Caps fire Murray as coach

January 28, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer Budd Bailey contributed to this article.

Washington Capitals general manager David Poile took a drastic step yesterday in an effort to right his inconsistent hockey team, replacing coach Terry Murray with former New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres coach Jim Schoenfeld, who had been working as an ESPN analyst.

Murray was given the news at 4 p.m., and was offered another position in the organization. The official announcement came at a news conference two hours later, before last night's game between the Capitals and Sabres at the Buffalo Auditorium.

Schoenfeld lost his first game as Capitals coach, 7-2.

Poile also fired assistant coach John Perpich and reassigned assistant Keith Allain as a goaltending consultant in the organization.

The Capitals were 20-23-4 under Murray this season. They lost five of his last six and are in fifth place in the Atlantic Division, five points behind the expansion Florida Panthers. They are also ninth in the Eastern Conference standings, which means the Capitals would not have made the NHL playoffs if they started today.

"It's been on my mind for a little while," Poile said of the change. "And after our loss Tuesday [3-1 to the Boston Bruins], it was getting close to the last straw. There were intangibles involved. I thought our team confidence and belief had gone down. In this business, you have to go with your instincts, and this is what mine told me to do."

"It's unfortunate that we've had such a roller-coaster year," Capitals defenseman Kevin Hatcher said. "I think any time you get in a situation like that, you see changes."

"It's kind of a surprise that it happened," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "We've been struggling lately. The players played Terry out of a team; he didn't take himself out. We didn't perform for him. It's kind of our fault that he's not with us anymore."

Wednesday, Poile said, he looked at a long list of possible coaches and chose to call Schoenfeld. They met for eight hours Wednesday and when it was over, Poile said he knew he had his man.

Schoenfeld, 41, has been an ESPN commentator the past two seasons. He drove to the arena from his home in nearby Orchard Park as soon as he got the call from Poile.

"This kind of caught me off guard," he said. "It virtually happened overnight. It isn't a situation where they're getting a better coach. I'm replacing a guy who is very well-liked and very well-respected around the entire league. It's just a situation where they decided they needed to try a different direction."

Schoenfeld compiled a record of 50-59-14 in one full season and parts of two others at New Jersey. He guided the Devils to their first NHL playoffs in 1988. He was 19-19-5 with Buffalo in 1985-86.

He took over the Capitals last night, after agreeing to a contract that covers the rest of this season and two more years.

"I had a very difficult time in New Jersey," Schoenfeld said. "I made a lot of mistakes, and I had a difficult time coping with losing. But I think I've grown a lot since then. I think I've come to a better understanding that a coach is trying to reassure his players, trying to help his players to be better. Before, I had a very myopic view. I think being away from it for a couple years has made me see things more clearly."

Poile said that once he decided he wanted Schoenfeld, he decided to make the change instantly, because he didn't want to put on a charade.

"When I decided to do it, I did it," Poile said. "My personal feeling in regard to Terry was that I didn't want him coaching tonight when I knew whatever the outcome wouldn't make a difference."

Schoenfeld said he understands he is taking over a team with great expectations, but that those expectations would be proven realistic or unrealistic by the rest of the season.

"We're going to find out," he said. "I'm probably going to be delivering the same message Terry was delivering, but maybe coming out of a different mouth it will get different results."

Two days ago, when Poile was asked if there came a time when players stopped responding to a head coach, he had shaken his head and said he hoped not.

"Everyone always says that, that there's a time, but it isn't always that simple," Poile said.

Last night, he said part of the reason for firing Murray was that he couldn't change all of his players and he couldn't make a major trade.

"Partially that, and I've also said from the outset that I believe our team performance should be at a higher level," he said. "The players aren't performing. One of the reasons -- maybe a new coach will get them to respond."

"We have to stick to it together as a team, and we'll come out of this together," Hatcher said. "Everyone realizes where we stand in the standings, and it's awfully important to pull together."

Murray, 43, was in his fourth season with the Capitals. He took over as coach on Jan. 15, 1990, leading the Capitals to their first Wales Conference finals that season.

Last night, Linda Murray said her husband was traveling from Buffaloto their Maryland home and could not be reached for comment.

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