In the summer of 2009, then-16-year-old Connor Murphy and 15-year-old Jake McCabe were slightly overwhelmed.
They had just been the last two players chosen — and were called in together to hear the news — for a U.S. team at a junior hockey -development camp. They were months away from joining the U.S. -National Team Development Program. Their hockey careers were quickly accelerating, but they were still mere teenagers.
“At that age, everything is such a shock,” Murphy said. “It felt so crazy to be connecting with guys who were across the U.S. [It] almost felt like they were across the world at the time. And we literally were playing against kids across the world after that.”
But they at least had each other. Murphy, an Ohioan, and McCabe, a Wisconsinite, quickly became friends.
Twelve years later, they remain close. And this fall, for the first time, they’ll be united on NHL ice.
With McCabe leaving the Sabres to sign a four-year contract with the Blackhawks, and Duncan Keith’s departure making Connor Murphy by far the Hawks’ longest-tenured defenseman, their friendship has come full circle.
“It’s definitely the spot I wanted to be, so sometimes I have to pinch myself that it’s real,” McCabe said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to drive over to Fifth Third [Arena] now and hop on the ice with the rest of the guys.”
“In the [locker] room the other day, we were both saying it feels weird seeing him sitting in the stall by us with Hawks gear on,” Murphy said. “It has been so many years [of] seeing him around with all of his Buffalo stuff and reconnecting in the summer. Now realizing that we’re going to be together every day of the year, that’s an exciting thing.”
After joining the USNTDP in the fall of 2009, it didn’t take long for McCabe and Murphy to become familiar with each other.
“It was very quick,” McCabe said. “You get to know your teammates pretty quick when you spend all the time in the world with them. We both lived in the same general area, or at least our billet families did. You eat lunch together, you sometimes drive to the rink together [and] we were hurt together, so we spent a lot of time together.”
Wait a second. Hurt together?
“We actually both suffered the same injury: We both had a stress fracture in our lower backs,” McCabe said. “We were out for a couple months and did the same rehab together: Manual therapy and strengthening. It was nice, actually.”
In between games, practices and tournaments with the USNTDP, players still attend public high school. For McCabe and Murphy, Pioneer High in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was their assigned school.
And while they were sidelined with their back injuries, there was a lot more school and a lot less hockey.
“We needed another elective credit, so we took guitar class together,” Murphy said. “We were sitting in there with our back braces, playing guitar, trying to learn that, thinking about how cool it would be. It’s funny how far we’ve gotten since then.”
Murphy moved on to Canadian juniors and McCabe to the University of Wisconsin in 2011, but the friends continued to play alongside each other on U.S. national teams.
McCabe recalls Murphy scoring the overtime championship-winning goal for the U.S. against Sweden in the 2011 World Under-18 Championships. And Murphy recalls McCabe serving as the U.S. captain and top-pair defenseman en route to a gold medal in the 2013 World Under-20 Championships.
McCabe’s top-pair partner, in another remarkable present-day, Hawks-related twist, was Seth Jones. That team was also stacked with John Gibson (now with the Ducks) in goal, J.T. Miller (Canucks) up front and Jacob Trouba (Rangers) also on defense.
“That was an awesome tournament,” McCabe said. “We had a really, really talented team. John Gibson was definitely our MVP; he was unbelievable all tournament long. But we just had a really good group.”
After turning pro, McCabe and Murphy again represented the country and played together in the 2014 and 2016 World Championships.
“[In 2014], I was fresh out of college, so I wasn’t playing a whole bunch — I was more just opening the door and letting the other guys go out there,” McCabe said with a laugh. “But [in 2016], we were actually ‘D’ partners most of the tournament.”
Although that 2016 team finished fourth, a certain USA Hockey executive watching from the stands in Russia — Hawks general manager Stan Bowman — was impressed by the McCabe-Murphy pairing’s performance.
“I remember leaving there thinking, ‘These guys are really good, young defensemen,’ ” Bowman said earlier this summer.
” ‘It seems they have bright careers ahead of them, and it would be nice one day to bring them to Chicago.’ “
That same year, McCabe rented a summer apartment in River North with his wife and “loved it right away.” Working out with two college friends ultimately connected him to Chicago-based GVN Performance, which became his permanent summer training group.
After Bowman acquired Murphy from the Coyotes in 2017, the longtime friends would occasionally run into each other or hang out during offseasons in Chicago, but their time together remained limited.
Meanwhile, McCabe’s Hawks connections continued to grow, such as when the Hawks last year hired GVN trainer Juan Gonzalez as the Rockford IceHogs’ strength and conditioning coach. McCabe’s daughter’s birth in April further cemented the family’s future in Chicago.
Finally, this July, with McCabe an unrestricted free agent and Bowman rebuilding a maligned defense, the union that long seemed inevitable finally happened.
“My wife and I were talking about free agency coming up and hoping there was going to be a fit [with the Hawks],” McCabe said. “And luckily enough, there was mutual interest. It came together relatively quickly.”
“I was super excited, obviously,” Murphy said. “Any time you have a buddy that joins onto the team, it feels great.”
McCabe remains on track to be 100% recovered from knee surgery in February in time for training camp next month, whereas Murphy has focused on his conditioning and puck-moving skills during summer training.
They, along with Jones and Calvin de Haan, comprise the revamped defensive core expected to greatly improve the Hawks’ ability to keep the puck out of their net next season.
“It is amazing how some of this stuff comes full circle,” Murphy said. “To think that, after 12 years, we’re back in a similar stage together is pretty cool.”