A suddenly livelier Kitchener Rangers dressing room filled with more energy and excitement was a dead giveaway: Ryan Murphy was on his way back.
The third-year Ontario Hockey League defenceman had just been cleared for contact in practice, less than three weeks after absorbing a bone-jarring hit from Niagara forward Tom Kuhnhackl in a Nov. 4 game that resulted in Murphy’s second diagnosed concussion.
"Ryan is the oil in the engine here. When I saw his mannerisms start to go back to where he was the guy in the dressing room who could be heard stirring the pot … that’s when I knew he was coming back sooner rather than later," Rangers head coach Steve Spott said in a phone interview.
The 18-year-old Carolina Hurricanes prospect played his first game since Nov. 4 and just his 10th of the season Thursday night, helping Kitchener to a 2-1 shootout victory over the hometown Brampton Battalion.
'Message sent' to OHLers
Tom Kuhnhackl’s 20-game suspension might end up feeling longer.
The Niagara IceDogs forward suffered a knee injury when he levelled defenceman Ryan Murphy behind the net in a Nov. 4 game, leaving the Kitchener Rangers defenceman with a concussion.
Murphy returned to the lineup Thursday at Brampton following a 10-game absence while Kuhnhackl, who has served nine games of his suspension, may not return when he’s eligible to play Jan. 6 against the visiting Owen Sound Attack.
The suspension is the longest of the season in the Ontario Hockey League, which has set the standard for cracking down on headshots.
"He really sent a message across the league by the suspension he gave on Tom Kuhnhackl," said Murphy of OHL commissioner David Branch, "but suspensions aren’t going to stop [future incidents]. It’s more of a respect thing that the players have to have for each other."
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero drafted Kuhnhackl, a native of Landshut, Germany, in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL draft and said the Murphy hit was completely out of character for the 18-year-old right-winger, who had 47 penalty minutes last season.
"It was an all-around unfortunate incident," he said, "and we certainly have no problem with his suspension. The thing with Tommy Kuhnhackl, he’s not that type of player. He’s a hard-nosed kid, but this isn’t something he’s done in the past."
— Doug Harrison, CBC Sports
Spott said the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft could have played against Sarnia on Nov. 27 but was held out to give Murphy more practices with contact and instill more confidence in management that the player had returned to full health.
Spott and his staff did numerous 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 battling drills with Murphy after practices that saw the five-foot-11, 176-pound blue-liner take some punishment.
"I actually felt pretty good a couple of days after the hit but since I had previous concussions they [Rangers] made me sit out a couple of extra days. It was more precautionary than anything," said Murphy, who has been skating for two weeks after being cleared by team medical staff in Kitchener and Carolina.
"It was a pretty nasty hit but I guess I have a pretty thick skull," he added, while laughing. "I’ve been doing a lot of bag skates and workouts on the ice so I feel really good."
At best, Murphy will play four games for the Rangers before attending Canada’s world junior selection camp that runs Dec. 10-14 ahead of the annual tournament, set for Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Calgary and Edmonton. This will be his third attempt to crack the lineup after being cut each of the previous two years.
Murphy is just happy to play a couple of games before heading west after spending the better part of the first 48 hours after his latest concussion holed up in a dark room and told by Rangers head trainer Dan Lebold he couldn’t watch television, use a computer or text message anyone.
"The day after [the hit] I was waking up every three hours through the [overnight]," Murphy told CBCSports.ca. "The next day I slept in a little, got some breakfast, went back to bed, got some lunch, go back to bed and then get some dinner and back to bed. … As the days went I got more comfortable using my phone and getting out into public."
Murphy looked a little different on the ice as he tossed his standard CCM helmet for Reebok’s new 11K model, designed to absorb the scary high impact hits. Reebok’s lightest and most protective helmet to date adjusts 360 degrees to a player’s uniquely shaped head and will not pop off once locked into place.
Spott has talked about Murphy’s recovery with Canadian head coach Don Hay and suggested the former keep his game simple in early workouts at the selection camp.
While admitting he was a long shot to make Team Canada last year as "a 17-year-old trying out for a 19-year-old tournament," Murphy understands he needs to be more responsible defensively at this camp if he wants to be sporting a red and white jersey on Dec. 26 when Canada opens the world juniors against Finland.
"I may know my offensive upside but I’ve got to prove to [the coaches] that I can be reliable in my own end as well," said Murphy, who ranked first among OHL defencemen with 26 goals last season and second in points with 79. "I know the quality of hockey players that are going to be there. I’m just going to use my experience [from previous selection camps] to my advantage."
Ups and downs
Murphy has endured many ups and downs in the past calendar year, from being cut from Canada’s world under-18 and under-20 squads, to leading Kitchener to a playoff spot, to making the Hurricanes out of training camp and being knocked out of the Rangers lineup with a concussion.
"The way he handled the under-18 was probably a turning point in his career," said Spott, who was an assistant coach with the Canadian world juniors in 2009. "He came back [to Kitchener] and both he and [former Rangers captain] Gabriel Landeskog [now with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche] recognized they had an opportunity to be first-round NHL draft picks and I think [they] pushed each other.
"[Murphy] could have gone into a shell, he could have handled it the wrong way, but he elected to come in and prove people wrong, and show that he can be a world-class player."
Murphy made the under-18 squad this year and was named the top defenceman at the world championship in Germany. On Thursday, he was content getting through the game without any setbacks.
The Central Division-leading Battalion (14-9-4) have dropped three in a row while Kitchener (18-7-1) won its fourth straight.
"He better not screw this [winning streak] up, that’s what I told him," Spott said of Murphy prior to Thursday's contest.