Paul Maurice was giving a press conference on Friday, one of 200 or so he convened this season, when he was asked how long it will take to recover from the 2007-2008 Maple Leafs season.
“A couple of years should be no problem,” he said, smiling tightly. “I’ll be right there.”
To say that it has been a difficult year for Maurice can be both an understatement and an exaggeration.
An understatement because the list of blights, an inability to perform well on home ice, the firing of his friend John Ferguson, the Cancer diagnosis of winger Jason Blake, has left disasters circling in holding patters above Air Canada Centre.
Remember too that hockey seasons are like icebergs. You only talk about what you can see. No one knows what else was going on in the Maple Leafs dressing room behind the prying eyes of fans and media.
Then again, Maurice was at the helm of the Carolina Hurricanes when defenceman Steve Chiasson was killed in an automobile accident in the spring of 1999. Those are, by definition the most troubled of times.
Teams who do not make the playoffs usually find their jobs in jeopardy and with a new general manager coming to Toronto, there is fewer guarantees than usual that Maurice will be the Leafs coach next season. His daily comments on the season could paper a wall but we asked him about the experience that is being the coach of the Maple Leafs over two tumultuous seasons. Ulmer:
You have said that aside from a few other cities, you haven’t had a complete taste of life in the big leagues until you’ve coached here. When you see other coaches like Pat Burns, do you allow a certain mental asterisk for those who have coached in Toronto?Maurice (smiles)
: What’s the proverb? I think you can say that they all have lived in interesting times.Ulmer:
Can you be more specific?Maurice:
What you undergo constantly isn’t a negative thing. I think it’s a positive. But winning here and getting on a good roll, that presents a whole new set of challenges. A guy can have two or three good games and next thing you know he’s the new face of the organization. There are a lot of challenges, but there is no better place to coach.Ulmer:
There is a legend that during the Summit Series, Frank Mahovlich said, through an interpreter, to Valeri Kharlamov that if he came to Canada he could be a millionaire. Kharlamov replied that if Mahovlich came to Russia, he would make him a king. After two years coaching the Leafs, do you still feel like a king?Maurice:
If you could take one piece out of the job, it wouldn’t be dealing with the media and all that. It would be the loss of anonymity. Don’t get me wrong, the people in Toronto are terrific, outstanding. If you have the kids with you, they’re just 100 per cent understanding that you’re a dad first and you’ve got to get your kids from the parking lot to the car safely and you can’t stop and talk. They get all that.
But the fact is everywhere you go, you’re recognized. It’s not necessarily even a negative, but it’s certainly an adjustment. You love the fact that the fans love the team. That part is clearly the best part. The negative by-product is you feel so responsible for letting so many people down.Ulmer:
So how does all this affect you day-to-day?Maurice:
I know that if I go in and pick up one of my kids at school, there’s going to be an autograph festival and that means I’m not getting my kids out there for 45 minutes. So, I send my wife in.
I mean this with the utmost respect but at the end of the day you’re a hockey coach. I know 10 people who do far more important things than I do. So that parts of the life takes a little getting used to. It’s still the game of hockey.Ulmer:
John Ferguson Jr. hired you, brought you to Toronto and installed you as the coach, first of the Marlies, then of the Maple Leafs. He was fired in January. How much contact between you two has there been?Maurice:
We’ve talked a few times, just checking in on our families. Not a lot, because one, you’re still working. After the season, things will relax. We’ll talk more.Ulmer:
Looking at you, the day after Fergy was fired seemed to the hardest day for you to face the media.Maurice:
To watch that happen and feel completely responsible for it, that was the hardest day of the year. For us as a group to get where we want to go, it has to get to an attitude of ‘team first.’ That’s the coaching staff, that’s the players, that’s everybody. Players get traded to other places, not necessarily better places, but other places. Managers and coaches get fired and that’s much more difficult. You’re taking somebody out of your group and pinning it on them and saying ‘you can’t come here anymore’ and everybody else stays. If you’re any kind of a team you don’t feel that way at all. But that’s management in any job. At the end of the day, it’s a lonely place. When you make all the right moves, everyone wants to stand beside you and pat you on the back. When things don’t work, you’re by yourself.