Paul Maurice was the youngest coach in professional sports when he first stepped foot on North Carolina’s red clay as the head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. His other job description, whether in his contract or implied, was selling the NHL and teaching those few who would listen at the time how exciting and thrilling the fastest game in town could be.
Maurice faced more green seats in Greensboro than fans on most nights, and his first stint behind the bench had its turbulent ups and downs. The coach younger than half his players encountered some major success, like the incredible 2002 Stanley Cup playoff run, but his exit after inconsistent play in December 2003 was met mostly with fan approval.
A stint in the minors and then a promotion to the toughest market in the league for two unsuccessful years – Toronto – didn’t sour the somewhat still youthful Maurice on his profession. Not that he didn’t think twice when Jim Rutherford rang this past season and asked for a huge favor, one that Maurice weighed heavily before returning to Raleigh to coach the Canes for a second time.
The team and its fans, who now expect playoff success after capturing hockey’s Holy Grail in 2006, was floundering at .500 in December 2008 and the RBC reception for Mo was lukewarm – to say the least – almost five years to the day after he was first fired. Maurice may have been the last coach the Caniacs would have expected Rutherford to try to return the club to glory.
“The unusual way of coming in was a surprise to a lot of people and there wasn’t the original standing ovation, if you get the idea,” Maurice said Monday just hours after inking a three-year contract with the club. “It seemed like when I got here we were on the road for six weeks, we were struggling and almost didn’t want to come together as a group that we felt we could be. Then slowly it started to turn. And when it turned there was a good feeling for everybody.”
A strange thing happened over the final 35 games of the regular season and into another deep playoff run for what is now regarded as one of the elite franchises in the sport. Cam Ward began stopping every bit of rubber thrown his way, Eric Staal was rejuvenated, role players like Chad LaRose rose to new heights and Maurice’s system of defensive responsibility became the team’s mantra.
So, Rutherford’s easiest offseason decision was finalized just weeks after the Canes bowed out in the Eastern Conference finals to the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, signing Maurice to a contract and keeping the rest of his impressive coaching staff, which includes Ron Francis and Tom Barrasso -- both of whom received expanded roles in new deals.
“Once we got into the playoffs it because more and more obvious that Paul and this coaching staff was respected by the players and bought into what was being taught to them, and this was a staff I hoped we could go forward with,” Rutherford said.
“Paul had as tough a task as any coach in the National Hockey League when he first came here,” added Rutherford. “It’s not easy moving a team, and going to a market where you’re not actually playing in your home town. That was tough, so there were some tough assignments when he was here before. But the break away from here was good for him. He coached in the minors and that gives a whole other perspective on our game and the players, and then he leaped from the minors to probably the toughest market for a hockey coach to be in Toronto. Whether things are good or bad you learn a lot from that experience. He’s matured into a better coach than he already was.”
As a young coach, Maurice was likely pushing harder than he had to every day to prove his worth, to prove he belonged. He admits he’s more relaxed now, allowing for better relationships with players and staff.
“Early on I was pretty sure that every goal that we gave up or every loss we had there was something I did specifically and you realize now that you are just a piece of a team,” Maurice said. “An important part, but at the same time just a piece of that. Having people around you with experience and expertise, you need to use those people. I am far more open to using the staff around me than at any time in the past.”
Married and with three kids approaching middle school age, Maurice may not have been so willing to jump at another NHL job so soon. In fact, having already lived in the Triangle once before helped sell the former Canes coach at another attempt at a long stay in Raleigh.
“We certainly sat for a long time and talked about the impact of going anywhere,” Maurice said of his family. “My kids are getting to an age now that I don’t want to be moving them all over the place and in the last four years, and there were roots here in Toronto. If it hadn’t of been just right I wouldn’t have gone.”
But Maurice is comfortable with his good friend Rutherford, and the pieces are in place for potential deep playoff runs in the near future. Maurice was upbeat about his new contract and called coaching in the NHL “a gift” after leading Carolina to a 33-19-5 regular-season finish and playoff upsets of division winners New Jersey and Boston.
“It’s the best hockey league in the world and it’s such an exciting sport, and I enjoy it more,” Maurice said. “I don’t feel the pressure the same way that I used to. Every game is not life and death. You have kids and you deal with more serious problems, so that changes your view. I work harder at it now than when I was younger, but at the same time I found a way to enjoy it a lot more.”
I have met few men in professional sports as sincere as Maurice, or a coach more willing to share his true feelings about a game without giving away trade secrets. His honestly with the players paid off this past season, and will into the future. And at 41 and a veteran of nearly 400 NHL wins, Maurice is no longer looking over his shoulder for approval or an ax to fall.
The Canes inked a smart coach, a loyal solider and dedicated student of the game. If the team suited up today, players would be tapping their sticks on the boards in universal approval – and with good reason.
“I use the people around me better than I did before,” Maurice said. “I don’t micro-manage things as much as I used to … which allows me to spend more time with the players and get to know them a little bit better. That helps build a stronger relationship with them.”
And team chemistry we all relished over the final four months of the 2008-09 season.