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Dave Hyde: Panthers coach Paul Maurice, a hockey lifer, has spent decades chasing this final win to hold the Stanley Cup

Dave Hyde, South Florida Sun-Sentinel on

Published in Hockey

There were three television stations to watch in the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, of Paul Maurice’s youth. A French station. WKBD from Detroit, 300 miles south. And CBC, which his family gathered around any Saturday night the kids weren’t playing hockey to watch that week’s game on “Hockey Night in Canada.”

“My mom would make a pot of spaghetti or chili, and we’d watch hockey,’’ the Florida Panthers coach said.

His first memory is at age 5.

“You knew that you were getting old when you could make it to the third period,’’ he said. “That’s the way, I mean, my mom would make popcorn with you know, the half-pound of butter, and your glass, a half glass of Coke, you got was just smeared with butter and there’s salt everywhere.

“That’s what I remember about growing up and it was hockey Saturday night. Still a little bit too young to appreciate those early years, but when I hit my mid-teens, it was the Edmonton Oilers, they’re in their prime.

“(Edmonton stars) Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey had played for the Sioux Greyhounds, which is my hometown team, and they used to play street hockey sometimes at the tennis courts across the street from my house. My mom and dad still live there today. So that was where it became the dream, right?”

The dream turns true if the Panthers rebound from their ugly Game 4 in the Stanley Cup Final to win Tuesday night’s Game 5 in Sunrise. Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, the game’s most dynamic talent, remains the big hockey story in chasing his first Stanley Cup this series.

Maurice is a mini-series in chasing his first Cup. He’s a hockey lifer, at 57, and the game’s fourth winningest coach (and all-time losingest one).

He seemed to hit a career wall in resigning from the Winnipeg Jets during the 2021-22 season. Something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the end?

So, Tuesday’s Game 5 begins when Maurice was fishing for walleye in Canada’s Lake of the Woods after that season. His phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number and didn’t answer.

“I got a text, ‘Pick up your phone,’ ” he said.

It was Panthers general manager Bill Zito making the call and, soon, yet another decision — hiring Maurice — that’s put the franchise on this doorstep to its first title. Maurice, too. Finally, for all his wins, for all his years working with middling rosters since becoming a boy-wonder NHL coach at 28, he arrived to a ready-built team that just needed his structural organization and dramatic leadership.

“I don’t do much behind the bench, I really don’t,’’ Maurice has said in various ways as these playoffs lengthen.

 

It’s more the players’ game now, just as it is at most sports reaching this point. Maurice underplays his role, but his heaviest lifting was on his arrival before last season in putting in his defensive system and getting players to buy in all the way to the last Stanley Cup Final.

He was asked what he’d say if he knew during last spring’s lopsided loss to Vegas if told he’d be in control this Final.

“It would have made my life far worse to know that,’’ he said. “And you would think that’s crazy, right? Because then it would have taken every minute of joy, of adversity, of life out of my life. The journey is where the friendships and all the funny stories that just aren’t funny to anyone one else but we think are hilarious — they happened in the year of not knowing. The art of the pursuit of excellence is without the guarantee of reward.”

Maurice can be the philosopher-coach like that. He has the command of words and Shakespearean-actor voice to be the leader-coach, comic-coach or demanding-coach all in rare ways that show his personality, from quoting actor Will Ferrell after a loss (“Everybody panic!”) or saying of his in-game rant at players, “I thought they needed some profanity in their lives.”

Maybe they’ll need some more after Game 4’s ugly loss. Maybe they just need some tactical reminders. Maurice’s role by now, as said earlier these playoffs, is a simple one: “What do they need from me? What’s the tone of our day? So, we have lots of days where it’s not funny. If we don’t like the way we’ve played, we deal with it directly … and respectfully. But those are direct days.”

“I think all I’m trying to do other than read the team is to make sure everybody understands what an incredible time this is.”

That’s another rarity: A coach inviting everyone to appreciate the climb as it happens. Just Saturday after a morning practice in Edmonton before Game 4, he said: “I’ve been selling, ‘Enjoy your day,’ for two years here and probably before that and have had enough of the other days that aren’t good that I’m damn well gonna enjoy the morning skate on a day like today … I refuse not to be in a good mood and enjoy it.”

The kid with buttery smears on his Coke glass watching hockey with his family has chased this Cup for three decades of full coach’s life: Hirings, firings, changing cities, sometimes even returning to cities. Just these playoffs, Maurice went against the New York Rangers’ coach Peter Laviolette, who he left a note in the office for when Laviolette replaced him in Carolina. When Maurice then replaced Laviolette, Maurice received a note back.

His career has had everything but the one thing a great coach needs. It’s non-negotiable, too, to be considered a great coach.

“As you age, you get a different perspective on life and what’s important and valuable,” he said before this Final started. “I need to win one. No, it’s not going to change the section of my life that’s not related to hockey at all.

“But that’s the truth. That’s how I feel. I’m 30 years into this thing. Wouldn’t mind winning one.”

He’ll get another chance Tuesday night.


©2024 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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