On Tuesday, the legendary Wayne Gretzky turned 60. No player alive today changed the game more - on and off the ice - than “The Great One.”
While Gretzky was an Oiler, he stacked up seven consecutive scoring titles, and Edmonton won four Stanley Cups in five years. A trade to the L.A. Kings in 1988 is credited with helping to popularize hockey in southern California and opening up other non-traditional hockey markets for NHL expansion. After becoming the game’s all-time scoring leader, he finished his career with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers before having the normal waiting period for the Hockey Hall of Fame waived when he retired in 1999.
Three former Waterloo Black Hawks share a birthday with Wayne Gretzky, and each remains active in the sport somehow.
Matt Murray (January 26, 1978)
In the year Murray was born, Gretzky was dazzling Canadian junior hockey. Eighteen years later, Murray would come to the USHL, first with the Omaha Lancers, then to Waterloo after a trade just several weeks into the season.
He talked about that trade in a 2010 Karen’s Print Rite ‘Where Are They Now’ feature, noting, “Overall, the transition worked out great for me as I was put on the top line and was trusted in power play and penalty kill situations shortly after arriving.”
He tied for second in team scoring, despite playing in just 36 Waterloo games, then ranked second again playing the full 1997/98 season. In total, Murray recorded 87 points in 89 USHL contests for the Hawks. He walked on for his home state Wisconsin Badgers in the fall of 1998, spending four years in Madison before going on to play pro hockey in Europe.
Today, Murray is back in Wisconsin coaching hockey players of all ages. In 2005, he founded The Scorer’s Edge, which has evolved into SHE Development Group. The organization offers summer camps, strength and conditioning programs, private lessons, and more. Murray is included in the “Black Hawks in Business” section on waterlooblackhawks.com.
He is also simultaneously a college assistant coach at Division III Milwaukee School of Engineering.
Blake Hillman (January 26, 1996)
While Wayne Gretzky was playing his final games for the Kings, Blake Hillman was born in Minnesota. Like Murray, Hillman came to Waterloo via a trade; that happened while the Black Hawks were making a playoff push in 2015.
Hillman had spent one full season and most of another with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Although the Hawks missed the 2015 postseason, he was a productive contributor in his short time with Waterloo, notching seven assists in just 13 games. From the time of the trade through the end of the year, the Hawks went 9-4-0.
The big defenseman went on to the University of Denver, where he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks after his freshman year. As a sophomore, Hillman and the Pioneers celebrated an NCAA championship. He spent one more season at Denver before signing with Chicago in the spring of 2018, making his NHL debut days later. Hillman scored a goal in one of his four Blackhawks games before the season ended.
Since that time, he has remained an active professional with several teams in the AHL and ECHL. Hillman’s first action of this season could be this weekend when the South Carolina Stingrays open their ECHL schedule against the Florida Everblades.
Michael Davies (January 26, 1997)
Davies and Hillman have covered much of the same ground during their hockey careers, perhaps appropriate for two defensemen born exactly one year apart. In fact, they were Dubuque teammates prior to the deal which sent Hillman to Waterloo. Davies would follow during the summer of 2015.
Unlike Hillman, Hawks fans had the chance to see the full range of Davies’ capabilities during the full 2015/16 schedule. He produced his first Black Hawks goal during a four-point outburst versus the Omaha Lancers on November 7th that fall. It propelled him to a total of seven goals and 27 assists for Waterloo. At season’s end, Davies’ 34 points tied with Black Hawks teammate Jake Ryczek for eighth in scoring among USHL defensemen.
The next year, Davies and Hillman were reunited at Denver, giving Davies the opportunity to be part of the Pioneers' NCAA championship squad at the end of his freshman season.
By last year, Davies was Denver's alternate captain. He twice earned the program’s Keith Magnuson Best Defensive Player award, as he produced a +72 plus/minus differential over four seasons.
Davies’ time in college was cut off by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also interrupted the beginning of his pro career. After skating in development camps for the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche while he was still in school, Davies waits for all the particulars to come together for the next stage of his time in the game. He is currently training near his home in St. Louis and providing skills coaching to younger players.
Where Are They Now Features are presented by Karen’s Print Rite at 2515 Falls Avenue in Waterloo or online at karensprintrite.com.
Image from 99: Stories of the Game by Wayne Gretzky, published by Penguin Random House.