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Players talk coach, culture before heading off to Anaheim

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG – Forty-eight hours from the start of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Winnipeg Jets couldn’t help but look back and reflect on what got them here.

Passion? Check. Talent? You bet. The grit and determination so poignantly defined by our city’s tough, not-for-the-weak mentality? Absolutely.

All of it needs a voice; a leader whose greatest strength among many lies in his ability to communicate, cultivate and motivate others.

Above all, he’s instrumental in establishing a culture.

“He changed everything,” Wheeler said of his veteran head coach, Paul Maurice.

“He’s the biggest factor looking at where we are today. He brought what we needed to the team. The way he communicates and the way he coaches was the perfect fit for our group. He’s making us realize what we are and what we’re not.”

Earlier this season, Maurice became the second-youngest coach in National Hockey League history to record 500 wins. Forty-seven at the time of the milestone – an 8-2 win over the visiting Florida Panthers – Maurice was two years and eight months older than the only one to do it faster, the legendary Scotty Bowman, who is the NHL’s all-time leader in wins. And on Apr. 9, 2015, on the road in Denver, Colorado – the night the Jets clinched a post-season berth – Maurice hit another
personal milestone, coaching in his 1,200th NHL game.

“Instantly when he says something, you know it’s validated,” Wheeler said, ascribing his coach’s performance to the wealth (over 26 years’ worth) of experience he has. “It’s hard to put your finger on what his best trait is as a coach, but he has a way of explaining things that as a hockey player, sometimes you don’t really think that way. It’s stuff like that that throughout an 82-game
season, it’s helped us become a group.

“It’s not always X’s and O’s. That’s a big part of it, too, of course, but he brought in an identity and a system that as long as we don’t get scored on, we’re going to have a chance to win every night. That’s what we’ve bought into here.”

And as a result, it’s arguably one of the most tightly knit groups in professional sports, the leaders – Maurice, captain Andrew Ladd, along with alternates Wheeler and Mark Stuart – offering a
comforting environment to learn, succeed and become one in the pursuit of a goal.

“Just goes to show the kind of group we have in here,” Drew Stafford, who, along with defenceman Tyler Myers, was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres back on Feb. 11. “It’s very welcoming, but at the same time we push each other. We care about each other’s well being, so guys reach out very
early on (after arriving), so guys understand what’s expected of them on and off the ice.”

Stafford finished the season with nine goals and 19 points in 26 games as a Jet and will now be returning the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

“I’ll always have a piece of my heart in Buffalo, but it was beneficial for me to move on,” Stafford said. “This is what I wanted to do – to come in here and contribute in any way possible to help get in the dance.

“So far, so good. And we’re just getting started.”

The Jets traveled to Anaheim following today’s practice at MTS Centre. Their Western Conference quarterfinal series with the Anaheim Ducks kicks off Thursday at 9:30pm CT (Sportsnet).

You’d better buckle up.

“It’s a whole lot more fun [coaching in the playoffs],” Maurice said. “You know how they say coaches need to get fired to re-charge their batteries? I think coaches need to make the playoffs to re-charge their batteries. Now you go, ‘Ah, this is what it’s all about!’ It’s grind for coaches as much as it for anyone.”

Not anymore. The Winnipeg Jets are just days away from competing for the Stanley Cup.

Let that sink in a little bit.

And let’s all enjoy the ride.

LATE HITS: Mathieu Perreault did not participate in practice again today, but he is expected to resume skating soon. “He’s getting better. He’ll get out on the ice and he may play (Thursday).
I expect him to play sooner rather than later,” Maurice said.

-- Ryan Dittrick,

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