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The Journey to 1,500

by Mitchell Clinton

Paul Maurice remembers the conversation well. After all, he and Jim Rutherford had this particular chat more than once.

Maurice was 28-years-old working as an assistant coach with Rutherford's Hartford Whalers, who had opened the 1995-96 season with a 5-6-1 record.

Maurice was in his first season behind an NHL bench after spending nine years in the Ontario Hockey League. Two of those seasons were spent as a head coach.

But Hartford's struggles meant it was time for a change behind the bench. When Paul Holmgren was relieved of his duties, General Manager Rutherford approached Maurice, again.

"I think I turned the job down three times. I knew I wasn't ready to coach in the NHL," Maurice said, adding Rutherford was adamant that Maurice coaching the Whalers was the right move to make.

"(He said) 'Clearly Paul, we're not a very good team. We're not going to be for two or three years, but you probably won't be a very good coach for two or three years. But we're going to support you and grow together."

So, on Nov. 7, 1995, Maurice stepped behind the Whalers bench as the head coach for the first time. His Hartford squad beat the San Jose Sharks 7-3 in his debut.

 

 

Just don't ask him to recall much of that night.

"I remember almost nothing about the game because I wasn't even watching it," said Maurice. "I was just trying to get my forward lines on the ice and not mess that up. It was a tumultuous two or three days.

"I can't tell you anything about the game, because in truth, I never really processed it."

Now almost 25 years later, Maurice is making sure he takes the time to process another career milestone - his 1,500th career game. Ironically enough, it will also be against the San Jose Sharks, who are coached by Maurice's close friend Peter DeBoer.

"I've hit a bunch (of milestones) in the past and it hasn't really had any effect on me. A bunch of them I found out after," said Maurice, who will be the sixth coach all-time to hit 1,500 games.

"This one, 1,500 seems like a big number to me," he said. "You do have a tendency then to reflect on that - when you started, how long ago it's been, how many things have changed over the years."

What hasn't changed is Maurice's relationship with DeBoer. During Maurice's first head coaching job with the Detroit Junior Red Wings in 1993, DeBoer (who was 25-years-old at the time, one year younger than Maurice) served as an assistant coach.

"I remember us both looking at each other kind of pinching ourselves. I was 25 and he was 26 and he had been an assistant coach for already six years at that point. He's the epitome of a lifetime coach. He loved coming to the rink even then," DeBoer said, adding that the two made it to the Memorial Cup in 1995.

"We had upset some teams getting there. We weren't supposed to win. We beat Jeff O'Neill and Todd Bertuzzi in the OHL Final," DeBoer said. "We got to the Memorial Cup and played Kamloops in the Memorial Cup Final. Their starting line-up was (Shane) Doan, Jarome Iginla, and Darcy Tucker. It was 7-1 before we looked up. That was probably the worst beating the two of us took behind the bench."

The relationship between DeBoer and Maurice stayed strong throughout the years. While that never changed, a lot did over Maurice's years behind the bench - including the location of the first NHL team he ever coached.

The Whalers finished that 1995-96 campaign going 29-33-8 under Maurice and followed that up in 1996-97 with a 32-39-11 record, two points short of a playoff spot. That second season was also the first time Maurice was named to the NHL All-Star Game, which was held - where else - in San Jose.

 

 

Even with that nomination, Maurice was still trying to find confidence in the fact he belonged in the league as a head coach, despite his age.

"There is the All-Star picture where I'm sitting between Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and I'm feeling so out of place at that time," Maurice said. "Even in my first year, I think we went 5-4-1 in January and it was the first winning month that franchise had in three or four years. We had a long way to go."

The next season, the Whalers moved to Carolina and became the Hurricanes.

Maurice was retained as the team's head coach - as was Rutherford as the General Manager - and helped guide the team to its first playoff berth in Carolina in 1998-99. They lost in six games to the Boston Bruins that season, but it was a sign of growth for Maurice and the franchise.

In 2000-01, the Hurricanes returned to the postseason, falling to the New Jersey Devils (who went on to the Stanley Cup Final) in the first round.

The following season, it was Carolina's turn.

The Hurricanes beat the Devils in the first round of the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs, took care of the Montreal Canadiens in the second round, and eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Conference Final.

They'd come up short against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, but the playoff run was an incredible sign of growth for the franchise Maurice had been with for seven seasons.

"(Rutherford) really took a franchise that on hockey, wasn't very good at all. It was probably harder for Jim to build than an expansion team," Maurice recalled. "All those things being said, when I think back now, encourage would be the word - or insanity - to put a 28-year-old kid with no experience behind your bench. The story here is the support I got from him, the mentorship that I got from him, through those times was critical.

