John Murray’s great adventure
by Andrew PODNIEKS|20 MAY 2024
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin
There is only one thing Pennsylvania and Poland have in common, and that is they both begin with a P. And if you had told a teenage John Murray growing up in Lancaster in the late 1990s that one day Katowice would be his home and Poland his national team, he would have laughed.

“Yes, I would have laughed,” he said, laughing. “I would have said, ‘Poland has hockey?’”

Indeed, Poland has hockey and has been a member of the IIHF since 1926, but the teenage Murray didn’t know that because he was pursuing his pro dreams at home, hoping for an NHL shot, willing to work his way up through the various minor leagues available to him.

But after playing in junior and minor pro for the better part of a decade, he called give. His resume of teams played for reads like an atlas of North America—Philadelphia, Youngstown, Sioux Falls, Kitchener, Kingston, Reading, Ontario, Syracuse, Victoria. And on. 

“I was playing AHL, ECHL at that point, and the Central League, and I was kind of tired of the travel, always being on a bus, traveling 16 hours, 20 hours at a time,” Murray explained after facing 57 shots against his homeland, an impressive 4-1 loss to the world-class Team USA. “I got a phone call to come to Poland, and I thought, why not, try it out, see how it is. And I enjoyed it. I decided to stay. They were the first call, and after that I had a few others. I went to Kazakhstan for a year, but then went back to Poland and stayed there.”

Indeed, the name Murray doesn’t sound Polish, and it isn’t, but he has been tending the twine in Polska since 2013 and for the national team since 2016. That has meant a lot of events in Division I-A and I-B, trying to qualify, but falling short, for the Olympics, and doing his part to boost a struggling Polish program. Their promotion to the top of the Men’s World Championship for 2024 is huge for his adopted homeland, giving hockey a much-needed promotional boost.

After all these years, does he feel Polish? 

“Ah, that’s hard to say,” he continues. “I think it’s the same thing for Americans going to Canada or vice versa. You still have that in your back pocket. Home is home.”

It was back during the 2016-17 season that he first put on a Polish sweater, and he remembers the moment like it was yesterday. 

“We played against Italy,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, wow this is special.’ And at that point, Italy was rather competitive and ended up winning the game, but I thought, ‘I guess we’re pretty good, too.’”

Every summer Murray winds down by going home for a couple of months, but he’s now 36 and closer to the end of his career than the beginning. For now, that means stopping the puck, but in the future, it might mean a role with the program in a coaching role.

“I think that’s a little bit of the problem now with the program,” he explained about trying to avoid relegation this year. “Most of the team is 35-plus, and it’s going to take some effort to get us back up at this level in two to three years and to maintain it. I’ve talked quite a bit about helping out with the federation after I retire. We’ll see where it goes.”

But for now, he’s still pinching himself over facing the U.S. and being the star of the show. Yes, the Americans won, but he stopped 53 of 57 shots. The game was scoreless until midway through the game, and Murray racked up a series of sensational saves which awed even the Americans, some of whom didn’t know they were facing one of their own until after the game.

“I didn’t know he was American,” admitted defender Seth Jones right after the game. “Someone just told me. It was incredible some of the saves he made.”

After all his years playing all over the world, where does the game rank for Murray? “It’s one of those I have to sit down and think about. I’m sure it means a lot, but I’m not there yet.”