It took Paul MacLean 18 years to prove he had what it took to be a coach in the NHL.
It took him exactly two years to prove he was the best one in the League.
MacLean helped the Senators overcome injuries to four of their best players this season to lead them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they upset the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens before bowing out in the second round to the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It was important that I continue to set the expectations of the team at a high level, but also be realistic about those expectations, not try to do things that we can't do, not try to play ways we can't play," MacLean said in a conference call with reporters Friday. "We tried to stay as real as we could game by game and give the players realistic expectations and a realistic way to play the game to have success."
The Jack Adams Award is given to "the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success," as selected by the NHL Broadcasters' Association.
MacLean traveled a long and winding road to reach the pinnacle of his profession.
After wrapping an 10-season career as a player in 1991, MacLean took his first coaching job in 1993 with the Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League. That led to minor-league stops with the Kansas City Blades of the IHL (1997-2000) and the Quad City Mallards of the United Hockey League (2000-02) before MacLean was hired by Anaheim Ducks general manager Bryan Murray to be an assistant to coach Mike Babcock in 2002.
That relationship as Babcock's assistant lasted nine years, moving to the Detroit Red Wings in 2005, before MacLean finally got his first shot as coach with the Senators on June 14, 2011 when Murray, now GM of the Senators, hired him again.
"I always felt I had the abilities to be a head coach in the National Hockey League, but I always understood that there was only 30 of those opportunities and that it was difficult to get one of them and that there were a lot of people just like me who thought they were qualified or were qualified," MacLean said. "I just wanted to make sure I tried to continue to try to learn and continued to work at being a coach, probably harder than I did at being a player."
MacLean lost top defenseman Erik Karlsson, top center Jason Spezza, top goaltender Craig Anderson and top goal-scorer from the previous season Milan Michalek, all in a span of a little over two weeks.
And it was only mid-February.
"We had more than 40 games to play when we lost everybody, so we just couldn't have an excuse," MacLean said. "There were too many games to play, and we had to make sure that we found a way to get something out of the season. At that point in time we didn't know what we would get out of it, but we knew we would try to get growth out of it and try to get opportunity for as many young players as we could."
MacLean coaxed those young players to try to fill the voids left by the loss of the injured stars, and the Senators managed to maintain their position among the top eight in the Eastern Conference throughout the season, ultimately finishing seventh to earn a date with the Canadiens in the playoffs.
It was not an easy task, and ultimately MacLean's ability to keep the Senators afloat amid that turbulence was what won over the voters.
"His leadership has been something we definitely needed as an organization," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "We were kind of going backwards and he came in and steadied the ship and got us going in the right direction."
As a result of MacLean trusting his young players enough to put them in difficult situations perhaps a little earlier than normal, the Senators are poised to become one of the top teams in the East because the development of those players was accelerated under MacLean this season.
He realizes he's raised the bar high for himself, but winning the Jack Adams Award gives MacLean a great sense of satisfaction after waiting so long to run an NHL bench.
"When I got the opportunity, all the work that I'd put in to being a coach I think has paid off," MacLean said. "I was ready for it. I'm not really overwhelmed by the position at the age that I am (55) and the experience that I have.
"All the times I was thinking I could do this, now this kind of gives me the credibility that I was right, I could coach in the League. Now I'm just scared to freaking death, so I've got to do it again."
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