McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey interviews USNTP Under-18 defenseman Connor Murphy, who has missed significant time the past three seasons due to freak injuries but who is still likely the most well-rounded defenseman eligible for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft out of the USNTDP/USHL ranks.
McKeen's: I don't like to start interviews on negative notes, but, unfortunately for you, the last two years have been tough with injuries. However, how has it felt to get back on the ice and be able to play regularly again and are you feeling comfortable?
Murphy: Yeah, it's been great. The last two years were tough, obviously, being out a lot with injury. But, coming back now, I feel really strong. I've got 13 games under my belt, so I'm feeling back to 100 percent on the ice and off the ice. I've been pain-free for the past couple months now and just looking to finish down the stretch hard here and finish up the year with some wins and hopefully win Worlds (World Under-18 Championships) in April.
[The team did in fact win the World Under-18 Championships on a goal scored in overtime by Murphy.]
McKeen's: With the injury, or injuries, how did each happen and what was the nature of those?
Murphy: Last year was the first time it happened. It's been the same injury. It's called spondylosis, which is like a stress fracture in my L5 vertebrae, lower back. What happened was last year we had to do - we have hard training where we do wrestling with each other and boxing - and I got into the ring and got twisted around, hit my back on the ground kind of funny, and it went there. Then, we couldn't find out what it was. We had an x-ray, they couldn't see it. Then I ended up getting an MRI, and they didn't see it in that, either. Then, it turned out, it took us until February until we figured out what it was, and by then the season was almost done anyway, so I had to sit out the rest of the year from that. Then, I felt great in the summer, played over in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, and then came back. In our first week, we had weight training where we do our testing, and since I missed a lot of the summer with playing hockey and being overseas, I tried to push my weight to get back and I think I pushed a little hard and that caused it, and that first week kind of went wrong again. Now we know how to keep it safe, and it's 100 percent now.
McKeen's: It doesn't look like you're in any threat of paralysis or anything but, obviously, that's a frustrating thing. So, how did they eventually figure out what it was?
Murphy: They ended up doing a bone scan, and that's what found it, because it can take a deeper look and they can see if there's anything wrong with the bone, and that's a good thing, I think. Because, since it's a bone problem, once the bone's healed, it's fine. It's not like a slipped disc where you need surgery and all of those muscle problems. So, it's just the bone and it's all fine now.
McKeen's: I remember years back, when your dad was still playing, Chris Terreri, goaltender for the Blackhawks at that time, he had suffered a hand injury and they didn't know what it was. Similar to you, they did an x-ray, nothing, an MRI, and then I think they finally did a scan and they found, "Oh, there's a small fracture in the inside of the bone, deep down."
Murphy: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
McKeen's: So, then they figured it out and he let it heal. As you mentioned, back in the summer, you played in the Hlinka Tournament. You also played in the, they used to call it the Festivals, now they're Development Camps. It sounds like the point was to allow you to get some ice time and also battle for a spot on that team, which you made. So, what was it like doing that and how did it feel to make the team on your own merits?
Murphy: It was great. Coming back in the spring, I knew I was going to go to the Festival and then hopefully make the overseas tournament. So, my whole summer was geared toward that and that was my main goal. So, going there, I was really excited to get back in game situations over in Rochester, since I'd missed most of the year with the games. So, I was just excited to getting back to being a regular hockey player. So, I worked hard all summer to prepare for that, which helped me a lot and I was really excited, and then once I was able to make the tournament, it just made me even more happy to represent my country in the summer and not only here. So, it was great.
McKeen's: What was the caliber of play at the Hlinka Tournament like and how did you feel you did at the tournament?
Murphy: It was good. I mean, all of the teams, for the most part, sent their top guys. Canada only had one team, so they had all their big guys there. I felt it was good competition. Maybe some teams weren't as good as they are right now, because maybe in the summer they're a little rusty and not back to team stuff and systems. But, they were good teams and we had a really good team to compete. Obviously, we made it to the finals. I felt I did pretty well. For me, it's more about making it to the finals and being able to have success in the tournament - a lot of wins. So, overall, it was good.
McKeen's: What I've heard is that you and Max Everson both did very well there.
Murphy: Yeah. It was great. He was a great d-partner. I think we fed off of each other pretty well, and that definitely helped us to have a reputation like that.
McKeen's: Back in 2009, you played on the USA Under-17 Select Team, the Five Nations Tournament in Germany. With that, what were the circumstances around that? Were you a late commit to the program?
