feel like I’m out of position,” Murray said of his first practice of the season with the Blizzard at Municipal Athletic Complex. “I think that really helped me and I didn’t realize it until I got out there (Thursday). I got so used to having to be ready and anticipate the play faster over there, so now that everything is packed in, it will help me from a defensive standpoint.”
Murray, a 5-foot-11, 178-pound 19-year-old from Glenview, Ill., (about an hour north and west of Chicago), is back for his second season in the NAHL after learning a lot last season as a rookie.
He began last season with the Amarillo (Texas) Bulls and played eight games there before being traded to the Janesville (Wis.) Jets. He played six games for the Jets before getting traded to the Brookings (S.D.) Blizzard.
Former NHL defenseman is coach
Murray played 30 games with the Blizzard under Moe Mantha, a former NHL defenseman who is beginning his third season as the team’s general manager and head coach.
“Being traded twice was a little tough and it’s not the way you envision it,” he said. “It’s just the way it went and a lot of things are out of your control.
“The first time I flew into Sioux Falls, (Mantha) drove me up from Sioux Falls to Brookings and there was a snow storm and we were seeing cars fly off the road. We stopped for food … and I knew right away he was a good guy and it was going to be pretty special playing for him, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. He’s an NHL guy who knows the game.”
Mantha, who played defense for 12 seasons in the NHL, likes what he sees in Murray.
“He joined us right before Christmas as a young player trying to find his game and find his confidence,” Mantha said of Murray, who had eight points in 44 NAHL games last season. “A big thing with helping Alex right now is he’s very offensive-minded and he’s got a lot of offensive talent. He’s not a big guy.
“We need to help him be better on the ‘D’ side of the puck on one-on-one battles, better positioning. He’s a very smart hockey player, very mobile.”
Murray is also smart off the ice. He said he graduated from high school with a 3.7 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale) and got a 1260 on his SAT standardized college test. He added that he has spoken to NCAA Division I coaches from Nebraska Omaha, Princeton and “some other schools out east.”
Murray and the Blizzard play their first exhibition game of the season Friday night at Bismarck (N.D.) against the Bobcats. St. Cloud has its first home exhibition game at 7:10 p.m. Sept. 14 against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the MAC. Visit stcloudblizzard.com or call 320-255-7223 for information.