Paul Maurice doesn’t often find himself at a loss for words.
Sunday night was one of those times, though, when the subject of him reaching 700 NHL wins was brought up in his postgame session with members of the media.
Part of the reaction was related to the reality that a milestone like this is something you can’t fully appreciate until you have a bit more time for it to soak in.
The other issue is that NHL coaches are programmed to live in the moment, and one of those standard lines Maurice has issued on multiple occasions is about how he preaches to his group the importance of handling the day.
That’s all well and good, but this was as good a time for reflection as any — even if it took Maurice longer than usual to collect his thoughts.
“Um … in a little while,” said Maurice, after a pregnant pause. “Wow, yeah. Very eloquent, don’t you think? That was smooth. It’s really nice.”
Maurice was thrust into his first NHL head coaching job at the ripe age of 28, making him the second youngest to get the job in NHL history (Gary Green was 26 when he took over the Washington Capitals in 1979).
The man who gave him the job with the Hartford Whalers, current Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, told me last season that he wasn’t sure if Maurice was ready for the gig at the time.
But Rutherford knew Maurice from his time in junior hockey, had worked closely with him for several years and felt he deserved the opportunity to find out.
On the subject of reflection, Maurice was asked what he remembered about his first NHL win, a 7-3 triumph over the San Jose Sharks back on Nov. 7, 1995.
“Like, so little. Because I spent the whole night staring at my card, making sure I got the lines right,” said Maurice. “(A 7-3) win against San Jose at home. That was seven times you hear the Brass Bonanza. That’s a song they used to play in Hartford. And then we hit the Burger King drive-thru on the way home. Big celebration.”
There was a quick celebration for Maurice inside the Jets room on Sunday night, where the media was asked to clear the area and the head coach was saluted by his players.
Maurice, 52, was quite appreciative of the gesture, though he showed his sense of humour in questioning the musical selection chosen by the players for his entrance.
“Almost feel embarrassed by it. You know, a little sheepish. But nice,” said Maurice, when asked what a moment like that means to experience. “It would have been nice if they got the song right, I think it was ‘Hells Bells.’ That’s a tell — they think that’s my personality. Clearly, we needed a (Led) Zeppelin song. I was a little surprised by ‘Hells Bells.’ Hopefully will stick around here long enough that we can do another milestone. ‘Kashmir’ would be nice, I guess. That’s a Zeppelin song, for those of you under 30.”
That the Jets players didn’t exactly get the music right is beside the point.
Now in his sixth season with the Jets, Maurice is the second-longest-tenured head coach in the NHL, behind only Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Longevity isn’t an easy thing to achieve in today’s day and age.
But Maurice has worked at reinventing himself while sticking to his core beliefs.
Part of adapting comes with watching what other coaching staffs do — and that started back when Maurice was the head coach of the Detroit Junior Red Wings.
Sharing a building with the NHL Red Wings gave him a front-row seat to what the winningest coach of all-time, Scotty Bowman, was doing on a regular basis.
“When I came into the league, I was so young and had absolutely no idea what was going on. I watched an awful lot of video and the truth is that I stole from everybody and I still do,” said Maurice, who is in his 22nd NHL season and is also the all-time leader in losses. “I still do a best practices exercise over the course of the summer. That would easily be the part of the game that I enjoy the most. How much the game has changed and then how much I’ve changed. In the last four years, I’ve changed my approach without losing sight of principles, but changed the way we do things drastically two to three times. This year is another one, with the changes we made. That comes from ripping people off.
“I’m a kleptomaniac as a coach. I absolutely steal everything that I can.”
How has Maurice been able to manage the balance between sticking to his core beliefs and adapting to the way the game is constantly changing?
“At the end of the day, I believe that people are people. I don’t think that’s changed a whole lot. As I’ve gotten older, I’m more comfortable having a deeper relationship with a player,” said Maurice. “When you’re 28, you’re just growly all the time because guys wouldn’t have been taken seriously (by the players). Now you can laugh with a guy and tell a joke and then be firm if you needed to … I don’t want to tell you too many stories because it’s not that big a deal, it’s 700 (wins), I didn’t win 12 (Stanley) Cups. It’s not that big a deal.
“I lost my eyesight when I was 17 and you don’t realize how smart your dad is until 30 years later. I knew my (playing) career was over, but he said that if you don’t learn how to change, you’re not going to survive. You have to learn how to change. That’s pretty much the way that I’ve coached. You’re looking for something new, without losing your principles. You’ve got to stay on the next movement. I enjoy that part, of what’s next.”
Maurice’s ability to connect with his players has made his arrival in Winnipeg his most successful stop on his long and winding journey.
“Wow, what an accomplishment. He’s been in the game a long time and turned into an old man on us,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “The biggest quality with Paul is his ability to adapt to different seasons and different teams throughout his tenure as a coach.
“Players never tune him out, never get sick of his message because he’s able to keep it fresh and refreshing. You see teams start to fall off, when plays stop buying into the message. Not even close to what’s happening here, so that’s a really strong quality, especially in today’s game.”
