Craig Muni - Finding a Home in the City of Champions

Andrew Rodger - NHLA Writer

The path to the NHL is different for every NHL Alumni member. For some, the team that drafts them have an immediate need and they step right into the lineup. For others, it takes time in the minors to either hone their skills or prove their potential to the organization.

NHL Alumni member Craig Muni knew that he had the skills and talent to play in the world’s greatest league; he just needed the opportunity to prove it.

For the Toronto native, being selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round (25th overall) of the 1980 NHL entry draft was a dream come true, but it took some time for Craig to break into the league. Staying positive was the key; he knew that in many cases, it was being in the right place at the right time, as well as having someone in the organization that believes in your abilities. So close to the NHL and yet so far, his hard work and dedication to the game would certainly pay off.

“That was the start of the dream, but because of different circumstances, things didn’t work out in Toronto,” Craig recalled. “I was drafted by Punch Imlach and my first training camp he had a heart attack and never came back to his job as the General Manager. There was some changing and shifting of everything in the organization at that time. Then the year I was supposed to make the team, or have an opportunity to make the team, I hurt my knee in the junior camp before the NHL camp opened up and I didn’t get back until halfway through the season.”

“It was tough,” he confided. “When you are in the minors, it can get frustrating because we all believe that we are good enough to play at the NHL level. You wonder when you will get the chance or an opportunity, but then it’s on a one game basis or they put you on the wrong line or in the wrong situation; you are not in a situation where you can succeed. I guess it happened then and it still happens now.”

Craig had been very successful with the St. Catharines Saints in the American Hockey League, playing an average of 67 games a season and averaging 30 points. His final year in the Maple Leafs organization, he set career highs in games played (73) and assists (34). If the Leafs did not have a position for him, then surely other teams would take notice of his efforts. The season before he moved on to Edmonton and became a full time NHLer, Craig had to make an important decision. In the final year of his contract, should he stay in the Leafs organization, the only organization he had known at that point in his professional career, or test the waters of free agency during the summer of 1986?

“I was having a good year that year and my coaches at the time were John Brophy and Gary Lariviere,” Craig explained. “They were going to be moving up to Toronto the next year to take over the Leafs. That summer, my dilemma was that if the Leafs offered me another contract based on my play, should I sign it, stay with Toronto and hope to get a chance with Brophy and Lariviere in the NHL or sign somewhere else. I didn’t rule out Toronto, but I wanted to see what else was out there first.”

“When we met with teams that summer, there were about six or eight organizations that were interested, but the only thing I wanted was a guarantee from them that I would play in at least half of the exhibition games. During my four years with Toronto, I think I only played in about three exhibition games in that whole time and to me, that wasn’t an opportunity or a chance to really make the team. Of all the teams we talked to, Glen Sather was the only one that said he would give me his word on a handshake that I would. Sure enough, I played in half the games and I made the team - I wasn’t slated to make the team but I did!”

He had made the team, but there was one final obstacle to overcome. Since he had earned a position on the team, perhaps unexpectedly, Glen Sather would have to create a roster spot for him. What followed next was perhaps the strangest week of any NHLer’s career, past or present. On October 2nd, 1986, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres. The next day, he was traded from Buffalo to the Pittsburgh Penguins. After being a Penguin for approximately 48 hours, he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. Craig laughed when I mentioned this particular week - clearly, he has been asked this question before...

“We had just finished a long road trip at the end of training camp and the waiver draft was coming up,” he said. “We got back to Edmonton and Glen called me into his office - he explained what was going to happen, why it was going to happen and what the result was going to be - I was just hoping it would all happen the way he was planning, or else I would have ended up somewhere else!”

“At the time, Raimo Summanen played enough games that previous year that they had to protect him because they were scared that they were going to lose him. At the same time, they didn’t want to take a chance of losing me. So, they traded me to Buffalo and then Buffalo traded me to Pittsburgh, who then traded me to Edmonton. I remember that they phrased it in the media at the time that I went to Buffalo for some chicken wings, I went to Pittsburgh for some beer and then went back to Edmonton.”

Craig would play 493 of his 819 career games as a member of the Oilers, becoming an integral part of three Stanley Cup victories in Edmonton. His arrival in the NHL coincided with a very special time in hockey history. With a combination of high-octane offence and stay-at-home defencemen, with teammates named Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Lowe, Coffey, Krushelnyski, Fuhr and Moog, to name just a few, the Oilers would help make Edmonton the City of Champions.

“I knew some of the guys from playing against them in Junior, but they had already started to build something special,” Craig said of joining the Oilers. “They had already won two Stanley Cups at the time and they were always the favourites. I remember how warm and welcoming everyone was in the group we had. By no means am I the same type of player as Gretzky, Messier or Kurri, but the Oilers were a close family. Everybody cared for each other, everybody battled for each other - no man stood alone. There was pressure but you didn’t feel the pressure because everyone knew just how good the team was - you could be down a couple of goals in the third period and you knew you were still going to win the game.”

“I think the best way to describe those teams, was that everyone knew what their roles were, everyone knew what their job was. We always talked about doing your job to the best of your ability. If the team has success, then the individual will have success. I think part of the reason why I was able to play so much longer, especially for myself, was winning those Cups and being a part of that tradition. It is a learning process, to know how to win and to know what it takes to win. When teams want to trade for you, that’s something that they want to bring to their organization.”

