When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016, goaltender Matt Murray celebrated in late July in his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, a city of about 100,000 sitting at the northern side of Lake Superior. A small group of friends, family and former coaches and trainers gathered at a barbecue restaurant Murray’s cousin owns. Before eating, Murray’s father, James, showed everyone an 8-inch replica of the Stanley Cup constructed from tin foil. Matt had made it for Father’s Day when he was a child, and James had kept it ever since.
Anyone who knows Matt knows he considers his father, who owned a small law firm in Thunder Bay, his hero. James Murray wasn’t much of an athlete; he only picked up skating in university. But he took pride in his son. Every summer beginning when Matt was 10, he and his father would fly to Toronto together for a weeklong goaltending camp. In the NHL, Murray proudly detailed his helmet with Dutch and Scottish flags — honoring his family heritage — and his parents’ initials.
Murray, 23, entered this season shouldering towering expectations; the Penguins are looking to become the first team in more than three decades to win three straight Cups. Meanwhile, management parted with the beloved and still capable Marc-Andre Fleury — a No. 1 pick who won 536 games (and three Stanley Cups) over 13 seasons in Pittsburgh — to signal full trust in the young goaltender. Neither Murray nor the Penguins began the season as they hoped. Murray missed two weeks in November with a lower-body injury. The first three months felt like a post-championship malaise. (In a thorny twist, Fleury and the upstart Vegas Golden Knights have outperformed Pittsburgh.)
This January, James Murray fell ill and was airlifted to a hospital in London, Ontario. The Penguins were in Anaheim on Jan. 16, preparing for a three-game California road trip when Matt Murray received the news: His father had died.
When Murray found out about his father’s death, the Penguins were in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and not in a playoff position. And yet the team didn’t hesitate to tell their No. 1 goaltender to take time off. They offered Murray several options to get from Anaheim to Thunder Bay. They said, Don’t worry about hockey right now. Come back when you’re ready. Murray was gone for six days.
“There is no doubt, none, that it was the right thing to do,” star teammate Sidney Crosby said. “It’s something tough to go through. I can’t imagine how hard it was for him. He’s pretty quiet as it is. As teammates, we tried to be supportive the best we can. Whenever he was ready we’d be there.”
The Penguins are on the brink of elimination Monday night when they host the Washington Capitals in Game 6. Down 3-2, Pittsburgh will once again turn to Murray (.905 save percentage, 2.49 goals-against average in the playoffs) to soldier through and shine in the playoffs — a hallmark of his career thus far. His story is a reminder of the humanity in hockey.
Athletes across professional sports often try to brave through tragedy. Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre famously played on Monday Night Football the day after his father died. Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant played a day after learning of his father’s death in 2016. Just last season, Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas took the court the day after his sister was killed in a one-car accident in Washington state.
In the NHL, New York Rangers winger Martin St. Louis‘ mother died of a sudden heart attack during the 2014 playoffs. St. Louis found out on a Thursday when he landed in Pittsburgh for a Game 5. He flew back to New York to be with family, shuttled to Montreal to be with his father and returned to Pittsburgh on Friday for the game.
Many have found solace in the return to routine, using competition as a coping mechanism. Following their personal tragedies, Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns, Bryant hauled in a 50-yard touchdown and, with several messages written on his shoes (including “RIP Lil Sis” and “I love you”), Thomas picked up 33 points. In his first home game following his mother’s death, St. Louis scored a dramatic goal — on Mother’s Day.
But there is no playbook for grieving, and in recent years, hockey has invited a more patient approach.
“The culture has changed,” said Boston Bruins winger Brian Gionta, who made his NHL debut in 2001. “There is obviously a lot more to it than just the game. I’ve seen it over the last few years, it’s a lot more sympathetic to things that are going on in the world, and obviously things going on in personal lives. We’ve done a good job of evolving in a positive way.”
Consider in this NHL season alone: Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson missed two games after his wife, Melinda, delivered a stillborn son. Carolina Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal missed three games after his infant daughter, Hannah, died from a terminal birth defect. Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau missed two games while spending time in New Jersey with his father, who had suffered a cardiac event.
“Players are going to go through that at some point in their life, and it’s not something you can prepare for,” Bruins veteran forward David Krejci said. “Sometimes it takes time. For some guys, it might take longer. Hockey becomes a big family. We try to support each other as much as we can. A lot of players, we’ll reach out even if it’s through Instagram or social media. In difficult times, it’s nice to know you’re not in it alone.”
Murray received support from around the league, but particularly in Pittsburgh.
“Especially in the hockey world, your parents play such a big role in the time and financial sacrifices to get to where we are today,” Murray’s teammate Riley Sheahan said. “We knew [Murray’s] dad was struggling a little bit. We didn’t know the severity. We didn’t want to get in his business, but we supported him — you know, a text to let him know you’re thinking of him, a reminder if he ever wants to talk, you’re there. And when he was ready, we wanted to make him feel like everything was back to normal.”
Forward Bryan Rust said the Penguins decided their approach to Murray’s absence was to give him “time and space.” But when Murray returned, many in the locker room understood the importance of support. Fourth-liner Tom Kuhnhackl grew up in Germany but came to North America to play hockey when he was 18. Shortly after he joined the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires in 2010, his grandmother died.
“She was everything to me,” Kuhnhackl says. “My grandma watched every game ever. I couldn’t even focus on hockey anymore — I wanted to go home. But if I had come home for the funeral, I know I wouldn’t have come back.”
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At first, Kuhnhackl didn’t tell any teammates.
“I was new,” he said. “I couldn’t speak the language that well. I didn’t know anyone really, and I figured I could figure it out myself.”
But the days became harder, and Kuhnhackl told his team about what he was dealing with.
Teammate Craig Duininck offered for Kuhnhackl to move into his house. The German teenager said yes and lived with Duininck’s family for the rest of the season. Kuhnhackl found comfort in homemade meals (especially the meatloaf), as he slowly acclimated to the English language, North American hockey and his new reality. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” Kuhnhackl said. “That’s what hockey means to me.”
At the Penguins’ AHL affiliate, in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, winger Garrett Wilson took roughly two weeks away after his mother, Joan, died in November after a long battle with breast cancer. Center Thomas Di Pauli took time away from the team after his father, Alexander — who shuttled between Italy and suburban Chicago to see his son play when Di Pauli was a child — died unexpectedly in December.
“Those guys took time off and everyone completely understood,” said Zach Aston-Reese, who split time between the NHL and AHL this season. “I think that says something about the organization, whether its the star goaltender or minor league guys. Same treatment.”
Murray’s season was by no means easy. The lower-body injury in November, coupled with his father’s death and three weeks missed in February with a concussion — suffered after taking a shot off the mask in practice — left Murray starting just 45 games and appearing in only 49, the fewest by the Penguins’ top goaltender in a decade. His 2.92 GAA and .907 save percentage in the regular season were his worst marks in his three-year career.
“He’s so hugely important to this team,” Rust said. “He’s battled through so much and always comes up big for us.”
When Murray first returned to practice following his time away, he was greeted by a scrum of reporters and television cameras.
“I just want to say a big thanks, first of all, to Pittsburgh,” Murray said, his eyes watery. “The team did a lot for me, helping me get home. I also want to say thanks to my teammates.”
And then he went back to his normal routine — though it was clear the loss was something he’d continue to cope with for a long time, whether or not this playoff run ends with another Stanley Cup victory.