Winnipeg Jets fans are getting used to seeing Paul Maurice behind the team’s bench at MTS Centre. But while the 15,004 fans that pack the arena for each home game and the countless viewers on television are adjusting to the new face leading their team, three people have had the 47-year-old Maurice as a coach? their whole lives: His kids.
“In my off time, believe it or not, I’m at a lot of hockey rinks. Sometimes running practices for my kids’ teams and a lot of times, just being in the stands enjoying it. My off days usually involve two or three practices or games with my kids, so I’m spending a lot of time in the rinks,” Maurice said. Between his 16-year old daughter, and his two boys aged 15 and 13, Maurice has plenty of hockey to keep him busy away from MTS Centre.
“When I’m at their practices I’m thinking ‘man they should be doing something different, they could make this better, or they should talk about this,’ but at the games I’m able to laugh. When I go to the games, especially when they were 5, 6, or 7, that’s the purest form of hockey. I could stand up there and laugh at every one of the mistakes and enjoy them. When you’re on the bench it’s a complete opposite feeling. It’s a real good, believe it or not, a real good out for me, it kind of brings you back to your roots and reminds you why you like the game of hockey.”
Maurice’s love for hockey got him drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1985. But it wasn’t long after that he found himself behind a bench as a coach. One year after his final season as a player with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, Maurice took an assistant coaching job with the team in 1988. Fast forward to 1996, and the Sault Ste. Marie, ON native is making his first appearance as the head coach of the Hartford Whalers at 28 years old. Since then, his NHL coaching stops have included the Carolina Hurricanes (where he went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2001-02), the Toronto Maple Leafs, back to Carolina, and now with the Winnipeg Jets.
Maurice says his time in Toronto prepared him for the intense media and fan scrutiny also found in Winnipeg.
“It took me a while to realize when I say Mats Sundin is not playing well, that’s a three-day scrum at his locker,” said Maurice. But he says that passion for the game is what makes coaching in Canada so appealing. He recalls one of those passionate moments in the airport on his way to Winnipeg when he first got the job.
“I’m sitting in the Toronto airport. There are two 14-15 year-old ringette player girls and over in the corner is a TV talking about the coaching change. And off they go, they’re talking hockey,” he said. “Eventually they got to when the next game was, and they asked some people. I said ‘it’s Phoenix tomorrow night’. They asked ‘do you know who the new coach is?’ and I said ‘yup. I’ve met him.’ So we introduced ourselves. That’s Canada.”
It was the O Canada anthem that got Maurice’s attention during his debut with the Winnipeg Jets on January 13, 2014.
“It’s funny, the thing I love the most about it is when the fans sing the Canadian national anthem. I love that,” he said. “It sends chills down your spine. They’re loud and it really sets the tone. It makes you realize you’re home and you’re back in hockey country. That’s one of my favourite things.”
But Canada isn’t the only place Maurice has coached. He spent time during the 2012-13 season with the Kontinental Hockey League’s Magnitogorsk Metallurg in Russia.
“My time in Russia was absolutely spectacular professionally. The hockey is so much different over there. After two months I thought of every European/Russian player I ever had. I had totally underestimated what those guys went through,” said Maurice, who compiled a 27-13-12 record in Russia. “Not being able to speak the language is one thing. The food is different. Everything is different. But more importantly, what we teach and hold true and valuable here is not the same over there. These young guys come over, you’re going to ask as a coach for him to change his game when he’s done it for 18 years, been heralded as a great player coming out of Russia, and then after the two weeks when it’s not done you get mad at him and don’t like him.”
“The best part of the learning experience? How do you teach when you can’t communicate? How do you break down a concept to its simplest form to teach it when it’s not easy? There was enough English over there with some of our European and North American guys that it was made easier.”
Maurice returned home to be with his wife and three children after 52 games overseas. To start the 2013-14 season, he served as an analyst on TSN before the Winnipeg Jets came calling. There hasn’t been much down time for him since he took the job, but something about Winnipeg has made him feel at home.
“It looks a little bit like my hometown; a bit bigger version of Sault Ste. Marie. The people are friendly like that. The handful of times I’ve been out in public everyone is excited about the hockey team,” he said. “The difference maybe here to other places that I’ve coached, it seems very personal. The Jets are their team. They really feel a part of it and part of the ownership of the team. And that’s great. That’s the buy in you want from your fans.”
When the season ends and Maurice has some time to enjoy some time away from MTS Centre, he’s excited to go fishing. It’s a hobby he started a few years ago.
“I hear it’s pretty good around here so I’m looking forward to that,” he said with a laugh. “I enjoy that with my kids. As all parents, certainly people of my age know, as your kids change so do your interests because you’re basically interested in what they’re doing.”
For now though, his family and the fans in Winnipeg are interested in how the Winnipeg Jets are doing on the ice. Maurice knows there is no fooling the fans in the Manitoba capital when it comes to the on-ice product. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you’re standing behind the bench you can tell how in tune the crowd is by when they’re ooo-ing and ahh-ing. Here especially, they get it right,” he said. “They know when a penalty is a good one or bad one. They know the game, and they’re into the game here. It’s a different atmosphere. As a coach, that’s where you want to be. You want to be in a place that matters. And that’s what this is.”