Paul Maurice won his first ever NHL game behind the bench of the now-defunct Hartford Whalers, nearly two decades ago, and hopped into in the car with his wife. How to celebrate?
“We hit the Burger King drive-thru on the way home,” said Maurice. “My wife should have figured out then that it wasn’t a very glamorous job.”
What Mitch Maurice didn’t know back then was that she was married to the guy who would become the second-youngest coach in NHL history to win 500 games, behind only the legendary Scotty Bowman. That’s a lot of Whoppers.
It’s been quite a ride through 1,165 games, as Maurice and his Jets get ready to host the Arizona Coyotes on Hometown Hockey tonight. From the move from Hartford to Carolina, where the Hurricanes played their first two seasons out of Greensboro, 125 kilometres away from today’s home in Raleigh. On to Toronto, back to Carolina, and now to Winnipeg, where the Jets are Western Canada’s premier steed in a one-horse town, looking very hopeful for their first playoff spot since the NHL’s return to Manitoba.
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“My years in Toronto, they were short, but I enjoyed them more than people think I should have,” said Maurice, one in a long line of former Leafs coaches.
He’s seen both ends of the spectrum as far as hockey towns go, from the laid-back college basketball, NASCAR environment in Raleigh, to the Centre of the Universe, and now to Winnipeg where the Jets are everything in wintertime.
“There is even more awareness of the team, believe it or not, in Winnipeg,” Maurice marveled. “And then the world has changed since I was in Toronto. There’s Twitter. There’s Instagram. There’s a lot more awareness … and it’s a small town compared to Toronto. It is in some ways more intense.”
It is a good thing, then, that nearly 1,200 games of NHL head coaching experience have left Maurice ready for the task. When he took the job, upon Claude Noel’s firing in January of 2014, Maurice knew where he stood among potential hires.
“I wasn’t at the point in my career where (he could say) I only want to go to a place that’s going to win. My record… Teams weren’t jumping in to grab ya,” he said. “But I wanted to go to a place where I could make a difference. I’d been watching Winnipeg play since my days in the Southeast (when the Jets were in Atlanta), and every year they were adding these good young players, but … they weren’t playing a style of game that was their best. What they were good at.”
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And so began the transformation, one that might sound strange to those who believe hockey is only about scoring goals. On a macro level, Maurice had to convince his team there is more to being successful than simply lighting the lamp.
The microcosm of that was perhaps his best player, Evander Kane.
“There is more to Evander Kane than scoring goals,” Maurice states emphatically. “Putting the puck in the net, he’s good at that. But he’s actually better at other things. That’s what this team is all about. That’s the story.
“Evander is a phenomenal penalty killer. He hits hard. He skates hard…” And today, he embodies a Jets team that has an outstanding 14-5-5 road record this season, and is beginning to show it can play the kind of game needed to compete with the big boys in the West.
“The Winnipeg Jets are better at grinding and competing than they were at trying to play run and gun,” Maurice said. “This team, everything we did was about the idea of scoring goals. But up until that stretch where we lost four of our top defencemen, we were third in the league in goals against. Our team can compete. We can be really good at different things, not just trying to score goals at the expense of everything else in our game.”
Another example of necessary change? Dustin Byfuglien was a big-points, chance-taking defenceman whose plus-minus was a disaster. And he didn’t want to play forward, putting his own preference ahead of what Maurice thought was best for the team.
But Maurice moved him up, Big Buff did what he had to for the team, and since Dec. 5 when injuries struck he’s been back on the blue line and playing fantastic. After going minus-20 last season and being a minus player in each of the past five seasons, Byfuglien sits at plus-6.
In Byfuglien and Kane, Maurice sees two of the best players on his team. And any coach will tell you, if your best players don’t play like your best players, you won’t win.
The trick in Winnipeg was and is getting those two players to give themselves to the coach and team, and let him help build a squad that can accomplish something.
“(Maurice’s) biggest asset is being able to manage everything and everyone, depending on the circumstances,” captain Andrew Ladd told the Winnipeg Free Press last week. “When he got here last year he knew what to do, which was push hard and take us to higher levels in terms of how we practice and approach the game.
"This year it's been more preparation and making sure everyone is on the same page. It's just his ability to take the pulse of this team and to know what it needs on a daily basis that is his biggest asset. He’s a guy that when he walks into the room he just commands your attention.”
He will command that attention even more so, if Paul Maurice is walking into a Jets room to coach a hockey game in late April.