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Muller's rise in coaching ranks about accountability

Wednesday, 10.24.2012 / 9:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Muller's rise in coaching ranks about accountability
To understand what Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller is all about, you only need to know about the principles of the 14-letter word that has defined him since his playing days.

To understand what Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller is all about, you apparently need to know only one word:

Accountability.

* It's what Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said he saw from his team last season after Muller took over and led the Hurricanes to a 25-20-12 record, including 20-12-10 after Jan. 1.

* It's the word New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello used when he was asked to describe Muller's best attribute -- both as a player and from what he's seen from him as a coach.

* It's how former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko described Muller's captaincy in New Jersey from 1987-91.

* It's partly why ex-Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau hired him in 2006 to help work the bench, where Muller stayed for five seasons.

"Players don't want to go talk to the head coach. They want to go to the assistant coach because they can complain a little bit more. But Kirk understands when to be funny and loose, and when it's time to be tight and serious. That's something that you can't teach." -- Guy Carbonneau

* It's exactly what Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton witnessed during Muller's brief 16-game stint in the American Hockey League as the coach of their affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.

"I tell my players, you've got to understand that you're not going to be great every night, but there are things I expect from you every night and that's just to compete and play hard, be a part of a team that makes people say, 'Man they're hard to play against,'" Muller told NHL.com. "It's not rocket science."

It may not be rocket science, but living up to the principles of that 14-letter word -- accountability -- has delivered Muller through a hockey career that includes 19 NHL seasons as a player, one full season as a college coach in Canada, five seasons as an assistant behind the Canadiens bench, a handful of games as a coach in the American Hockey League.

Now, he is back in the NHL as a 46-year-old up-and-comer in a position he never could have predicted for himself.

Becoming Coach Muller

Muller was accountable as a teammate, but he used to laugh when Jacques Demers would tell him he would one day coach in the NHL.

"I was like, 'I'm not going to coach,' but he would say, 'Oh, yes you will,' " Muller said. "I never thought, 'I'd like to coach when I'm done playing.' Despite what they said to me I was like, 'Nope, not me.' "

So how did he become a coach?

Well, it comes right back to that notion of accountability that has governed Muller's career.

Upon retiring in 2003, Muller was told by Bob Gainey, the Dallas Stars GM at the time, to take a year off to formulate a post-playing career. Muller returned to his hometown, Kingston, Ontario, to unwind and start planning.

Instead, he got a call from Queens University, the school in his back yard. The university needed a known commodity, somebody important in the community to help change the course of its struggling hockey program.

Muller not only accepted the position, he dug in.

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"I decided that would be a really cool challenge," said Muller, a husband and father to four daughters. "It forced me to work. In Canadian university hockey you wear a lot of hats. That really made me challenge myself to see if it's something I really liked. When you're getting there at 7 in the morning and are there until 7 at night, I loved it. That's when I really confirmed that's what I wanted to do."

Muller still went to see Lamoriello, the former coach and athletic director at Providence College, just to be sure.

Lamoriello told NHL.com, albeit subtly, that he always thought Muller would be a coach if he wanted to go that route. His conversation with Muller in 2006 reinforced that notion.

"When he made a decision that he was going to go coach in college, knowing what he had to go through with the recruiting end of it and teaching, how much he enjoyed it and felt good about what he was doing, and us keeping in touch ... I felt so strong about Kirk then as I do now," Lamoriello said. "He had to build it. He had to do everything and he was willing to do that. That's why I have so much respect for him. He was willing to start it and he felt good about it and he did a great job. I know because I followed him. He worked the scheduling. He did all the things necessary.

"He was accountable."

Just as he was when he was a player, first with New Jersey as a young captain of a tight-knit, up-and-coming team, then as a Stanley Cup champion in Montreal. When Muller was asked to change his playing style, to go from a high-scorer to a defensive-minded forward, he found a way to successfully make the transition and nearly won the Stanley Cup again with Dallas in 2000.

"Any time you're a captain in this League, and Kirk was at a very young age, you're a guy who works hard, a guy that competes, and that in itself has to rub off on players," Daneyko told NHL.com. "Those are things that add up to accountability. I know playing with him, he had that accountability because he held himself accountable. He cared. He took that responsibility."

