Sunday, December 23, 2012

What If: The King of Troy

* April 2006: Seth Appert is named the 9th head coach in the modern era

Shakira - Hips Don't Lie

Between the time Dan Fridgen took over at RPI in 1994 and the time he left in 2006, college hockey grew in terms of national prevalence. While still a niche sport compared its collegiate counterparts, media and fan attention through cable and the Internet certainly grew over his 12 years as the boss in Troy, as did the growth of the sport as a legitimate breeding grounds for the professional ranks, already well underway by the time he became head coach.

Fridgen departed RPI as the coach with the most wins in program history, the most losses in program history, the most ties in program history, and the second longest tenure behind only Ned Harkness. Fridgen's record benefited from a longer playing season than his predecessors had enjoyed, but he put together some decent squads along the way. In his first season as head coach, with a team he had spearheaded recruiting for during his days as Buddy Powers' top lieutenant, the Engineers made a surprise run through the ECAC tournament, culminating with the program's third ECAC championship during the 10th anniversary of its second national title.

In the mid-to-late 1990s under Fridgen, the Engineers were regulars in Lake Placid, and were sometimes mentioned frequently in the national picture. The team finished with winning records in seven of his first eight seasons behind the bench. But after 2000, the bloom certainly was busy coming off the rose for many alums. Despite strong records in each of the talented Class of 2000's seasons - a class that included Joel Laing, Brian Pothier, and Pete Gardiner - RPI was not getting over the hump. They reached the ECAC title game in 2000, and finished in the top four in the ECAC every season, but won no titles and were not getting NCAA invites. Once the team started facing problems even advancing in the ECAC tournament in 2001, 2003, and 2004, followed by two dreadful losing seasons, Fridgen resigned as coach before the administration had the opportunity to ask him to leave.

Fridgen may have been a victim of his early successes raising expectations, but there was little doubt that teams in the late 1990s tended to underperform late in the season, and after a Lake Placid appearance in 2002, the program had steadily declined. After 12 years there was a lot of hope that fresh blood would reinvigorate things. This time, the search for a new coach would take place in the Internet age, leading to plenty of speculation on who would be the new bench boss in Troy - an open position that was among the most prominent in the nation.

Suggestions ranged from past heroes like Adam Oates and Joe Juneau, both recently retired from the NHL, to other college coaches, past and present, with a history of success, like Stan Moore, Don Vaughan, Mike McShane, Mark Morris, and Mike Addesa's name was even tossed around the rumor mill. Some looked to names long linked with top jobs, such as Ron Rolston, Casey Jones, and Mike Cavanaugh.

When the three finalists for the position were leaked, Boston College's Cavanaugh was indeed one of the finalists, but the other two names appeared to have come out of left field compared to the rampant speculation. One was Denver assistant Seth Appert, who had been a top lieutenant on George Gwozdecky's national championship teams in 2004 and 2005, a man who, if he'd accomplished similar things on the east coast would certainly have been part of the rumor mill. The other was Andy Murray - the man who a month prior had been the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings. Yes, those Los Angeles Kings.

Then word quickly came down that the offer had been made to Murray, whose previous head coaching position had been at Shattuck St. Mary's, a hockey mill that had produced RPI's Ben Barr, among many others. For a day, RPI fans had stars in their eyes, and questions took off. Would Murray really go from the NHL to college, where he'd had no prior experience? If he took the job, would it work? How long could he be stay? How many national championships was he going to win first? (OK, that last question exaggerates a bit, but not by much.)

By the end of the day, word got out again - Murray had declined the offer, and RPI was instead turning to Appert. The Ferris State alum didn't carry with him the spotlight of the NHL, but his resume was plenty good enough to have RPI fans excited anyway when he accepted the position.

The jury is still out on how the Appert era has progressed. Some are pleased that he has been able to bring in talented recruits and helped guide the team back to the national tournament in 2011. Others are dissatisfied with the many losing seasons the team endured on the way there, and the team's poor showing in 2012 (and rough start to 2013). That's a debate for another day - today, we're asking the question of what could have been if Murray had accepted the offer to replace Dan Fridgen in Troy.

Murray elaborated on why he turned down RPI when he was hired at Western Michigan in 2011. It came down to being able to watch his own children play college hockey - his oldest, Brady, had just left North Dakota after two seasons for a professional career. His daughter, Sarah, was about to start playing at Minnesota-Duluth, and his youngest son, Jordy, played at Wisconsin for three years. "I was offered the job," he said. "I remember walking with [Dr. Jackson], who took me past the architecture and biomedical engineering buildings and asking, 'Does the hockey coach have to be smarter than his players? You may have the wrong guy here.' I really looked at that job because I've always been interested in coaching in college hockey. But in the NHL, I did have the possibility to catch the odd [college] game."

Murray ended up coaching in St. Louis that December as a midseason replacement, and he stayed with the Blues through the end of 2009, when he was fired in the middle of the season. Once his son left Wisconsin, he accepted the position at Western Michigan, a team that was coming off its first NCAA appearance in 16 years. He replaced Jeff Blashill, who left Kalamazoo after one season to join the staff of the Detroit Red Wings.

When Murray had been hired by the Blues just months after having been a candidate at RPI, the prevailing opinion had been that the school had dodged a bullet. One of the big questions people had about Murray when they learned of his candidacy was that he may not have been inclined to stay in Troy very long, given that he'd been a head coach in the NHL already. His comments clearly indicate a strong desire to see his two younger children play in college, but would he truly have been a short-term coach if he'd decided to take RPI's offer?

That familial motivation probably leans us in the yes column. At Western Michigan, he no longer has that element to worry about - perhaps the only thing Broncos fans have to concern themselves with is whether the NHL comes calling again. Still, even if he doesn't stay long, he managed to deliver WMU's first ever CCHA hardware of any kind by leading them to the league tournament championship last season, the program's first 20-win season in over a decade, the team's first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearance ever... and oh yeah, his hiring helped facilitate WMU's accession to the National College Hockey Conference for next season. Not bad for a guy who's only been on the job for a year-and-a-half.

But presuming Murray would have been OK with staying in Troy for more than a couple of seasons, would he have been able to spin similar magic? The team he would have inherited was... light on raw talent, to say the least. Presumptions that Murray would have been able to turn RPI around quickly hinge on whether he would have been able to bring in top recruits quickly, something that may not have been the most natural thing in the world for a guy used to dealing with general managers - not to mention having little experience with the added necessity of bringing in top recruits able to hack it at RPI.

One thing Murray would have guaranteed would have been buzz. For a 17 or 18-year-old to have a former NHL coach at your door seeking to recruit you, that's pretty special (and something WMU is likely benefiting from now). The other would certainly have been the product on the ice. If you're a solid enough tactician to coach on the highest level, it's possible he'd have been able to squeeze water from a stone and had the team competing more quickly. Jordy Murray, it should be mentioned, was no slouch at Wisconsin. Perhaps if his dad had been an active college coach, he would have had a shot at RPI?

There are lots of questions that are destined to go unanswered, and there's little doubt that the question of whether Murray coming to Troy would have been good or bad for RPI is going to be clouded by one's perception of the current coach. So all there really is to say is that Murray's decision was pretty black and white for RPI - it probably either saved the school a lot of unnecessary hassle, or it possibly delayed major improvements in the program. It's your call.

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