The Bear is back: Baron still loves hockey

The Murray Baron of 1981 didn't expect to forge a career as a hockey player, and the Murray Baron of 2011 isn't counting on a second career as a hockey coach.

But that doesn't mean Baron isn't having fun while serving as an assistant coach with the KIJHL's Kamloops Storm.

Baron is in his first season with the Storm, and first season of coaching period. He and Geoff Smith, the Storm's head coach, are good friends dating back to their days at the University of North Dakota in the late 1980s.

It has been more than seven years since Baron, now 44, retired from the NHL. In a 988-game career that spanned 15 seasons, Baron played for the Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Phoenix Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks.

A solid, consistent, stay-at-home defenceman, Baron picked up 35 goals, 94 assists and 1,309 penalty minutes, and also played 73 playoff games, scoring two goals and adding eight assists.

That's an incredible career for a man who played exactly one season of rep in the Kamloops Minor Hockey Association.

"I was just a house-leaguer . . . I played for fun," says Baron, who was born in Prince George but grew up in Kamloops. "I made my midget rep team in my second year. I guess I was a late bloomer . . ."

Baron turned his short midget rep career into a two-season stint with the junior A Vernon Lakers, before playing three seasons with the NCAA's North Dakota Fighting Sioux.

He played nine games with the AHL's Hershey Bears following his last season at UND (1988-89), and got into 16 games with the Flyers, who had drafted him in 1986, the following season.

He never looked back, and retired after playing for the Blues during the 2003-04 season.

Post-retirement life has been kind to Baron, who spent six years in Arizona before returning to Kamloops two years ago.

"My little guy's in Grade 1 now and we figured the best place to raise a family is back here," Baron says.

It's also a good place to start a coaching career, although Baron isn't looking to do that.

"It's part-time right now," he says. "Geoff's a good friend of mine, and I promised I would come out and help. Other than that, we'll see what happens.

"I'm coaching my kids more than anything else - I don't think that pays too much."

If Baron was blessed to play with some good teammates - Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Mark Messier and Mark Recchi among them - he also spent a lot of time with excellent coaches.

Some of his former coaches include Paul Holmgren, Andy Murray, Ken Hitchcock, Mike Keenan, Roger Neilson, Marc Crawford and Joel Quenneville.

Baron says he saw the "whole spectrum" of coaching styles, but notes that "I'm the type of guy, if I was playing, I was happy with my ice time. I was good to go, I didn't care who was coaching me.

"I had so many coaches over the years . . . it's hard to compare them," he adds.

Baron also said the whole scene has shifted, and coaches like the quiet, instructive Smith, who has guided the Storm to a 25-6-1-4 record, are becoming more prevalent.

"What I'm seeing now is that the yelling and screaming days of coaching are over - that's kind of gone the way of the dinosaur," Baron says. "That's probably a good thing - well, yes and no, because I think it did have its place."

And Baron notices the young players are different as well, and that's not necessarily a good thing either.

"The big dollar sign is what they're chasing," Baron says. "When I was growing up, we just wanted to play hockey.

"There are these two different aspects to this game, which I think is unfortunate. I think it's too money-driven . . . and I feel bad for these kids who have parents pushing them from Day 1 and I think it hurts the kids more than it helps them. By the time they're 15, 16, they're sick of hockey and they want to pack it in."

Baron, whose minor hockey seasons ran from September to March, also isn't too keen on youngsters playing during the spring and summer months.

"I don't see how the kids could even want to be near the ice that much," he says. "When the season ended in the spring, we were done. I think it gave us a better perspective coming back in August because we were ready to get back on the ice.

"With kids going year-round now, they never get a break - I would be sick of it by the time I got to be a teenager."

But this doesn't mean that Baron has grown cynical about the game he loves.

He is getting back on the ice once a week with a group of former college and junior players, and couldn't be happier.

"I didn't skate for six years (after) I retired," Baron says. "Living in Arizona, there's no real motive to put on the skates down there.

"But I really enjoy it still."

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