When Paul Maurice takes his usual spot behind the bench for tonight’s game at Washington, he will have already made history. If he maintains his current pace, he may just be getting started.
The Hurricanes’ Sunday evening match-up in Washington will be Maurice’s 1,000th game as a head coach in the NHL. He will become just the 19th person to ever reach that milestone, and at just 43 years of age, he’ll also become the youngest, beating Brian Sutter’s previous mark by four years.
Maurice was the league’s youngest head coach for eight seasons after his debut with the Hartford Whalers in 1996. Amazingly, 14 years later, he can claim seniority over just six of his peers as he coaches No. 1,000, something only five other active coaches, all of whom are at least six years older than Maurice, have accomplished. To help illustrate that point, consider that his counterpart on Sunday, Washington’s Bruce Boudreau, coached his first NHL game at the age of 52.
“It’s not on your radar,” said Maurice of if he ever expected to reach this point when he coached his first NHL game at the tender age of 28. “There are so many twists and turns, and then, boom, it’s upon you.”
Having broken the record of youngest 1,000-game coach by such a wide margin, with a little luck, the all-time mark is within his reach. If he were to keep a regular job behind the bench for approximately 14 more seasons, he would hit the record of 2,141 held by the great Scotty Bowman. Bowman got his first NHL gig at 34 and only missed five seasons until he retired in 2002 at the age of 68.
How did Maurice get to this point? The first and most obvious reason is his early start. Although drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1985, his playing career ended just three years later due to an eye injury, allowing him to join the coaching ranks with the Ontario Hockey League’s Jr. Red Wings in 1993.
He would coach just two seasons in the OHL before Jr. Red Wings owner Peter Karmanos brought him to Hartford to join his new team, the Whalers, as a 27-year-old assistant. Maurice acknowledged that being younger than many of his players – in his first season as a head coach, seven of his players held that distinction – was somewhat awkward.
“During Brad McCrimmon’s first year pro, I was in the 7th grade,” he said. “There was a little bit of a gap there.”
To start young was one thing, but he’s been able to rack up the games due to the fact that he’s been behind an NHL coach nearly every day since. Other than a one-year stint with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies and parts of the 2003-04 and 2008-09 seasons, when he was let go and re-hired by the Hurricanes, respectively, his NHL coaching career has been largely uninterrupted.
Those factors have allowed him to obtain a level of experience that no other coach his age can boast. Compare him to San Jose’s Todd McLellan, who was regarded as a rising young star when he came into the league in 2008-09. He’s only nine months younger than Maurice, and has coached 813 fewer games.
“I honestly haven’t given it much thought except for the occasional realization that it feels like an awfully long time ago,” said Maurice. “I wouldn’t say it went by fast, because you live every single one of those games.”
Along the way, Maurice has seen a little bit of everything. He’s coached teams old and young, bad and good, and has been fired and hired mid-season. Players he’s had for years at various points in their careers respect him and his ability to be sensitive to their specific needs.
“As a young player coming in, he was really good for me,” said Eric Staal, the Hurricanes’ now-26-year-old captain who played his first NHL game for Maurice at age 18. “He put me in a position to succeed but started me slow to really build my confidence. When I was playing well and deserved more, he gave me more.”
In two seasons, Maurice has gone from one extreme to the other in terms of the team as his disposal. In 2009-10, he entered the campaign with the league’s oldest team, and now has one of its youngest. That’s nothing new to Maurice, who can draw on his experience with longtime players such as Erik Cole as he works with the likes of Jeff Skinner today.
To that point, Cole recalled one instance that took place in his rookie year of 2001, when, at a team meeting, Maurice used a play Cole had made the previous game as an example of what not to do.
“I got called back to his office right after,” recalled Cole, who was 22 at the time. “It was in October, so I thought I was getting sent to the minors. He told me that he wouldn’t have put me on the video if he thought I couldn’t handle it. He said, “You’re playing fine, don’t sulk because I put you on the video in front of the team. Now get your bleep out there, get dressed and I’ll see you at practice.’”
“As I’ve matured as a player, my relationship with him is one that’s grown,” continued Cole, now a 32-year-old veteran on this year’s team. “He can throw jabs at me without having to worry about how I’m going to react or anything like that. I can go in and talk to him on any given day about whatever I want to.”
None of this is to suggest that Maurice is perfect and he’s not still learning. Cole and Staal, who worked with him before and after his tenure in a very different Toronto market, noticed positive changes in his demeanor. That’s one of the many experiences that have and will continue to shape him as a coach.
“To be quite honest with you, I feel like I’m just coming into it,” said Maurice. “I’m just getting to that feeling where I’m comfortable now. A thousand games is so much experience, but I was so young and I needed it to get to the point where you feel like you’ve seen enough positive and negative situations to handle them when they arise.”