Maurice long journey to Cup

SUNRISE, Fla. -- On Nov. 7, 1995, Paul Maurice paid tribute to his first win as a National Hockey League coach with a Whopper and fries, not a filet mignon and a glass of vintage red wine.

His Hartford Whalers had just posted a 7-3 home victory against the San Jose Sharks, and it was time to party. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Indeed, he chose to honor the occasion in a more modest way.

"My wife and I hit the Burger King drive-thru as a celebration dinner on the way home," he recalled with a laugh.

"Otherwise, I just remember so very little of what happened on the ice because I was just trying to get the next line right. You didn't want to have too many men on the ice and you're staring at the lineup card instead of watching the game. It was a reality check. I knew I was over my head and had a lot to learn.”

Now, 29 years later, he’s at the head of the class. Consider his lessons learned.

And then some.

On Monday night, exactly 10,457 days after putting himself in the coaching win column and hitting that burger joint afterwards, he stood on the ice at Amerant Bank Arena hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head in what was the completion of an almost three-decade quest to get his name engraved on hockey’s Holy Grail. His Florida Panthers had just defeated the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and there he was, smiling and playfully cursing at the trophy he referred to as “Stanley,” unleashing a mixture of emotions that comes with the culmination of a lifelong pursuit to land the sport’s ultimate prize.

What a journey it was to finally get here. The raw numbers: 1,986 games coached between the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs; 939 wins.

It was a coaching odyssey that started with the Whalers, who relocated to Carolina and became the Hurricanes in 1997. Just one year after leading the franchise to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 2002 when it lost the best-of-7 series 4-1 to the champion Detroit Red Wings, he was fired by then-general manager Jim Rutherford a year later.

Next came a stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2006-2008, one that ended after failing to lead them to the playoffs in either of his two seasons. He was rehired by the Hurricanes later in 2008, only to be fired by them again three years later.

He was hired by the Winnipeg Jets in 2014, the start of an impressive seven-year run that ended when he resigned in 2021, stating he’d lost the love of the game. He said he’d come to terms with never having led a team to the Stanley Cup and looked forward to spending time focusing on fishing, one of his other passions.

Then, suddenly, Panthers GM Bill Zito called. Everything changed.

Zito put no pressure on Maurice, simply asking if the job might intrigue him. Living in South Florida and running a team with a promising talent base led by forwards Aleksander Barkov and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, well, as Maurice says, “it just felt right.” He was hired June 22, 2022.

There were growing pains, sure. The Panthers started slowly, which Maurice expected. But there was never any panic.

“I told the players it would take about half a season to learn our new system and to stick with it,” he said. “To their credit, they did.”

Following his blueprint of a high-tempo, hard forechecking, tight defensive game plan, the Panthers reached Cup Final last season, when they lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights. Instead of experiencing a dip in performance from the disappointment, they came back and finished the job this time.

“I needed to win one,” Maurice said of his buddy, Stanley.

Now he has.

* * * * *

Beeton, Ontario is a small town about 30 miles northwest of Toronto. It is the hometown of Jim Rutherford, former GM of the Hurricanes, current president of the Vancouver Canucks.

On July 15, 2006, the community welcomed a visit by the Stanley Cup as part of a celebration for their native son. Rutherford’s Hurricanes had won the Cup a month earlier, and this was the chance to honor the moment of a lifetime.

In attendance were Rutherford’s close friend Maurice and his wife, Michelle. Despite having been dismissed by Rutherford three years earlier, they’d remained very close. When you remain loyal to someone who’d fired you, it says a lot about how tight your relationship is.

“I remember that night,” Rutherford recalled. “From that moment, my biggest wish has been that Paul one day would get his name on the Cup like I did.”

Five years later, Rutherford fired Maurice from the Hurricanes for the second time in less than a decade. And still, remarkably, their friendship endured, just like Rutherford’s hope did of one day seeing Maurice lift the Cup.

