AMHERST, Mass. - Throughout his hockey career, Massachusetts goaltender Matt Murray has had the two-word phrase "Family First" scrawled across the back of his mask.
This year, the 20-year-old St. Albert, Alberta native added something even more meaningful - the names of five friends he lost in last April's Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy.
The accident, which killed 16 people and severely injured 13 others, devastated the Broncos’ program and the Humboldt community. The anguish of that horrific occurrence, however, resonated beyond Humboldt and reached across the continent, and the hockey world.
Murray was among those who were hit with the pain of the incident. He has since dedicated his career to honoring the memory of the Humboldt victims through his work ethic, his play, and his mask.
"There’s not a second that goes by when I put it on where I’m not humbled at what I’m doing and just being able to carry on their legacy in the game and make them all proud and honor them in the best way that I know how," Murray told theScore.
And while the decision to carry the names of his late friends every time he takes the ice is significant enough, Murray has found another way to honor them - by putting together one of the greatest goaltending seasons in the history of UMass' storied hockey program.
Coming up through the ranks in hockey, players develop relationships with many teammates. For Murray, it just so happened that five players he knew well were among those who didn’t survive the Humboldt accident.
Murray grew up a five-minute walk from Stephen Wack. They played minor hockey together until Murray left for Spruce Grove.
"Growing up in the same town, you get to know everybody, especially in a small town," Murray said. "We had similar interests, both being into water sports and we had similar friend groups and we hung out all the time. And he was a great, great videographer ... he had a whole YouTube channel about it.
"But the biggest thing with Stephen, he was the most ... I’m at a loss for words saying what amazing person he was, how genuine, how happy. No matter what was going on he was always somebody that you know would do the right thing and there’s no words to sum him up."
Murray was a teammate of Conner Lukan in 2014-15; the two helped lead the Spruce Grove Saints to the Alberta Junior Hockey League title.
"When you have success with a person and you grow to that level ... there is nothing held back and you know every person on your team, inside and out, and I think that’s when you’re going to find your deepest connections," Murray said about his bond with Lukan.
Logan Hunter and Jaxon Joseph were fellow St. Albert natives.
"Logan went to the same school as me, he was a grade under because he’s a year younger," Murray said. "And then I knew him through some mutual friends. And then Jaxon, he went to school with Stephen and his dad (Chris) played a huge role in St. Albert minor hockey, and I’ve played with him in the summer on teams and stuff like that."
Murray connected to Parker Tobin as part of the universal goaltender fraternity. They crossed paths during their minor hockey careers.
"Parker I knew fairly closely from when he played in Spruce Grove in midget when I was there for junior hockey. And I saw him rising into the AJ as well," Murray said.
Murray was devastated when he got the call about the accident. He was granted permission to go home, go to the memorial services, and have the necessary time to grieve with his family.
"When I went home after it happened, just being with them, being with my family was what was needed," Murray said. "They’ve always been there for me no matter what, through thick and thin and always will continue to be. And my family is the strongest part of my life for sure."
Murray’s parents Darryl and Jeanett, and younger sister Madison formed Murray’s support team, as they always have.
"When the tragedy occurred he contacted me and my wife that night, we spoke many times that evening and obviously he was extremely shook up with the loss of some close buddies that he’s played with and worked out with over the years," Darryl Murray recalled.
"He really thought that he needed to come home to be with family and be with some people to try and ... and be around others that would be grieving at the same time."
Upon his return to campus, Murray found support from his teammates, with whom he opened up about what he was going through. He turned to his Catholic faith to help him move forward.
When the school year ended, Murray returned home. He thought about a way to memorialize not just the friends he lost, but everyone whose lives changed that night on the Broncos bus. He’d had Jesse Acciacca of Jesse’s Custom Design in Wilmington, Mass., paint his mask the year prior.
Murray tasked Acciacca with making sure all the Humboldt victims would be with him for the 2018-19 season.
Murray had one direction for Acciacca.
"I gave him all the artistic freedom in the world. I said, 'Do whatever you have to do, just make sure these names are on there,'" Murray recalled.
Acciacca had plenty of experience incorporating names into masks. In 2017, he integrated 470 names into then-St. Louis Blues netminder Carter Hutton's Hockey Fights Cancer mask. So Acciacca knew just how to approach Murray’s request.
"I didn’t want to just limit it to one little area of the mask because I’ve seen a few other painters, other goalies ... so I kind of represented it throughout the mask and without overpowering the design," Acciacca said. "I used pearlescent paint, and when you hit the right light you can see it. So it didn’t overpower it too much but it was there."
The back plate, where it has always said "Family First" on Murray’s masks, also became home to the names of the aforementioned five victims. Those names are done in regular paint and can’t be missed when you watch Murray from behind.
After Acciacca received his orders, he sent Murray a rendering. Even though he had an idea of what it was going to look like, Murray was still overwhelmed when he opened the box over the summer.
"Honestly, I just didn’t know what to say," Murray said. "It was a lot of emotion. Ecstatic with the beauty and then just like a lot of it really hit me too at the same time. And it was very humbling and it was a whirlwind of emotions at that point."
Murray wasn’t the only one overcome when the mask arrived.
"It broke me down to tears when I first saw it," Darryl said.
It was one thing to have the mask made and wear it. It took something else to attract more attention to it - and Murray's historic start has done just that.
As a freshman with UMass last season, Murray set the single-season school record for shutouts with four and was named the Hockey East Player of the Week once and the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week on another occasion.
The UMass coaching staff made a commitment to challenge its goalies to get out of their comfort zones this season. In Murray’s case, that meant not always trying to use perfect technique to stop the puck.
"We challenged him at the beginning of the year to battle and to compete and challenge shooters to help out with his rebound control and everything like that, and it’s really coming in strides," said UMass assistant coach Jared DeMichiel, who played goal at Rochester Institute of Technology.
"He’s fighting to see pucks and then when there’s rebounds he’s fighting more from there. And it’s not like he’s out of sorts, like he still has good control from his game. ... He’s made some unorthodox saves that we need him to make but he’s also made those routine saves as well too."
Maturity and experience have allowed Murray to be more aggressive.
"It comes with being more comfortable and knowing to what to expect in the league versus last year as a freshman," Murray said of his play to date. "And I think knowing what to expect and knowing what’s coming has allowed me to elevate my game and to push the limits a little bit more."
Whatever Murray has done is working better than anyone could have imagined. He enters the winter break with an 11-0-0 record to go along with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. UMass is 14-2-0 (7-0-0 in the Hockey East Conference) and is ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Knowing what Murray’s gone through and seeing him wearing the mask with all the names, DeMichiel is convinced there are people looking down on the goalie and maybe "pushing him a little more."
Murray agrees. Although he tries to avoid getting emotional when he pulls that mask down over his head on game night, there’s always inspiration in front of him when he picks it up to put it on.
Murray hasn't been drafted, but this season he’s played his way into the conversation among scouts and management types as a professional goaltender prospect. That’s been his dream "since I think I could dream," he said without hesitation.
St. Albert has produced many greats, including Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla, and if Murray can take advantage of a pro opportunity the way he’s thrived in junior and college hockey, he could very well join their ranks.
And as he pursues his ultimate dream, Murray will always have the victims of the Humboldt accident in his heart - and almost certainly on his mask.