BUFFALO – In early January, as the upstart Penn State men’s hockey team vaulted up the USCHO poll to the brink of a No. 1 national ranking, the Nittany Lions welcomed a new player, Sabres prospect Brett Murray.
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky wondered how the NCAA freshman would assimilate to a team enjoying its best season ever.
“For a freshman to come in halfway through the season, I think could be, if the guy didn’t have the right character or personality … a disruption,” Gadowsky said.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Murray spent the first half of 2016-17 back in junior, this time with the United States Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms.
A season earlier, the success of Murray’s junior team, the Carleton Place Canadians, forced the winger to miss tests he needed for NCAA eligibility requirements, Gadowsky said. His late arrival wasn’t related to grades. He simply needed to take the tests.
So Murray played 27 more junior games before leaving to begin the second semester at Penn State.
Much to Gadowsky’s relief, Murray acclimated to college life well.
“It turned out really good because of the type of teammate Brett is,” Gadowsky said.
Murray debuted Jan. 13, days before Penn State, a five-year old program Sabres owner Terry Pegula started with a $90 million gift, earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking in the United States College Hockey Online poll.
The Nittany Lions finished the regular season 21-11-1, won the Big Ten Tournament and throttled Union in the opening round of their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. They fell to Denver, the eventual champion, in the next round.
Gadowsky said Murray’s “coolness” helped him adjust to his new surroundings and teammates.
“He’s really easy to get along with, he’s fun to be around,” he said. “He’s just a very cool guy. I think that’s really what it’s all about.”
Still, Murray, 19, faced some early challenges. He had to adapt to the speed of NCAA hockey. He was also attending school again.
“It was a little bit tough, but I think my teammates and coaching staff at Penn State really, really helped me,” Murray said last week after development camp ended inside HarborCenter. “They just welcomed me with open arms. I’m really grateful for that.”
Murray earned some of his playing time with 6-foot-7 center Nikita Pavlychev. Not surprisingly, their line was “tough to play against,” Gadowsky said.
“That’s what Brett is really, really good at,” Gadowsky said. “He’s very intelligent, he’s a big, big body, but he has a very good hockey IQ.”
Murray only registered one assist in 12 outings with Penn State. Like most draft picks, he has a history of scoring. He had seven goals and 20 points earlier in the season.
So what kind of player could Murray, a fourth-round pick, 99th overall, in 2016, become in a few years?
“I don’t think anybody knows yet, because he’s still growing into his young body,” Gadowsky said. “He’s … a big kid. He’s still got a long way (to go). Our strength coach is salivating over him because he sees how much potential he has to gain in his body. He’s already a very strong guy.”
Murray said he’s a “big power forward who likes to play down low in front of the net.”
“(I) use my size to open space in the corners, screen goalies,” he said. “At the same time, I like to think I have a good hockey IQ, see the ice.”
For Murray, helping build Penn State hockey into a national power is special. He has talked to Pegula – “He’s just kind of walking through, checking out his arena,” he said – and respects the people who laid the program’s foundation.
“It’s really cool to be a part of something that’s getting bigger and bigger every year,” he said.