After growing up a block from Duluth’s Glen Avon hockey rink, Ben Barr moved to Faribault, Minn., to play his high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.
As a junior, Barr and his teammates played for a coach named Andy Murray.
It proved to be a life-altering event for Barr and his teammates.
“In the one year I played for him, in that one year as a player, you don’t even realize how much you’ve learned until the season is over and you’re sitting there saying, ‘Wow, that was life-changing,’ as far as knowledge of the game,” Barr said. “I’ve known Coach Murray for a long time and I’ve always wanted to play again for him but I wasn’t good enough to do that after college.”
Instead, Barr now coaches alongside Murray at Western Michigan. The Broncos are in Barr’s hometown to play fifth-ranked Minnesota Duluth in NCHC play at 7:07 p.m. today and Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
Barr was hired as an associate head coach this summer along with former Northern Michigan assistant and Alaska-Anchorage head coach Dave Shyiak after Murray lost his two assistants to jobs in the NHL.
“We had great coaches on our staff my first three years with Pat Ferschweiler and Rob Facca, but with Ben Barr and Dave Shyiak, I was very fortunate and blessed to have those two guys,” Murray said. “Dave and Ben have a great relationship. It’s a great combination.”
Murray was an assistant in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars and Winnipeg Jets before coaching the 1998-99 season at Shattuck. He left after one year to become head coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 1999-2006 and the St. Louis Blues from 2006-2010. Murray took his first NCAA college head coaching job in 2011 with Western Michigan and led the Broncos to a Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament championship and NCAA berth.
Murray may be four years removed from the NHL, but according to Barr, the NHL is still calling on the 63-year-old coach.
“He’s great with Xs and Os. I think he gets 20 phone calls a week from NHL coaches asking what he would do in this or that situation,” Barr said. “The thing that makes Andy such a great coach is how he treats people and how he treats his players and how he treats the staff and the faculty, the school, the arena staff. Everyone feels like they are a part of what is going on and they are. That’s what I felt like when I played for him. That’s how I feel now.”
Barr joined the Broncos staff after three years as an assistant at Providence College (2011-14), three years as an assistant at Union College (2008-11) and a season at his alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2007-08), where he played four years of college hockey.
At Union, Barr helped recruit the players who went on to lead the New York school to the 2014 NCAA championship. It’s also where he met his wife, Cara, who he’s been married to for the past year and a half.
A year after winning an ECAC title at Union, Barr followed head coach Nate Leaman to Providence and the two guided the Friars to the Hockey East semifinals twice. Last year they won 22 games en route to the NCAA tournament and a loss in the East Regional final.
“He’s real personable; he’s got a great personality,” Shyiak said about his colleague. “He’s got a great recruiting background. His greatest attribute is he works hard and he’s personable. He can connect with a lot of different types of people and I think that’s why he’s done so well with recruiting at both Union and Providence and with us here at Western.”
Murray echoed those sentiments, saying the greatest talent in the world is the ability to work hard.
“In coaching, it’s not knowledge. It’s not anything else. It’s the ability to work hard,” he said. “He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s on top of things right away. He’s not the kind of person you have to tell to do this. He’s already got it done.”
Barr said he would like to run his own college program someday, and was close to reaching that goal in the offseason when he was a finalist for the head coaching job at Lake Superior State. The Lakers ended up hiring former Alaska-Anchorage, Wayne State and Michigan Tech assistant coach Damon Whitten.
Both Murray and Shyiak said they believe Barr will not only be a head coach one day in the NCAA, but a good one.
“Someday you’d love to have the opportunity to run your own program, but whether that’s five years, 10 years or 20 years or one year, you don’t know,” Barr said. “You don’t know when that opportunity is going to come. I enjoy what I have now and I’m loving it.
“I was fortunate to go to a great school and work at two great schools and before this. You pinch yourself and feel pretty lucky to be in the college game and do what you love.”
Western Michigan (9-9-2) at No. 5 Minnesota Duluth (13-7)
What: NCHC series
When: 7:07 p.m. today and Saturday
Where: Amsoil Arena
TV: My9 tonight and KBJR Ch. 6 on Saturday
Radio: KZIO-FM 94.1/104.3
Internet: www.94xrocks.com (audio); www.nchc.tv/umd (video)