LAS VEGAS — In the 1994-95 season, when the NHL orchestrated its first-ever lockout, the Detroit Jr. Red Wings were busy winning the OHL championship with a young Paul Maurice as their head coach and an even younger Peter DeBoer as his assistant. As teenagers, the two had been teammates for three seasons with the Windsor Spitfires, but neither of their post-junior playing careers were going anywhere. Maurice because he’d lost the sight in one eye some years earlier, DeBoer because he’d set a time limit on how long he’d be prepared to invest in a pro career, and he’d gotten past that. DeBoer was actually finishing up his law degree, when Maurice called and asked him if he wanted to become a coach.

Maurice was 26 the year DeBoer was hired.

DeBoer was 25.

The two kids basically ran the operation for owner Peter Karmanos.

“It’s crazy to think about our ages at the time and what we were doing,” DeBoer told The Athletic. “We were both in way over our heads. The only good news was, we were too dumb to know it.

“The responsibility that Pete Karmanos gave us at that age was unheard of. The only way that we survived it and even remotely prepared for it was because of our mentors in junior. We had Jimmy Rutherford as our general manager, Tom Webster as our coach and Pete Karmanos as our owner. For them to have enough belief in us as people — to give us that responsibility at that age and to survive and keep going was remarkable. And it wasn’t just coaching. At the time, Paul was coach and GM, and then I took over and became coach and GM and we built the rink and everything. It definitely doesn’t happen regularly and I’d be surprised if you see that again.”

Jim Rutherford and Paul Maurice. (Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

DeBoer and Maurice started out as acquaintances and eventually became friends and about two weeks ago, there was even a chance that these once precocious kids might face each other on a larger stage — the NHL’s 2018 Western Conference final. But DeBoer’s San Jose Sharks lost a six-game series to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round, so now it’s Maurice’s turn. His Winnipeg Jets are getting their crack at the Golden Knights, down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series heading into Friday night’s fourth game.

Much of Maurice’s backstory is familiar now to long-time NHL fans: How, at the age of 20, after suffering an injury that left him partially blind in one eye, he’d reached a crossroads in his playing career. The Spitfires needed a spot on the roster for an overage player, goaltender Pat Jablonski, and were prepared to trade Maurice to the Oshawa Generals if he wanted a chance to keep playing.

Instead, Maurice expressed a desire to Karmanos to coach and subsequently spent the next five years learning the ropes as an assistant, two with Windsor, three with Detroit. In the 1993-94 season, Maurice was promoted to head coach, and in his second year, won that OHL championship. The next year, after Karmanos bought the NHL’s Hartford Whalers and brought Rutherford on as general manager. Maurice came along too — as an assistant coach.

A month into the season, after Paul Holmgren was fired, Maurice was promoted to top job. He was 28, the second youngest coach in NHL history. Only Gary Green, with the 1979-80 Washington Capitals, was younger when he began his NHL coaching career. Ultimately, Green only coached 157 NHL games and spent most of the rest of his hockey life as a broadcaster, including a 10-year stint as a color commentator on Jets’ broadcasts.

Maurice, by contrast, just completed his 20th season in the NHL – he also spent one year coaching the AHL Toronto Marlies and another year in Russia, the 2012-13 season, where he coached Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL.

Maurice started in Hartford, moved with the team to Carolina, and in the spring of 2002 took the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost in five games to a Detroit Red Wings team loaded with future Hall of Fame players.

Outwardly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in Maurice today compared to Maurice circa 2002. He still oozes charisma. So often, when playoff pressures start to mount, NHL coaches tighten up and revert to hockey speak in all their public interactions. Here, Maurice is teasing members of the press, correcting them if they fail to identify themselves by name and affiliation, putting everybody at ease, the same as he does with the players on his team.

“Everybody loves playing for him,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “He’s got a great sense of humor, which comes out in his media interviews, and probably more so when we’re doing video in the dressing room. He’s a coach you really want to play for. For me, as a young guy in the NHL, he basically tells you, ‘never be afraid to make a mistake; just go out and play your game and trust the game that’s gotten you to the point where you’re at.’ As a young player, that’s all you want – the opportunity to play. He’s been outstanding for me. I can’t say enough good things about him as a coach.”