"It was touch-and-go just about every night, it felt like, for me. But he was always there to support, to direct, and to mentor. I would not be here today if it wasn't for him."

Maurice's first stint with the Hurricanes came to an end in the 2003-04 season. He'd return to Raleigh and the Hurricanes midway through the 2008-09 campaign for another four seasons.

His work there still amazes current Jets assistant coach Jamie Kompon, who began his coaching career in 1997-98 with the St. Louis Blues.

"I don't believe he gets enough recognition. The years he spent in Carolina (and) Hartford organizations and what he did for that organization to help build their franchise down there and establish them, and help build that team toward their lone Stanley Cup speaks volumes," said Kompon. "I've always been in the Western Conference, then getting to work with him on a daily basis - it doesn't surprise me that he's at 1,500 (games) and he's still a young guy so he's got a long way to go."

Before Maurice would come to share a bench with Kompon, there would be more years of coaching against him, even if they were in different conferences.

After leaving the Hurricanes, Maurice spent a year as the head coach of the Toronto Marlies, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That was his only season in the AHL, as the 39-year-old Maurice was named the head coach of the Maple Leafs to start the 2006-07 season. He spent two seasons in one of Canada's most heavily covered hockey markets, an experience he said helped him later in his career.

"It's an iconic team. Everybody grew up watching them as a kid," said Maurice, who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, 700 kilometres from Toronto.

"One of the best years I've ever had coaching was my first year in Toronto. We missed the playoffs by one point, but we were at about 350 man-games (lost to injury)," Maurice said of the team that finished with a 40-31-11 record.

"We hung in the fight and lost in game 82 - we won our 82, but the team that beat us won theirs.

"I would say I probably learned more about things non-hockey related as to how important they are in the room, understanding the effect that a Canadian market can have on a hockey team that has been important here. I enjoyed so much of it."

The 2007-08 season would be Maurice's last in Toronto, though his second stint with the Hurricanes began part way through the 2008-09 campaign.

Fast forward to January 2014 - following a year of coaching Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League - and Maurice is putting pen to paper as the new head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.

 

KHL Paul Maurice coach hockey card

 

Assistant coach Charlie Huddy had been with the Jets since the start of the 2011 season, when the team relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta.

He knew of Maurice, but hadn't spent any significant length of time with him up until that point.

"You never know when a new coach comes in if you're the right fit for him, or if he's worked with other guys that he might want to bring in," Huddy said. "For whatever reason, we fit together and fortunately I've been able to be here from the start with him."

The Jets finished that season going 18-12-5 under Maurice, but even with that success, there was no guarantee that Maurice would be there to start the next season.

General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff took care of that, signing Maurice to a four-year contract extension on Apr. 16, 2014.

Maurice said at the time it was a short conversation with his family when deciding whether to move his wife, Michelle, and three kids to the Manitoba capital.

"We go back to my first day in here. I walked in the room here and it's been that way ever since. I felt like I fit," Maurice said. "I understood the group. I understood even the market, what it's like to work in Canada and how important this team is."

Blake Wheeler was an alternate captain when Maurice arrived. Since that season, Wheeler has recorded career-highs in assists (68 in 2017-18) and points (91 in 2017-18). Those point totals are a credit to Wheeler's work ethic, but Wheeler also credits his relationship with Maurice for helping him become a better player and a two-time NHL All-Star.

"He's always been able to get the most out of his players, most out of his teams, it's certainly true in my case as well," said Wheeler. "He has the respect of the guys because he tries to be relatable.

"He tries to treat each individual as if they have an important role on the team. Whether it's been good, bad, or ugly he has a relationship with the guys that there is some sort of investment. So when he needs to be hard on a guy or say some things to a guy, they know it's not personal. They know it comes from a good place."

The Jets finished the 2014-15 season with a 43-26-13 record, and similar to his first season in Toronto, Maurice and his team had to deal with the injury bug.

At one point, the roster was missing five of six regular defencemen. But the team endured and clinched its first playoff spot since relocation.

All it took were shutout wins on the road over the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues in games 79 and 80, followed by a shootout loss in Colorado in game 81.

"We got through all of that stretch (injures on the blue line), and I recognize we had some really strong leadership in the room," said Maurice. "It was difficult to survive. Having not been a great team, to find the character and the courage to grind games out when you're so undermanned."

In Maurice's mind, it was also that season where Wheeler took the next step as a leader on the ice and in the dressing room.

"His game was so consistent. He played in pain. He was injured. We had a lot of great performances," said Maurice. "You see players like Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Lowry start to drive very young. But that's where Blake Wheeler started to build the foundation of his captaincy here and his impact on our room."