Communicator Kirk

But how does Muller get his message of accountability across to his players?

He just tells them.

"He's got something that I don't have," Carbonneau told NHL.com. "He can talk."

Muller's communication skills and accountability as a teammate convinced Carbonneau to yank him out of the Queens University program and bring him back to Montreal prior to the 2006-07 season.

Carbonneau, who won the Cup with Muller in 1993, preferred to find an ex-defenseman to coach the Canadiens' blueliners, but Muller's name kept popping up in the coaching search.

When Doug Jarvis said he would coach the defensemen, Carbonneau finally felt comfortable hiring Muller. Carbonneau admits Muller was "not the perfect candidate," but he certainly filled the criteria as a former player who was respected, had a strong work ethic and, without question, displayed powerful communication skills.

"I said I would earn my stripes however I would have to. I knew if I was going to get a job in the NHL, I had to be ready. You don't take a job and have people say they're going to work with you and help you ease in with the results."
-- Kirk Muller

"Players don't want to go talk to the head coach. They want to go to the assistant coach because they can complain a little bit more," Carbonneau said. "But Kirk understands when to be funny and loose, and when it's time to be tight and serious. That's something that you can't teach.

"I always say this about Kirk -- he can go into a bus full of strangers and an hour later he'll know everybody, they'll be around him and they'll all be laughing. That's a gift. But, more than being funny and fair, sometimes you have to make decisions that won't make some players happy, and he has that ability too."

Muller said he gets to practice his communication skills at home.

"Honestly, I have four daughters and it's just the same as relating to them," he said. "You need to spend a lot more time with the new generation on communication. An example would be is they look to you to evaluate their game more than we did as a generation. They want more answers. They ask more questions. They want instant feedback. In order to do that, you have to get their trust, be there with them, socialize with them."

Fenton said the Milwaukee players last season would comment about how prepared they were under Muller, largely because of how he communicated with them.

"He just had a way of being able to talk to them, show them and then have them apply it," Fenton told NHL.com. "The command that I could see he would get from his players was the most attractive thing for me."

Muller spent five seasons crafting his communication skills as a coach and learning more about today's NHL player as an assistant with Montreal.

He survived the coaching change from Carbonneau to Jacques Martin in 2009, and was the key architect of the game plan Montreal used to beat both the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins en route to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

All the while, Rutherford was paying attention.

Kirk Muller led the Hurricanes to a 25-20-12 record, including 20-12-10 after Jan. 1. (Photo: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI)

"It's not like I phoned somebody and said, 'Tell me about Kirk Muller,'" Rutherford told NHL.com. "I just researched the people in my position in the League. I do it on a regular basis, talk about different people when I go into different buildings. It's me doing my homework. I did that over the years with Kirk.

"As part of my job, I make a little list of things you might need to do in the future, and coaching is the key area for success of a team. I followed Kirk's career."

Before Rutherford could get to him, Nashville did.

Proving Demers right

Muller -- the same guy who once laughed at Demers for even insinuating he would become a coach -- knew for sure he was ready to become a head coach after the Canadiens' Stanley Cup Playoff run in 2010.

Those two seven-game series wins against Washington and Pittsburgh gave Muller the confidence he needed.

All he needed now was an opportunity. That it came in the American Hockey League more than a year after the Canadiens' remarkable playoff run suited Muller just fine.

"I said I would earn my stripes however I would have to," Muller said. "I knew if I was going to get a job in the NHL, I had to be ready. You don't take a job and have people say they're going to work with you and help you ease in with the results."

Muller coached 16 games with the Admirals, winning 10, before Rutherford hired Muller to replace Paul Maurice on Nov. 28, 2011.

The reaction Rutherford got within 48 hours reaffirmed the belief he had in his new guy.

"Within a couple of days I had two calls from other teams saying, 'You're lucky you got him because if we had to make a coaching change that was our choice,'" Rutherford said. "That, to me, is an important endorsement."

When the NHL returns, it'll be up to Muller to build on his start in Carolina, to continue to prove himself and turn his team -- one that hasn't made the playoffs since 2009 -- into the contender its beefed-up roster suggests it should be.

What can his players expect from him?

You guessed it ...

"Probably the biggest word," Muller said, "is accountability."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl

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