How has Maurice been able to keep that message from becoming stale?
“It’s not the same message every year because there are new guys in here and new personnel and it’s going to be a different look. On the fly, he’s really good at changing things up and suiting it to what we need and what the players need. So in that way, he’s been very good for us,” said Wheeler.
“(700 wins) is really impressive, especially given his age. He’s still really young. He must be doing something right. He’s done a great job for us so far.”
The milestone win snapped a three-game losing skid for the Jets and came in dramatic fashion, with Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine delivering in the penalty-shot contest that followed 65 minutes of scoreless hockey.
“Obviously 700 wins is crazy. To be able to achieve that at his young age is pretty impressive,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “It feels good to get the win in the fashion we did. As a coach, you probably want to win 1-0. I feel like that’s probably the best reward or best 700th win we can give him. So, happy for him, for sure.”
When Maurice took a job with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League during the 2005-06 season, one of the assistants he hired was Dallas Eakins, who is now the bench boss of the Anaheim Ducks.
Taking a step back in his journey was important for Maurice, who had been fired for the first time at the NHL level in December 2003.
Maurice led the Marlies to a 92-point season and enjoyed the process of coaching in the minors before he was promoted to the top job with the Toronto Maple Leafs in May of 2006.
“He gave me my first chance to coach. He’s one of the top guys on my list when you have your guys that you rely on and you trust,” Eakins told Eric Stephens of The Athletic on Sunday night. “But he’s been a big one on follow your gut, follow your passion on what you want to do in the coaching world. And along the way, he’s given me great advice.
“Just an incredible human being. When you talk about incredible coaching careers, it seems like he’s been coaching forever. And he’s still a fairly young man. I’m proud of his career. Very proud of his 700th win. I’m sure he’s going to have a lot more to come.”
One of the other important jobs Maurice took — after getting hired by Rutherford a second time to coach the Carolina Hurricanes in 2008-09 until 2011-12 when he was fired by Rutherford a second time — was with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.
Heading overseas was an eye-opening experience and taught him a lot about some of the challenges players might face coming to North America when they don’t have a strong grasp on the English language.
“I looked at the KHL as a chance to see something completely different than I had seen before and it was,” said Maurice, whose lineup included Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and St. Louis Blues centre Ryan O’Reilly. “I left with a couple of things. One, I love coaching. At that first game (as interim head coach of the Jets), when they’re playing the national anthem, I dreamt about it the entire time I was in the KHL. You have that appreciation for this league. Also, the communication with the players (was valuable). When you can’t talk to the guy, you realize you need to communicate with your players and you need to have more conversations with them. I have a far better respect for what a European player goes through when he comes here. When a North American coach goes there, it’s not easy.
“I made some mistakes there as a coach. They were hiring me to be a North American coach, so I was full-on North American and I probably wasn’t open enough to some of the KHL, Russian style things that are really good. I probably could have embraced those more. Maybe it just made me open my eyes a little bit to what’s going on around.”
Joel Quenneville is the active leader in NHL wins and he’s been coaching against Maurice for a long time, including parts of five seasons in the Central Division when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks.
On Monday, Quenneville was asked by Erin Brown of The Athletic about his secret to sustained success in the NHL and about what he thought Maurice has done well over the years.
“Good teams, good players, good situations. I’ve been fortunate to be where I’ve been,” said Quenneville, echoing a sentiment Maurice has shared on more than one occasion. “(Maurice) has done a great job, been in some great spots. Done a good job with that team (Winnipeg) as well. He’s a very likeable coach and a great coach as well. I’m happy for him.”
Maurice took some time on Monday to salute several of his coaching mentors, including Tom Webster, who was his bench boss in junior with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League and went on to coach the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers.
“Tom Webster would be the guy. He was my junior coach who I eventually hired as an assistant coach in the NHL (with the Whalers). He would absolutely be the man who influenced me the most,” said Maurice. “A really, really intense guy but a big family guy, very emotional guy. Systems: that was kind of the first time I heard of the word systems, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a plan here.’
“The most important thing is I got lucky that my parents were both teachers. You get into that kind of life, you’re taught to think that way. Then I got on this incredible run of coaches in minor hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, really good men that barked at the right time. They knew what they were doing and were passionate about it. I was really well-coached growing up and then I got under a really great umbrella of management from junior on.”
Maurice might not have been as comfortable talking about becoming the seventh man in the history of the NHL to reach 700 wins, but he didn’t hesitate sharing another goal that is important to him.
“No, when you’re starting young you’re thinking, ‘Wow, if I could coach 500 games in this league that would be a milestone.’ You don’t even consider coaching 1,000 games,” said Maurice. “It’s really since I’ve come to Winnipeg that the numbers have really started to pile up. The last few years I started to coach the best teams I’ve ever coached here so you win more hockey games.
“It’s nice. I’m still a young man. I would like to do it for a while.”
(Photo: Norm Hall / NHLI via Getty Images)