Murphy: The thing was (changes tracks)? Actually, a funny thing, a year before that, I had my spleen removed. It was a weird thing. I was hit along the boards, where the benches are, and I kind of hit under my ribs and lacerated it inside. So, I had to have my spleen removed. That put me out three months. So, they weren't able to see me as much for The Program, so they said that they were going to look at me and have a final look at the Festival, which was in Rochester, again, because they had a couple spots open for "d." So, it was me and Jake McCabe who were picked for the final two spots in the Festival tournament, and because we played well there, we made it to the overseas team.
McKeen's: Going through the injuries and just the freak things you've gone through, what are some of the things you've learned over time from those experiences?
Murphy: It actually helped me out a lot mentally just to know how dedicated I need to be or how I am to be the sport and how I can't take it for granted and I look at, sitting out, seeing all the guys that get to go out and play every day and practice and do what we love. When you don't have that, it's just indescribable how hard it is, how much it sucks when you don't get to do something you love like that. So, I know not to take it for granted and just work as hard as I can every day, because you never know when you can't play again.
McKeen's: Despite missing some serious time over the past few seasons, you've put yourself back into a pretty prominent role again with this team now. I'm seeing you on the power play regularly, a regular shift on even strength, and even on the PK. So, some of us are actually able to see you play now. But, for those who still haven't seen you play, what would you say are the strengths of your game and the style that you play?
Murphy: I play a good, smart, positional game. I like to use my shot pretty well on the power play at the point, and, overall, just make smart decisions defensively and hopefully puck-moving up to our forwards to help them create offense, too.
McKeen's: Obviously, players are always looking to improve. So, in what areas of your game do you feel you need to improve upon the most heading forward to the next level?
Murphy: I think, overall, my strength. Missing a lot, I missed a lot of development for off-ice and on-ice for strength, battling, helping me on one-on-ones. So, probably strength and quickness and foot speed will help me. It's always the case that the next level is a lot faster, so that needs to improve a lot in order to be successful moving on.
McKeen's: For you, moving on will be college at Miami.
Murphy: Yep. Miami of Ohio.
McKeen's: If I might ask, what other programs had you narrowed it down to at the end or that were recruiting you hard and what made you decide to become a Redhawk in the end?
Murphy: I visited Ohio State and I talked to a few others. I talked to Boston College and Wisconsin a little bit, and a lot of teams kind of said they wanted to see me when I got back and maybe talk more and get a couple visits in. But, as I was waiting, I realized that, even if I visited other schools, Miami was still the place I wanted to go to. Being from Ohio, I'd seen a good amount of games, and right when I went there I knew I wanted to be a Redhawk and that that was the place I'd see myself being in the future.
McKeen's: As many people who will be reading this probably know, your father is Gord Murphy, former NHL defenseman and current assistant coach for the Florida Panthers. In what ways has he been able to help you growing up and is he still able to help you much being that you're in Ann Arbor and he's in South Florida and other points in the NHL?
Murphy: It's been great. Being a coach and a former player, he knows pretty much everything there is to know about the game, so he's been great, not only helping me with positioning and all the coaching tactics that there are, but also emotionally, such as how to deal with situations and what to do and what needs to be done to be the best player you can be. So, he's always been there for me, watching my games, whether it's online or whether he can make it after a road trip, and just being able to just coach me on things I need to work and things he sees that he wishes he would have been able to know as a kid that would have helped him to be a good player. So, it's been great.
McKeen's: In what ways would you say you're similar to your father on the ice and in what ways would you say you're different?
Murphy: He retired in 2001 with an injury, I guess, and I wasn't able to see much of him playing. But, I've seen a little bit a video, and I think similarities are hockey smarts, the hockey sense, being able to make plays. Then, I think I have a little more skill, hands or maybe even shot than him. (Chuckles) I guess I can just say that today with him not being here and getting older.
McKeen's: When did you first start playing hockey and how did you get that start?
Murphy: Yeah. It was actually in Florida, when my dad played with the Panthers. He'd take us out to skate, and my brother, who's two years older than me, and he started skating before me and I always saw him on the ice and wanted to get at it. So, my parents put me on the ice to start skating when I was four or five years old. Then, once I started skating, my brother joined a team a couple years later, and I always wanted to play, seeing him, playing mini hockey with him in the basement or roller hockey outside in Florida. So, I ended up joining up on his team and played with him for a while. It was always easier to travel to the rink with him and I just stuck with it and went on from there.
