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MacLean: 'The road wasn't a four-lane highway'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators head coach Paul MacLean gets to enjoy a homecoming of sorts Friday night, when Ottawa opens its 2011-12 season against the Red Wings in Detroit, where he was previously an assistant coach for the previous six seasons (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

His official introduction to the National Hockey League coaching fraternity is just two days away.

But for Paul MacLean, this moment has been years in the making. And as the Ottawa Senators coach will tell you, it's not exactly the kind of path a young lad from Antigonish, N.S., truly envisioned following during the days of his youth.

"The road wasn't a four-lane highway," the 53-year-old MacLean said as he pondered how far he's come since then, first as a highly productive NHL player and now as a coach running the show for the first time in hockey's best league. "It was more like a goat path and there was no pavement on it ... There were some guys that trickled out and around, but it's not like the trail was blazed brightly for you to see."

Eventually, however, with the right encouragement back at home, MacLean decided to head west himself and cast his lot with the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. It was the springboard for a playing career that would see him rack up 324 goals and 673 points — most of it during a seven-year tenure with the old Winnipeg Jets.

Now, it seems, his world has come full circle. MacLean is back in Ottawa and the Jets have returned to the NHL. Their paths will cross in two weeks time and it will all seem so right. And for the Nova Scotian with the busy moustache, it'll be proof that you can indeed get here from there. That those big hockey dreams MacLean had a youngster could indeed become real.

"Like a lot of young men growing up in Canada, I always dreamt of playing in the National Hockey League," MacLean said in reminiscing about his roots in the game. "When you played in the basement or street hockey or pond hockey, you were always Maurice Richard or Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito ... when you're playing as a kid, you're always somebody else.

"So I think I always had that dream or that desire to want it, but had no clue how to go about doing it other than playing. A gentlemen, Irving McGibbon, was a coach in Junior B hockey and opened my eyes to the game and the details of the game. He was the first one to really express the possibility to me that I had some ability to possibly play beyond the Eastern Junior Hockey League in Nova Scotia. I got a couple of opportunities beyond that and I was able to take advantage of them."

When his playing days were done, MacLean gravitated toward coaching and took the long road once again, toiling in the minors for eight seasons before making his way into the NHL — first as an assistant with the Anaheim Ducks for two seasons, then another six with the Detroit Red Wings. In both places, he benefited from an association with Mike Babcock, the head man in the Motor City who's widely acknowledged as one of the NHL's best at his craft.

The Babcock influence is still very much evident in the ways of the Senators' bench boss.

"Mike is very prepared," said MacLean. "He empowers his players by talking to them and finding out how he can help them or how they feel the coaching staff can help them. Communication with your players nowadays is a really important thing. It doesn't have to be on a daily, everyday basis with every player, but I think it's important that players know where they stand and what the expectations are for them as players. Then it's way easier to demand it if they know it."

And in one more piece of serendipity, MacLean will match wits with his mentor on Friday night, when the Senators and Red Wings open their respective seasons at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit (7 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). The script couldn't be written any better.

"It's my first game as a head coach in the NHL, so I it doesn't matter where it would be," said MacLean. "In 29 other places, it would have been special. The fact that it's against the Red Wings ... at first, (I thought) 'wow, couldn't it be anybody else?' But I'm comfortable at Joe Louis Arena. I know a lot of people there and I'm looking forward to it.

"We have to play them at some point in time, so it might as well be the first game."

Around the boards

The Senators practised earlier today at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont., then bused to Detroit to continue preparations for the season-opener. They'll continue a two-game road trip Saturday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) ... Centre Peter Regin (shoulder) showed some improvement today in practice, but didn't take any contact and his status for Friday remains undecided. "We're still optimistic for him for Friday," said MacLean. "He was more of a participant in practice today, which is a good sign. We'll take the day tomorrow and we'll get a better read on it tomorrow and see how he really is.

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