The shocking taste of some old-time medicines were often as bitter and appalling as the illness you were trying to fight off. Those of you in your 40s, 50s and beyond know what I’m talking about. Opening your mouth was half the battle.
The bitter pill the Carolina Hurricanes’ fan base faced came in December 2008 when owner Peter Karmanos and General Manager Jim Rutherford rummaged around in the medicine cabinet for a few months in an attempt to fix a “sick” hockey team and came up with a remedy of none other than Paul MauriceThe rehiring of Maurice was generally met with murmuring curiosity, and even more disturbing at games was a chorus of boos every time his name was announced.
After taking the Canes to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002, Maurice failed to land Carolina back in the playoffs, and after his ouster from Raleigh, wasn’t able to rescue the high-profile Toronto Maple Leafs out of their postseason drought in two seasons either.
So, why not replace Peter Laviolette, who won it all here in 2006, with some fresh blood, and not Maurice, who fans viewed as a defensive-minded coach with little flash?
That’s where intricate knowledge of a human being comes into play, a major edge Rutherford has on all of us when it comes to Maurice, who he’s not bashful about calling his best friend.
However, still to this day, Rutherford admits the rehiring of Maurice was a bit “unconventional.”
“People that form opinions on coaches are people who really don’t have enough knowledge. It’s not always somebody’s record, it’s not always someone who has lost their job, it’s more about what they do with what they have,” Rutherford said. “The fact of the matter is Paul has been a good coach for a long, long time, and in professional sports you don’t coach someplace forever. Toronto was a tough place to coach but it was probably the best experience you can get. It certainly will make you a better person and a better coach.
“When I looked at what I felt needed to be done with our team, there wasn’t any better person who could do that than Paul,” he added. “But when I say that I didn’t know for sure how long it would take to bring some things together. But fortunately it came together at the right time and it was a good run for our team. Certainly this has put us in a position to be a good team again.”
For once in his playing and coaching career it appears Maurice has some momentum to work with, with a talented team coming off a run to the Eastern Conference Finals he helped orchestrate with a 33-19-5 regular-season finish.
And if you can hang your hat on anything with Maurice, it’s the fact he’s a battler and a man of character. And now at 42, and not the youngest coach in professional sports as he once was with the Hartford Whalers and later the Canes, a passionate preacher of hockey work ethic and responsibility, along with a balance of dry humor and fun.
“He’s more relaxed in his own skin, you can just tell,” said captain Rod Brind’Amour, who played under Maurice when he was traded to Carolina in January 2000. “Being a head coach now for so long he’s comfortable with what he’s preaching. He knows he’s confident in what he’s saying is the right way and he’s portraying that differently than he did before. It’s like, ‘this will work, believe in me and we’ll get it done.’
“I only knew him the first time where it was 24-7 total grizzle,” added Brind’Amour. “He seems a lot more comfortable and that just filters down. If the guys see the coaches having more fun or are a little more relaxed it makes everybody a little more relaxed.”
Rutherford first took an interest in Maurice when he was a teenager with the Windsor Spitfires, a junior hockey team in Canada. It didn’t take Maurice long to make a lasting impression.
“The relationship probably started fairly strong for a manager-player right off the bat because Paul lost his eye in his first game,” Rutherford said. “Then we got together for the year-end banquet where he spoke at 17 years old and sounded like a polished politician who was running for prime minister. I thought: ‘You know, there is a guy that really has a future in the game.’
“That was really the start of me watching him close. Paul and I have had a friendship and I would consider him my best friend, but it’s not like a relationship that most people have with friends. It’s not like we’re hanging out all the time. We do go to dinner together, but during the season I very seldom have dinner with him. He’s with the coaches, he goes his way, I’m the manager and I try to stay out of the way. It’s a real interesting friendship, but I will say that if I had a big problem he would be one of the first guys I would call to ask advice.”
Or see if he wants a job, like in 1988, when Rutherford offered Maurice an assistant coaching job in junior hockey at the age of 20. Or in 1995, when Maurice was elevated to assistant coach of the Whalers, then to head coach at 28.
Maurice’s accomplishments during the difficult Greensboro years of the franchise often go unappreciated by most. However, Maurice was a key figure in ushering hockey into a somewhat resistant Southern market, and to this day, remains a media favorite, not only here, but across the NHL.
“That was a very unique situation and Paul was dealing with issues that no other coach in the league was dealing with,” Rutherford said. “For the most part he stepped up in a situation that could have easily unraveled. He did an exceptional job. That’s the point I make about coaching records, that wasn’t about wins and losses, that was about keeping 22 guys together and keep them focused enough to be competitive.
“Paul played a huge role in the growth of hockey in North Carolina. He was well spoken, he was positive about the game, and that kind of goes unnoticed by a lot of people. He was very patient.”
Ask Maurice about the Greensboro years and he still can joke about the journeys down Interstate 40 and the small locker rooms. Equally amusing to himself now was his coaching style, which has matured into a more balanced approach.
“You get to understand that the players have kids and what they go through with that, and when you are a real young coach you have a tendency to make sure everybody knows you’re serious and you grind every single day,” Maurice said. “When you get a little older you realize that effort is the one thing that you have to demand and when it is there that you can enjoy the rest of the game.”
Like Brind’Amour, Aaron Ward, who returned to Carolina in an offseason trade, played for Maurice during his first stint here. Ward kept in contact with Maurice through the years out of respect for a man who gave him a bigger defensive role on the ice and in the locker room. Ward, too, sees a subtle difference is his boss.
“He has always had a sense of humor, but I think it’s more in the forefront right now,” Ward said. “It’s not a confidence thing, but he just seems more at ease. He’s got a very matter-of-fact approach to the game and I think it’s good because when you have 20 odd guys in the locker room simplicity is a good component to have. If everybody is on the same page from the onset then usually success follows. It’s a very comforting thing."
“I don’t care who you are – a player or a coach – if you go through experiences they are going to jade you one way or another,” added Brind’Amour. “There was so much pressure on him in Toronto. After being there and coming here he probably feels like this is heaven.”
To Rutherford, there’s no secret why certain coaches, like Maurice, cling to NHL longevity, while others fade away. “Paul has the ability to pick out what’s not going right and deal with it sooner than later,” Rutherford said. “Some coaches just know how to coach a certain way. Coaches like Paul are willing to adapt and to make changes. That’s why he was with the Hurricanes as long as he was and that’s why he’s going to be one of those few coaches in the NHL who is going to win 500 games.”