Now 51, Maurice has retained a level of curiosity about the world around him, even after all his years on the job. He knows if you’re no longer curious, then you’re not going to be good at your job. If a school teacher taught the same curriculum, year after year, without change, by rote, it can get stale. Hockey is no different. In an interview with The Athletic, Maurice was asked to describe the ways he’s changed over the years – and also the areas in which he’s stayed constant.

“I have way more fun at my job now,” Maurice said. “First of all, the game’s better. The style of game played now is way more fun to coach. There are way more moving parts. Also – and I want to be respectful of all the teams I’ve had — but this team doesn’t look like any of the teams I’ve had. You can try to do more things with them.

“Mostly, though, it just has to do with getting older. When I first came in, I had no kids. Now, I’ve got three. My oldest is 20. So you see the athletes completely differently. I can walk into the room and I can understand what the fathers are going through because I’m a father. I’ve got a couple of guys with three kids, all really young, and I know exactly what that’s like. I understand what the moms and dads in the crowd are going through because that’s their baby on the ice. Even if they are 27 or 30, it’s still their boy. So, you feel maybe a different connection to all the different people in your room.”

Maurice is currently 10th all-time in coaching wins (648) and can reel in Mike Keenan (ninth, 672); Pat Quinn (eighth, 684); and Dick Irvin (seventh, 692) possibly by the end of next year. Scotty Bowman, at 1,244 career wins, is probably out of reach; and the No. 2 man, Joel Quenneville (884), is still coaching. If all goes well, Maurice could conceivably finish as the third-winningest coach in NHL history.

But back in the beginning, Maurice wasn’t sure if he was ready for NHL duty when the Whalers’ head coaching job was originally offered, and only took it on the advice of Holmgren, the man he replaced.

“I didn’t want the job because I knew I was in over my head – and I felt that way easily for the first three years, and there was a cost in that to me,” said Maurice. “I’ve got more losses than anybody else. Every coach is different. I marvel at the guys who can go before the media and leave the impression that it was the guys in the room, ‘if they’d just listened to me, we’d have been fine.’

“I’ve always taken every loss as if I’ve missed something – and that I needed to push a different button. It takes you a while to get to the point where you’ve built enough confidence in yourself that you can survive a loss and see a bigger picture. That’d be the way I’ve changed the most.”

Peter DeBoer and Paul Maurice at 2010 NHL draft. (Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Maurice, according to DeBoer, was always mature beyond his years, dating back to their playing days together in junior.

“The one thing you knew about Paul that would translate to coaching was, he was 18 going on 30,” said DeBoer. “You have a lot of captains, even in the NHL right now, that lead by example. Not many can stand up and capture the room with a speech, but he could do that. Even at that age, he was fantastic. Paul just had that gift.

“You think of him behind an NHL bench at the age of 27 and being able to survive that and translate that into 20 years in the NHL, that’s amazing. I remember walking behind the bench at 40 for my first NHL job and I barely felt ready at that point. For him to do that at 27 was crazy.”

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hired Maurice in January of 2014 to replace Claude Noel and says he didn’t really know all that much about him until they sat down to do the job interview.

“Right from the moment I did have that conversation, you could tell this was a person that was not coaching for his next job,” Cheveldayoff said. “He came in and coached how we believed. He was very comfortable in his own skin and a tremendous leader. We basically shook hands. We never put anything on paper. We never talked about term or the years beyond. We just talked about, ‘if this was going to be a fit for both sides, we were going to know it.’ We talked extensively about philosophy and how we needed to build this to be successful in the long run. I’m very fortunate those conversations were as candid as they were – and have given us the opportunity to come here now.”

In 363 regular-season games with Winnipeg, Maurice is 188-132-43, for a .577 winning percentage.

