‘I need to win one’: Why Paul Maurice’s legacy is most at stake in Game 7

Ron MacLean, Elliotte Friedman, and Kelly Hrudey discuss the top storylines that the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers are facing ahead of the Stanley Cup Final's deciding Game 7.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — During one of his 100-some media sessions during what will be a 65-day playoff grind, Paul Maurice notices the attire of a questioner.

“Like the hat,” the head coach of the Florida Panthers says, dryly. Which is how Maurice says most things.

The reporter’s cap is emblazoned with the perfect logo of the flawed Hartford Whalers, the franchise that gave Maurice his first job in the league that competes for the Stanley Cup, which will soon be hoisted and kissed and taken for a gleaming twirl on a legacy-defining Monday night at the edge of the Everglades.

The stories of our sports heroes are written large in a Game 7.

So, too, are the tales of goats.

And while the tell-the-grandkids legends of resurrected Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and Stuart Skinner and Zach Hyman and the rest might well begin with the Miracle of ’24, we’ll argue that no singular reputation of an individual involved in the 1,400th and final hockey game of this never-ending season has more on the line than Maurice.

From the Florida side, we’ll listen to your case for the suddenly slumping Sergei Bobrovsky, a borderline Hall of Famer and the club’s oldest player. Or even in-house goaltending czar Roberto Luongo, whose only rings are Olympic. But Aleksander Barkov, Gustav Forsling, Matthew Tkachuk and the rest still have runway.

An Oilers victory — the first reverse sweep since Bing Crosby ruled the living-room radio — would cement the historic for McDavid & Co. But that core is firmly in its prime, and rookie head coach Kris Knoblauch has all of 93 NHL games on his résumé.

Hey, win or lose, they gave us a ride.

No, it’s Maurice whose place in the game’s lore will be most defined by the numbers frozen on the Amerant Bank Arena Jumbotron over the shredded ice and tears.

The affable hockey lifer will either become the longest-serving coach in pro sports to win his first championship, or he will oversee the greatest title collapse of any living pro coach.

Couple that with Maurice’s dubious all-time NHL coaching record for most losses (736), and it’s a hell of an investment into 60 minutes (or more) when the guy’s feet won’t even touch the ice until it’s time to shake hands and swell up with grief or joy.

Pick one.

“Every coach is different,” Maurice said, on the day before his Cats began their leap to a 3-0 lead and two weeks before they’d let it settle at 3-3. “And it seems to me, as you age, you get a different perspective on life and what’s important and valuable.

“I need to win one.

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“Now, it’s not going to change the section of my life that’s not related to hockey at all. That’s the truth. That’s how I feel. I’m 30 years into this thing. Wouldn’t mind winning one.”

Maurice will tell you he believed his career was over and title-less when he and the Winnipeg Jets severed ties. He was fishing a bunch, sure. Enjoyed that. Yet he never reached “peaceful” in his failure to retire.

“But I understand what it feels like — to feel like it’s over and didn’t win. Didn’t win. I know coaches that feel the opposite,” he says.

“I carry the losses. But that goes back to starting very, very young. So, I’m going to know when this thing’s all over either how good I got or how good I was. And I won’t need somebody else to tell me that or to value my career.”

He pauses, thinks, and repeats his truth: “Yeah, I’d really like to win one, man.”

Let’s go back to starting very, very young and the nostalgia triggered by some media guy’s hat.

In 1995 — a few months before Florida’s leading goal-scorer, Sam Reinhart, was born — the up-and-coming Maurice guided his Detroit Jr. Red Wings to an OHL championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup final… where the host Kamloops Blazers waxed Maurice’s teenagers 8-2.

He’d shown enough to earn a promotion to the crummy Whalers that fall, where the 28-year-old became the second-youngest NHL coach in history, as the Draisaitls gave birth to a boy named Leon in Cologne, Germany.

Maurice’s first two trips to the final, with Carolina in 2002 and Florida in 2023, never got past Game 5. Heck, even he and Ralph Krueger’s overachieving Team Europe fell just short, to his native Canada, in the 2016 World Cup gold-medal game.

Neither Maurice’s regular-season points percentage (.536) nor his winning percentage in 11 post-seasons (.507) will wow you as much as his razor wit or his all-in devotion to the gig.

He freely admits that his work-life balance these days is as lopsided as playing teeter-totter with a sumo wrestler. But is that not the way it’s supposed to be when your team is skating past the solstice?

No Cup, and Maurice risks bowing out one day with a fistful of silver medals and a darn cool stat: youngest in NHL history to coach 1,000 games, which he achieved back in 2010.

Feelings that his own legacy hangs in the balance on a Monday night in Sunrise?

“I don’t fight them. If I did, it would have been after Game 3,” Maurice says. “You could just feel it; it was right there. Dropping the next two games puts you right back into the series, and it gets right back to hockey forefront. So, I don’t have to fight any of those thoughts. There’s no daydreaming. This is all: Get the video right. Prep your team right.”

The 57-year-old was but five when his Stanley Cup wish was broadcast from one of the three channels that would come in clear enough on the family TV set in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

“Saturday night for us, if we didn’t play hockey, our parents would take us skating. My mom would make a pot of spaghetti or chili. We watched hockey. You knew you were getting older because you could make it to the third period. That’s the way it was,” Maurice says.

“My mom would make popcorn with a half-pound of butter. The half glass of Coke you got was smeared with butter. There was salt everywhere. You’d get up the next morning and eat the rest of what your dad didn’t eat.”

Maybe Maurice was too young to appreciate those early years, but when he hit his mid-teens, the run-and-gun Oilers ruled his world. Didn’t hurt that Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey began stirring buzz as Greyhounds in the Soo.

“They used to play street hockey sometimes in the tennis courts across the street from my house,” Maurice says. “My parents still live there today. So, that was where it became the dream.”

Hang around this rock long enough, and you learn that plenty of dreams remain just that. Deferred indefinitely. Until you accept — or pretend to accept — they just weren’t meant to be.

Hours before Game 4 in Edmonton, when the Oilers had nine toes in the grave, Maurice was asked to think back one June ago, when his Panthers got crushed and inspired by their five-game Cup Final loss to Vegas.

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If someone had told Maurice on that gutting night that he’d be right back in the Final in 2024 with a 3-0 series lead, what would he think?

“I’d be really, really happy not to have heard that,” Maurice replied. “It would’ve made my life far worse to know that. You’d think that’s crazy, right?”

The coach eschews the comfort of knowledge.

“Because it would’ve taken every bit of joy, of adversity — of life — out of my life. The journey is where the friendships, all the funny stories that aren’t funny to anybody else that we think are hilarious, they happened in that year of not knowing,” Maurice says.

“The arduous pursuit of excellence without the guarantee of reward. I would absolutely not have wanted to know that.”

Just as none of us (gamblers excepted) want to know the result of Game 7. Or could possibly imagine how Maurice will feel as the buzzer blares.

Either way.

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