In the summer of 1988, the hockey world changed - the City of Edmonton changed. The close-knit Oilers family had to say goodbye to three of their own - Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski. While they certainly felt the loss of the trio’s departure, both on and off the ice, the players in Edmonton had the hearts of champions and they were not done yet. Led by Mark Messier, Craig and his teammates would raise the Stanley Cup in victory one more time in the spring on 1991, defeating the Boston Bruins four games to one. It appeared to be an unexpected win for outside observers, but not for Craig and the guys on the team. As he previously mentioned, learning to win is a process, knowing what it takes to win is a process - the 1990-91 Oilers had learned their lessons well!

“Yeah, they pretty much wrote us off once Wayne was traded,” he said of the ‘91 Stanley Cup win. “I remember in that first round against Winnipeg, they had us down three games to one, but we came back and won that series. After that, we basically cruised through the rest of the playoffs. In that Winnipeg series, I remember vividly, we were heading home, I was sitting next to Bill Ranford, and the coaches had asked us not to block shots, let Bill see the shots. I said to Bill that part of my game was blocking shots and he said ‘Do what you have to do, do what you do naturally. If you try to block the shot and it gets over you or past you, I can still see it. Do whatever you have to do.’”

“As a team, we dug in and decided we were going to play how we had always played. There is an old saying, ‘Don't give the other team a reason to win or a reason to live.’ We got wind at the time that one of their assistant coaches had said something in the paper about Winnipeg winning the series, that we were done. We ended up winning at home, Jari Kurri scored a huge goal in Game 6 to even the series at 3-3, and then we won in Game 7. At the same time in that series, the ‘Kid line’ kind of got developed and established themselves as players at that point. They were a line to be reckoned with for the rest of the playoffs; the kid line was Adam Graves, Martin Gelinas and Joe Murphy.”

On March 22nd, 1993, Craig was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, where he played 9 games at the end of that season and 9 more to start of the next one. He would finish his NHL career with parts of three seasons in Buffalo (160 games from 1993-1996), part of one season in Winnipeg (25 games to end the 1995-96 season), one in Pittsburgh (64 games in 1996-97). For the 1997-98 season, Craig played 40 games with the Dallas Stars before finally retiring from the game. He played with many “greats” during his time in the NHL, but he had the rare opportunity to be teammates with two of the games greatest, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

“They were both great players,” Craig said of his two legendary teammates. “The best way to describe them is that they were both great, but they were different kinds of players. Wayne would like to carry the puck, gain the blue line and curl back to find somebody that was open. He was as good as anybody at passing the puck and finding somebody.”

“For myself, I was always more of a defensive defenseman and if you get up on the rush, you get to a certain point that if you don’t get the puck, you head back to your position. With Wayne though, you always went to the net, you went straight to the post with your stick on the ice. Somehow, I wouldn’t even know where he was and the puck would end up on my stick. He just had that vision and magical way about him. Whereas with Mario, he was a lot bigger, stronger and just as skilled, but instead of curling off once he gained the line, he would rather go at you one-on-one. He made many defensemen look silly!”

Craig would score 28 goals during his career and add 119 assists, but it was his shot-blocking skills he was famous for - the stay-at-home defenseman is probably the goalie’s best friend. It is very demanding physically though and can takes its toll after 819 regular season games and 113 playoff games.

“It does take its toll over time,” he acknowledged. “I was fortunate to play as long as I did given the style that I played. I had some serious injuries but nothing that was career threatening though. I was fortunate then and I am fortunate now - I don’t have any serious, lingering problems.”

Although he left the NHL ice after the 1997-98 season, you will still find Craig on the blue line and clearing rebounds from in front of the net as an active alumni member. He takes to the ice to raise money for countless charities as a member of the Buffalo Sabres Alumni, the Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni, the Xentel Group’s Old Timer’s Hockey Challenge, charity games with friends and former teammates, and of course, the NHL Alumni Association team. This spring, he suited up again with his NHL Alumni friends to help stick it to Alzheimer’s, raising much-needed funds for the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer’s research at Baycrest in the annual Scotiabank NHL Alumni Pro-Am Tournament.

“That’s usually the last one of the year,” Craig said of taking part in the Pro-Am, which sees NHL Alumni members join teams of amateur players. “It is also one of the biggest and it is for such a great cause. It’s fun for us and for the participants, to sit with a group of guys from one company or one walk of life. You hear their stories and they love to hear our stories about playing in the NHL or winning a Stanley Cup. It’s a great weekend with a lot of stories being told and a lot of camaraderie.”

After he concluded his NHL career as a defenseman, Craig scouted for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, but when the lockout shut down the league for the 2004-2005 season, he embarked on a new career path. Currently working with Uniland Development in the Western New York region, Craig’s work is primarily in the Buffalo area. Uniland is the largest property developer in the region, with a focus on leasing and property sales. His experience as a teammate translates perfectly to the business world, where working together to achieve a common goal is vital to success.

“You see companies in the business world where it is all about them or making the next dollar,” he explained. “They don’t have the same success as the companies that are family or team oriented. It’s about making the company money, but at the same time, if the company is doing well, so are the individuals. Some people who don’t play sports or didn’t play at a high level, you will really notice that they don’t get that philosophy. What we learn in sports, even as kids, does go a long way for you individually in the future and in your future business.”

A success on the ice during his NHL career and a success off the ice in the business world, Craig’s story is one of perseverance and dedication. By believing in his talents and abilities, being passionate about the game and taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, he not only flourished in the league, he became an integral part of three Stanley Cup championship teams and found a home in the City of Champions.

Andrew Rodger is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and his goal is to help bridge the gap between hockey fans and their hockey heroes. You can find him on Twitter as @ARodgerTVOS.