The Jets were swept by the Anaheim Ducks in four games that season. The following two years, the roster Maurice coached every night was injected with youth and increased talent. Players like Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Patrik Laine, and Connor Hellebuyck joined Scheifele, Trouba, and Lowry as young players learning how to be consistent at the NHL level.

Veterans such as Wheeler, Bryan Little, and Dustin Byfuglien bought into the retooling of the roster. It wasn't always easy, but Maurice believed there was an important lesson in those two seasons.

"As a head coach, part of your leadership is to teach your team how to endure - when you have those injuries that we had, you get up every day, take care of that day, and you scratch and claw to get a little bit better," said Maurice. "That helped me in the years two, three of my time here. Now we have a very young and very talented room."

As part of teaching that young roster, Kompon and Todd Woodcroft joined Maurice's coaching staff for the start of the 2016-17 season.

Kompon recalls the conversation he had with Maurice prior to being hired.

"There was a calmness, an easiness to our conversation. It wasn't that we were grilling each other about different things. It was just free flowing. It was about family, it was about hockey, it was about life. It was about everything," said Kompon. "There was such an ease to it, it was like I've known him my whole life. There was something about that. He makes you feel that way. You can see it in the room."

It's evident in the relationship between the coaches as well. The work day begins bright and early, usually around 6 a.m., and goes until the wee hours of the night on game day.

"We have a lot of interesting conversations about the game and how we can make our team better and improve every day," said Huddy. "The biggest thing is you're learning something different every day from him. He's got different ideas that he might want to put in game to game or try in practice and see if they work."

Huddy, Kompon, Woodcroft, goaltending coach Wade Flaherty, and video coach Matt Prefontaine make up Maurice's staff in Winnipeg. Kompon believes sometimes the assistant coaches "overload" Maurice with ideas, but he's always open to them.

"He's incredible to work with. He's always open to suggestions. He's always open to ideas. He never closes the door, never closes an idea off," said Kompon. "He just delegates to us and gives us that opportunity to grow as people and as coaches. That's what makes us, I believe, as successful as we've been."

 

Paul Maurice coaching the Heritage Classic

 

Being open to ideas and changing his way of thinking has been important to Maurice as the NHL game has changed.

At 52 years of age, he's far more of a fan of the on-ice product now. As much as the game has changed, the way he teaches and interacts with players has changed as well.

"It's night and day from where you started and your relationship with the players. My age, I'm older than all my players now. I have kids around some of their ages," Maurice said with a grin. "We let these kids play, we let the skill out of the box here a little bit. That's way more fun for a coach."

The players in the room love that about him. Wheeler is in the room every day and appreciates the "light and positive" atmosphere Maurice creates.

"Those are important characteristics. Especially when you go through adversity in big games, in playoffs. I think that's why Paul's teams have always been able to rise up in big moments," Wheeler said, pointing to Winnipeg's game seven win over Nashville in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs as an example.

The win sent the Jets to their first Western Conference Final.

"I think his consistency in that nature throughout the entire year makes his teams able to rise up in those big moments."

Maurice hopes there are more big moments to come for the Jets. Until they come, he'll savour the small moments he enjoys every day - and when he has time - he'll reflect on the big moments from earlier in his career.

Such as when Peter Karmanos - who Maurice will always refer to as "Mr. Karmanos" out of respect - gave him the kind of security a young coach in the OHL could only dream of.

"I was at a banquet at the end of my junior year, my first half season as an assistant coach, and Mr. Karmanos said 'Did you enjoy it?' And I said 'Very much,'" Maurice said. "He asked 'What do you want to do next year?' I said 'I'd like to go to school part-time and I'd like to coach.' He said 'You can have a job as long as you want it.' That was 1988. That was true right until 2003."

He counts himself lucky to have been given opportunities along the way, be it in Hartford, Carolina, Toronto, or Winnipeg. He feels blessed to have been surrounded by great people in the game throughout his career.

"Good leaders, great general managers, Stanley Cup winners - Kevin (Cheveldayoff) has won one as a manager," Maurice said. "I've been fortunate with the group I get to work with."

But through it all, he knows the big moments are the culmination of a bunch of small moments.

And those begin as early as 5 a.m., when Maurice's alarm routinely goes off to start the day.

"It's a pretty good gig, you know? At the end of the day, I go to the rink, I talk hockey, drink coffee - I have an instant gratification job," he said, smiling. "Three or four times a week you're going to get a result on how good you're doing. If you're winning it's good. If you're not winning, it's right there, and you get to fire it up and go back to work the next day."

 

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