Murphy makes his mark


Dave DeLuca/The Record

Interim head coach Steve Murphy coached Buffalo State to a 15-6-4 (11-4-1 SUNYAC) record in his first year as a collegiate head coach.

Tony Callens, Associate Sports Editor

Steve Murphy has worn many hats in the game of hockey: player at both the collegiate and professional level, head of officials for the North American Hockey League, and assistant coach at the collegiate level.

This season, he’s trying on a new one: interim head coach of the SUNY Buffalo State men’s hockey team. He hopes to take on a permanent role as the replacement of a man he worked for last season, and perhaps one day follow into the professional ranks.

Murphy, 30 years old, grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. He replaced Nick Carriere, who was hired this past summer as an American Hockey League assistant coach with the Saint John Ice Caps, the farm team of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.

“You have to interact with everybody,” Murphy said. “Different coaches, referees and players. I think because I’ve been in every situation, that’s helped because I can walk in their shoes. You try to take everything that shaped you as a hockey person and teach your players what you have learned, and you try to implement that when you communicate with people”.

The transition so far has been seamless for returning players. He has led the Bengals to their most successful season in program history with a 15-6-4 record and a program first bye in the SUNYAC playoffs.

This season, Murphy decided to give his players more freedom in the offensive zone, increase the role of analytics in game planning and management, and light a spark when he feels it’s necessary.

“I feel like it took the guys about a week to understand where he was coming from and what he wanted to do,” defenseman Marcus Michalski said.

Murphy was a D-III player at Curry College in Massachusetts and Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota. He spent some time as the head official of the North American Hockey League in the 2011-12 season after playing in the league. He also served as an assistant coach, strength and conditioning coach and a scout for the Kenai River Brown Bears of the NAHL.

Murphy is adamant about treating everyone fairly and not developing any “superstar” mentalities. He believes in everyone playing a role for the team and working hard to be successful.

“The biggest thing was that guys had to earn their spots again. They had earned their spots with Carriere, but they had to re-earn their spots with Murph, which is not a bad thing,” forward Jonathan Hall said.

He is a kind, reserved with a great sense of humor. His dog Ace often stays with him in his office at the Buffalo State Sports Ice Arena, and is the quietest, most polite dog anyone could ever know. The environment around him is a family atmosphere: casual, yet stern at the same time.

There is a youthful exuberance about him. He identifies with his players as he is only a few years removed from his playing days. At the same time, there is a steadiness and maturity about the way he goes about his business.

In conversation, he is laidback and comes off as the type of person you can comfortably talk about life with. However, once the puck drops, his intensity and passion for the game come out, and he’s not afraid to voice his discontent at referees, officials and his players.

“Yeah, he’s nice off the ice, but definitely not afraid to speak his mind. He can get on our backs. It’s a good way to light a fire in you,” Michalski said.

Carriere’s philosophy was to have his players play physical and scrappy hockey. He believed in always using the body and playing stout defensive hockey. With Murphy, there is disciplined defensive hockey, but also a free flowing, offensively creative scheme. He likes to section off the ice into the three zones.

“It’s been different just from in-between games and practices. Carriere was more old-school and with Murph it’s more analytical. We review film a lot more with him,” Hall said.

The defensive zone, he calls the “work zone,” where he wants his team to work hard to get the puck back toward the offensive end of the ice. He wants the other team to be forced to play the way his team dictates in that zone.

The neutral zone, the center part of the ice, he calls the “speed zone,” which explains itself.

The objective is to skate fast and be fast in transition from the defensive to the offensive zone to try and create odd-man rushes and dictate the pace of the game for a counter-attacking style, and vice-versa if you’re trying to get the puck back on the fore check.

The final zone of the ice is the offensive zone, which Murphy calls the “fun zone”.

“Yes, we want to have structure in that zone, but at the same time, I give the guys the most freedom to kind of do what they want in the offensive zone,” he said with a smile. “I want to play in the fun zone.”

This season, after a slow offensive start with only 1.5 goals-pergame in the first six contests, Murphy shuffled his lines and it has led to huge improvements for players like forward Taylor Pryce, who plays on the top line. In the Nov. 13 game against SUNY Canton, the sophomore responded with a six-point night, and the offense has been averaging 4.4 goals-pergame since the changes.

The transition to Murphy has been smooth from an administrative standpoint as well according to SUNY Buffalo State Sports Information Director and Assistant Athletic Director Jeff Ventura.

“Steve (Murphy) was in the best position with Carriere leaving this offseason and already being here to fill in after being the assistant head coach last season,” Ventura said. “We gave him the interim tag and basically it will function as a year-long interview.”

The players love playing for him and he has exceeded all expectations.

“He has done well,” Ventura said. “From a performance aspect we are happy, but also a big part of the duties of our head coaches are being an administrator, and he’s done a good job with that.”

There will be a nationwide search for head coaching candidates led by Ventura. The candidates will sit down for interviews and the decision will be made next summer. Ultimately, the decision will be the responsibility of SUNY Buffalo State Athletic Director Jerry Boyes.

“Because of the job he has done, I have no doubt that Steve (Murphy) will be one of the leading candidates,” Ventura said.

So far, so good for Murphy, who has high aspirations for the program going forward.

“My ultimate goal is for this team to win a national championship,” he said. “First, we will have to go and win the SUNYAC conference, as I have said I believe it’s the most difficult and best conference in Division III. Hopefully, down the road in three to five years, we will do that and take it to that next level.”

Despite his position as head coach next season still indefinite, the players are appreciating his presence now and not worrying about the future.

“Definitely no love lost on the bench. I’ll remember those times and remember having fun and the way he kept everything upbeat,” Michalski said. Whether his future includes Buffalo State or entails a different path, Murphy has a positive outlook on his future.

“I love it here at Buffalo State, but at the same time pro hockey, if that ever becomes an option, or Division I, are things to aspire to,” Murphy said. “I want to be challenged, and this here is a challenge, so whether I stay here, or a bigger challenge comes down the road, we’ll see where life takes me.”

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