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    Thursday, February 5, 1998

    Murdoch finds a brave new world

    By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun
    NAGANO --  In the world's soccer circles, the Italians are a powerhouse. In the world's hockey circles, they certainly are not. In fact, they're patsies.
     They have as much chance of winning a hockey medal as the Jamaicans have of winning the downhill ski race or as the Canadians have of winning soccer's World Cup.
      But the Italians, along with seven other teams, are gearing up for a three-game round-robin that will give them a chance to join the six powerhouses in the hockey medal round - the big boys stacked with National Hockey League players who aren't even here yet. They're all back in North America, continuing with their season and imperiously ignoring the lesser lights.
     Why would the Italians bother? They know that even if they do advance to the next level, they're going to get hammered.
     When Bob Murdoch, the Italians' consultant and assistant coach, is asked that question, he has a ready answer.
     "The Italians or the Germans and those other teams don't have to win a gold medal. It's the opportunity of playing against the best in the world. This is the first time this has ever happened. It's absolutely wonderful. That's the motivation."
     Sometimes, probably too often, that point is forgotten. Fans tend to want to see only the elite-level players compete. Once in a while, they'll spend a few minutes chuckling at the comic diversion of Jamaican bobsledders or Eddie (The Eagle) Edwards, but for the most part, they go for gold.
     During his past few years in Europe, Bob Murdoch has learned that there is another world outside the NHL. He followed a long career with head-coaching stops in Chicago and Winnipeg and assistant coaching jobs in San Jose and Calgary. He even won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.
     In fact, Murdoch said that when he and his wife decided last summer to go home and take it easy for a year, they suddenly uncovered a major problem. "We looked at each other and said: 'Where's home?'"
     He's still in line for NHL jobs. In fact, he was the front-runner in Anaheim last summer until the surprise firing of Pierre Page by the Calgary Flames pushed him aside.
     But his attitude has changed considerably since the time he angrily slammed a door in Chicago Stadium so hard that it came off its hinges and a forklift had to be summoned to extricate him.
     His daughters - who are 10 and eight - speak German so well that it's sometimes better than their English. And they told him that he should get a job in France because they thought that it would be great to learn French.
     But in the meantime, he's having a great time with the Italians, not because he needs to but because he wants to do so.
     The team fell into disarray when head coach Bryan Lefley was killed in a car crash in the fall. They don't have a national program as such, just a bunch of players who are thrown together for the occasion. Thirteen of them are Canadians who can claim Italian passports and two others are Americans.
     When asked if he would step in and help, Murdoch was delighted to accept even though it's not a long-term deal. He'll be with the team through the Olympics and then the world championship in the spring.
     And realistically, the Olympic involvement isn't likely to last long. The Italians are in a division with Slovakia, Austria and Khazakhstan. One will advance, as will one of Germany, Belarus, France and Japan.
     Even though Slovakia's NHL players won't be here, the Italians would still have to pull off a huge upset to win that division.
     But none of that bothers Murdoch. These days, he's in hockey for the satisfaction and he would get tremendous satisfaction from giving a wide-eyed bunch of eager also-rans a chance to play against the greats.
     "I spent a lot of time in the NHL and I don't regret any of it," he said. "I've had great experiences and it has been absolutely wonderful but - again when I'm 75 - the first thing I'm going to want to talk about is Gordie Howe.
     "The next thing I'm going to say is: Does another four or five years in the NHL make any difference when there are all these other things?
     "I've spent three wonderful years in Europe and if the right situation comes along, I would love to do it again. I don't have any hesitation about being a coach or an assistant general manager or a scout or whatever if the experience is right for you. That's what life is about."