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Hail to “The Chief”

Murray Armstrong

Coach Murray Armstrong led the Pioneers to six regular-season conference titles, two post-season tournament championships, 11 Frozen Four appearances and five NCAA championships. He was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1974. Photo: DU Archives

DU’s celebrated hockey coach is not just a statue frozen in the halls of the Ritchie Center. Murray Armstrong is alive and well and living on a golf course in Florida.

At 88, the man they called “The Chief” chalked up 21 amazing seasons at the University of Denver, coaching “the boys” on how to put a puck in the net. For someone who has been compared to coaching icons like football’s Knute Rockne and basketball’s John Wooden, he is surprisingly humble.

Armstrong was born Jan. 1, 1916, in Regina, Saskatchewan. Beginning in 1936, he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ farm club (the Syracuse Stars), the Leafs, the New York Americans and the Detroit Redwings. Then, he served 20 months in World War II in the Canadian army, rising to lieutenant status. After his service, Armstrong became a player-coach with the Dallas Texans for the 1946–47 season. The following year, he coached the Regina Pats and remained with the team until he got a call from Colorado.

DU Athletic Director E. E. Weiman hired Armstrong in 1956 to coach hockey at a salary of $7,000 a year. Armstrong acknowledges it was a tremendous pay cut, but says he loved the city, the climate and especially the players.

To his charges, he stressed teamwork, scholarship and a goal of winning half their games each year. His first squad came close (13-14-2). But the next year, the Pioneers blew past the target (25-10-2) and won the national championship.

After 21 seasons at DU, Armstrong was 460-215-31. There were six regular-season conference titles, two post-season tournament conference championships, 11 Frozen Four appearances and five NCAA championships (1958, 1960, 1961, 1968 and 1969). WCHA coach of the year twice and NCAA coach of the year once, he was inducted in 1974 into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. And in 1977, he received the NHL’s Lester Patrick Trophy for his “outstanding service to hockey in the United States.” In his honor, DU commissioned a life-sized statue of Armstrong.

The Chief prided himself on the fact that almost every player who touched a hockey stick under his watch also touched a diploma.

Why did the Pioneers work so hard for him? “I suppose I treated them the way they wanted to be treated,” Armstrong says. “In my playing days, it always got to me to see how guys behaved on the road. I never cheated, I never drank, I never smoked. The boys knew that.”

When he retired in 1977, Armstrong said he would miss the competition and DU, but he wouldn’t miss the road. Today, he says, “The smartest thing I ever did was teach my wife how to play golf all those years ago.” (He and Freda have been married 62 years, and in that time, he has gone from an eight to a 30 handicap.)

And yes, Armstrong still follows the Pioneers. “George Gwozdecky has done an excellent job. He really has the boys playing hard,” Armstrong says.

“They had a tough row to hoe,” he says of the 2003–04 team. “Those last two games were amazing.”

For all his humility, Armstrong’s accomplishments cannot be understated. He is old-school in the best sense of the term, having built an unexpected dynasty on timeless themes of respect and teamwork. He elevated the University of Denver into the national spotlight in ways that were never expected. On a larger level, time has proven his immutable legacy.

Murray Armstrong turned Denver into a hockey town.

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