Maurice celebrates with the Stanley Cup during interview

On Monday, Rutherford, glued to his television watching Game 7, saw his wish come true.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Rutherford said. “No one deserves it more. What he’s done in Florida is special.

“He’s one of my best closest friends. Sometimes when changes are made, it’s not because a guy can’t coach, it’s because there needs to be a change. He’s a great coach. That’s why he keeps getting jobs. It’s not a fluke. It’s well-earned.

“Paul has a way of relating with players. If he hadn’t won a Cup, it shouldn’t take away from all he’s accomplished in the game. But you would always have people saying it effected his legacy because he hasn’t won one, that it would leave a hole in his resume.

“Well, you can consider that box checked.”

At some point this summer, Maurice will get his day with the Cup, getting the chance to experience the same feeling of accomplishment as Rutherford had during that special day in Beeton 18 years earlier.

And it’s a good bet Rutherford will be there to support his pal, just like Maurice was for him in 2006.

* * * * *

Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer chuckles when the subject comes up of Maurice’s press conferences since he joined the Panthers.

For the past two seasons, they became must-see TV. Sometimes there are jokes. Sometimes there is cursing. During one particular availability, he simply got up and walked out of the room. You never know what to expect other than understanding it won’t be boring.

How much is reality and how much is schtick? DeBoer thinks it could be a bit of both when it comes to his long-time friend. What he does know is that it’s highly entertaining.

“I remember we were sitting having beers before the season and talking about how relaxed he is in Florida,” DeBoer said. “It’s a perfect fit for him. And to see him like that was refreshing, especially after seeing how burnt out he was in Winnipeg not so long ago.

“I remember getting a message from him congratulating me on my 1,000th game. Believe it or not, he was ice fishing in Manitoba. He seemed so at peace in his life. And suddenly a year later, he was in the Final. And two years later, he won the Cup.

“I’m so happy for him.”

Like Rutherford, DeBoer was an avid viewer of Game 7. And he makes no apologies of who he was rooting for.

“I was picking the Panthers,” he said. “And I was cheering for Paul.”

With good reason.

The two men first met as players with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League in 1985. They eventually became roommates when DeBoer was attending law school at the University of Windsor and Maurice was coaching the Detroit Jr. Red Wings.

When Maurice asked DeBoer to be one of his assistants, he agreed, going to school in the day and helping out with the team in the evening. The two would end up going their separate ways, but their friendship, one that has spanned almost four decades, remains tight to this day.

“We don’t see each other all the time but when we do, it’s like we’ve been together all the time,” DeBoer said. “We were in each other’s wedding parties. The comfort level is always there.

“He needed time away to reset. And it revived him. And now he’s a Stanley Cup champion. And no one deserves it more. I’m so happy for him.”

* * * * *

In the coming days, weeks, even months, the reality of having his name on the Cup will finally, eventually sink in.

For the kid from Sault St. Marie, Ontario who grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada, it’s surreal.

Just like it is for some of his former players to see.

“Man, it’s awesome,” former Whalers/Hurricanes forward Jeff O’Neill said. “He’s come such a long way to become a Stanley Cup champion.”

O’Neill would know.

Now a top sports radio personality with TSN Radio 1050 in Toronto, O’Neill was with the Whalers when Maurice was first hired. It was an interesting time, to say the least.

“I remember he walked into the dressing room and guys didn’t know what to make of him,” he said. “He was 28 years old. He was younger than a lot of his players.

“Brad McCrimmon, for example, was 36. He was looking at [Maurice] thinking, 'What the hell is going on? What the hell does this guy know?'”

Almost three decades later, this much is certain: Maurice knows how to lead a team to a Stanley Cup. And no one can ever take that away from him.

More importantly, why would anyone want to?

“It’s been one heck of a ride,” said Maurice, now 57, breaking into a huge grin.

One that has taken him from a Burger King drive-thru to the pinnacle of the hockey world.