The Jets have made the playoffs twice in Maurice’s tenure, which has been characterized by a strict adherence to the organization imperative, of drafting and developing young players. There have been times when the outside noises demanded a faster track, but the hierarchy – owner Mark Chipman, Cheveldayoff and Maurice – have never strayed too far from the script. The net result this season was the second-best record overall in the NHL – and the best in franchise history. And the best news of all is that the Jets nucleus is young and still has room for growth, which is important to Maurice, because he believes that coaching is really a synonym for teaching and helping players become the best possible versions of themselves.

Maurice has a self-deprecating manner about him that is quite disarming. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 12th round of the 1985 entry draft, the last player chosen. He will tell you that even if he hadn’t hurt his eye, he probably wasn’t good enough to play in the NHL long-term. At the beginning of his coaching career, there was a lot of on-the-job training. He didn’t have all the answers, just a lot of questions.

But Maurice was also a fast study and so he eventually figured it out. He is also a believer in life-long learning, and will tell you, even now, he is still figuring some things out. A chance to coach in Russia during the 2012-13 season gave him a clearer understanding of the challenges that foreign players face when they come to North America for the first time – challenges that are exacerbated if there is a language barrier.

To Cheveldayoff, there are very few technical secrets in coaching anymore and so people skills become paramount for a coach to reach the current generation of players.

“With television and high definition video, everybody sees what you’re doing in terms of X’s and O’s – and if they’re not the strongest in X’s and O’s, they have someone on staff who is,” said Cheveldayoff. “Today, whether it’s in hockey or society or just life in general, it’s about people – and these young players, at their core, are just young people. Paul has the ability to understand that every person is wired differently. He was already a people person before he went to Russia, but that gave him a perspective into what other cultures are like – and that for the European players coming over, the culture is different. Paul’s a young veteran coach, but he’s always learning.”

In 2016, Maurice was an assistant to Ralph Krueger for the finalists, Team Europe, in the World Cup of Hockey. Krueger was a big believer in less is more when it came to preparation. And so, Maurice learned to dial down the video clips and the instruction, which is something the newest Jet, Paul Stastny, has quickly come to appreciate.

“One of the first things he said to me was, ‘we’re not going to talk too often’ — because he kind of knows what he’s going to get out of me every night,” said Stastny, a trade deadline acquisition by Cheveldayoff. “For me, what I noticed right away was how he simplifies his game plan and doesn’t throw too much information at the younger guys.

“I think he does a good job of dealing with older guys like me and Buff (Dustin Byfuglien), and of dealing with 19-year-olds or 20-year-olds, and of dealing with guys who are used to scoring goals all the time compared to dealing with guys who play a different role. You can’t yell at everyone, and you can’t talk to everyone the same way because everyone reacts differently. I think he realizes how to get the best out of the guys and push the right buttons.’’

The early years with the Whalers. (Graig Abel/Getty Images)

Cheveldayoff says he got a clear insight into Maurice’s personality soon after he joined the organization by giving him “carte blanche” in terms of retaining the holdover assistant coaches on Noel’s staff.

“He could have come in and wiped the slate clean like a lot of coaches do,” said Cheveldayoff. “But he coached the half year with our staff and when we sat down and were talking extension, I said: ‘what do you want to do with the staff?’ And he said: ‘I’m good.’ So, here’s a guy who wasn’t going to try and insulate himself with a best friend. A lot of coaches would have said ‘I want my own people’ but he is so comfortable in his own skin, he said: ‘this will make me a better coach. I don’t want someone who can finish my sentence. I want to work with someone where we’re going to have a discussion – and create a new sentence.’”

Still, it would be a mistake to think of Maurice as a soft touch.

“Players have a good BS meter, or they used to, and I found if I wasn’t direct and to the point, they could pick up on that,” Maurice said. “I knew that right from the start, and it’s how I deal with people. I can be harsh at times, but I’m exceptionally direct and honest. I think players – any of them that I consider men – appreciate that more than anything. You know where you stand and if it’s not where we want it to be, we’re going to work together to get there — but there are certain things that have to get done for this to be right.”

Nor does sheer longevity necessarily help you get better, according to Maurice.