McKeen's: Your dad moved around a little bit toward the end of his career. Did you guys move around with him and force you to change organizations that you played for?
Murphy: Yeah, so he was a rookie in Philly, where my brother was born, but I wasn't, I was born a couple years later in Boston, where he played for two years. Then, we moved to Florida. We were there for seven years, and that's where I grew up, mostly, and then moved to Atlanta for another four years, where he played, and that's where he retired. Then, the year after, he went to Columbus, and I've been in Columbus for eight years, so I consider Columbus my home, having the most memories there, probably, then before that Atlanta and Florida. It's been a lot of moving, but it's still be okay.
McKeen's: What were the different organizations that you played for?
Murphy: I started playing in Florida, where we just played kind of like a house league sort of thing. Started playing my first travel teams in Atlanta, where I was actually on a team with Kellen Corkum-he played at The Program and is at Maine now-and Landon Ferraro-he's in the WHL, his dad is Ray Ferraro-so we had a pretty good team. We actually won Silver Sticks from Atlanta. So, that was kind of a weird thing for a Southern team to do that. So, that's when we started playing travel, the Atlanta Thrashers. I think we were Double-A back then. Then, I moved to Columbus and started in Triple-A there.
McKeen's: With the Blue Jackets.
Murphy: Yeah, the Ohio Jr. Blue Jackets, and before that, the Columbus Cardinals.
McKeen's: After you're drafted, and you're a prospect of some note, do you anticipate any pressure to potentially go the major junior route and is that something you'd consider?
Murphy: Not really. I mean, I'm drafted by the Sarnia Sting, but I made a commitment to Miami and I really, really like it there and really see myself being a college player. I feel that'd be the best route for me. Nothing against the OHL, my dad played there, I know it's a great league, but I just feel like Miami is the place I want to be and the CCHA, I feel, is a great league to be able to play in to develop the best that I can to hopefully make it to the NHL someday.
McKeen's: Of all your teammates on the Under-18 team, who has impressed you the most and why?
Murphy: We have a lot of great players on the team. I'd say, maybe, you could say Rocco Grimaldi. He's always the guy that shows up and works his hardest every day and always impresses me on and off the ice, how he's so dedicated. Then, we have great leadership. Tyler Biggs, he'll be my teammate in Miami and he's been a great captain for us - always in it for the best for the team and always there for us. There are a lot of players, but those are the two I'll name off.
McKeen's: Everyone I've talked to that you play with whom I've asked this question, Rocco Grimaldi is always the answer, or one of the ones mentioned. Even Mario Lucia, when I interviewed him up in Minnesota, he also mentioned Rocco first. He also mentioned Tyler, too. He was like, "That guy's a beast." You've been playing with Under-17 defenseman Jacob Trouba lately. How has that been going and what does he bring to the team?
Murphy: It's been good. He's a good, strong, energy defenseman. Like you saw last night, he always has a couple big hits. He's got a good shot. We try to work to get him one-timers on the power play. So, I think he brings energy with his speed and his physical nature into the game. It really helps us out. I'm kind of more of a smart playmaking defenseman, so I can set him up or angle guys toward him to make some big hits. So, he helps us out a lot.
McKeen's: You don't pair with Seth Jones, but he's also up with the team. How would you assess his game and what he brings to the table?
Murphy: He's been good. He's a really good offensive defenseman. He's got nice hands and nice vision on the point. He works on the power play with [Robbie] Russo. He's really good offensively, and he's a smart defenseman, and he brings that to the team. He helps us out offensively and leads to some goals.
McKeen's: Both of those guys seem to be able help Michael Paliotta to focus on being more of the physical, shutdown defensive defenseman. Whereas, before, his role was unable to be as defined, because other people weren't fulfilling those roles to the degree needed, and guys were injured.
McKeen's: To round things out on a softball question, not that these have been hardballs or anything, who were some of your favorite players growing up and why and who are some players today who you feel you're similar to or that you'd like to equate to?
Murphy: I could say my dad, easily, but I'd say my favorite player is Nicklas Lidstrom. Being in Columbus, I was always a Blue Jackets fan and I'd always see him come and beat the Jackets at home. But, he's always a player that I see that I want to be like, with how smart he is. He's always in position, always making the right plays, and always so sound with the puck. He's definitely a player that'd be one of my favorites in the NHL.