“I read something recently about the value of experience – it’s exceptionally valuable if you’ve had 20 years of different experiences,” he said. “But if you’ve had the same experience every year for 20 years, you’ve really only had one year of experience. I’ve coached in the American League, I’ve coached in the KHL. I’ve coached in a traditional market, Toronto, and all the moving parts that were there. So it’s been a lot of different experiences.”

Maurice is from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., but the chance to coach the Maple Leafs was a dream come true – even if the job only lasted two seasons (2006-07 and 2007-08) and the second year was full of sturm und drang.

“I enjoyed it a lot more than people would probably think I should have,” Maurice said. “I’m a John Ferguson fan. He had a set of parts to play that was nearly impossible for him to play. There were people like Larry Tannenbaum, who at the time was taking a beating, that was great to work for. Then there were a whole lot of things that went on, starting the summer of my second year, that made coaching disappointing. I did not enjoy my second year in Toronto nearly as much as my first.”

Back when he first joined Windsor as a player, DeBoer remembers how upbeat Maurice was, even though he’d already suffered an eye injury that severely limited his NHL prospects.

“People didn’t know this at the time, but he had an insurance settlement that he could have taken and walked away from the game – and at the time, it was enough money, as an 18-year-old kid, to get a start and pay for a college education, and he walked away from that, in order to come back and play,” said DeBoer. “That really was the start of face shields in junior hockey – the straw that broke the camel’s back was his eye injury – and when I came in, that was the first year of full visors and it was because of Paul. Knowing that he’d gone through that and came back and was playing with one eye, you knew there was something special about him as a person right there.”

Had Winnipeg played San Jose in the Western Conference final, would that have been difficult for DeBoer — separating the personal from the professional when he had to coach against his good friend?

Answer: No.

“It’s pretty easy actually,” said DeBoer. “There are no blurred lines with Paul. He’s all about the competition. We both actually married girls from Windsor. We were part of each other’s weddings. We had a really close junior team. Adam Graves is still a close friend of ours and a long list of other guys.

“The one thing about Paul, even when I coached with him, we used to laugh because that was my first year of coaching and if we lost a game, Paul would storm out of the rink, 10 feet ahead of me, my wife and his wife walking behind him. That hasn’t changed. That’s Paul – and you knew that.”

In 2014, after almost two decades apart, DeBoer and Maurice had a chance to work together again, as assistant coaches on Dave Tippett’s staff for Canada at the world championships.

“We had a ball,” DeBoer said. “People will tell you, you’re at the world championships usually because you’ve had a disappointing year and missed the playoffs and that was the case for both of us. We both needed it. It invigorated both of us, and it was great to be back on the bench with him again. It’s almost like riding a bike. Five minutes in, it’s comfortable. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

About a week before training camps opened, Maurice thought the Jets were ready to take a step, in part because they were a physically more mature team. The passing of time – young adults growing into their bodies — is sometimes overlooked in assessing how a team gets to the next level.

“Look at Mark Scheifele, emerging as a superstar now,” Maurice said. “When we went into the playoffs four years ago, he was four years younger – and we were expecting him and Jake Trouba and Adam Lowry to help us win. I’m pleased with the way our young players have developed, but all of our veteran guys are playing the best hockey of their careers. Dustin Byfuglien was special all year but nobody noticed because he wasn’t putting points up. But he had a spectacular year. Blake Wheeler’s at the peak of his game. Matty Perreault had some injury issues, but he’s been really good. Paul Stastny’s always been really good. So it’s not just our younger players. Our veteran players have been really good as well.”

If the Jets can overcome their current deficit against the Golden Knights and advance to the Stanley Cup final, they have a chance to become the first Canadian-based team to win the championship since 1993 – or the year Maurice made his head coaching debut in junior. Recently, Rogers Sportsnet dug into the archives and pulled some interviews Maurice did back in his early 20s, when it all started.

“I love watching some of those TV clips of him from back when he was coaching junior hockey, but if you look closely at them, it’s still Paul,” said Cheveldayoff. “It’s still that same guy. Whether it was with the Windsor Spitfires then or the Winnipeg Jets now, it’s still the same guy. When a person is that genuine, you can see that.”

(Top photo credit: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)