Canes coach (record 2-11-3) tells CEOs how to build a team

Staff WriterNovember 11, 2009 

  • On winning:

    "When a captain goes to a general and says, 'My troops aren't good enough to win,' cut the captain's head off. Find a way to win with what you have."

    On sticking with players:

    "If they see a coach quit on a guy, [they think] they're next."

    On wanting players to push back when he criticizes them:

    "If you stare at the dog in his eyes and the dog drops his head, now what do you do? Now, you're petting the dog all day."

    On his next game, 7 tonight at the RBC Center against the Los Angeles Kings:

    "I don't expect it to be a party."

— For $25 a plate, some of the Triangle's most vaunted CEOs got an hour-long pep talk Tuesday on building a winning team, which would be fine except that it came from Paul Maurice, coach of the dead-last Carolina Hurricanes.

With his team on a 12-game losing streak and two of his stars hurt, Maurice dished out an early-morning plate of optimism, irony on the side.

"My timing has always been impeccable," he said, adding that the Canes were 2 and 2 when he agreed to speak.

The idea of a last-place coach offering tips for success might seem like Napoleon giving a PowerPoint presentation on battle strategy post-Waterloo. But to the Association for Corporate Growth, which organized the talk at Cary's Embassy Suites, nothing combats a bleak economy like a good sports metaphor. It's a rebuilding year. This team is searching for its identity.

"Sometimes it's better to hear winners who've been through trials and tribulations rather than people who win all the time," said Jeff LeRose, CEO of Research Triangle Software.

ACG, an invitation-only group of leaders from firms making at least $5 million annually, wanted to show the connections between a business facing flagging revenues and a struggling sports team.

"The challenges that businesses face are not unlike what sports teams face," said ACG Vice President Slee Arnold. "When things happen, such as your goalie is out for three weeks ..."

Maurice was brought back as head coach last season after the team had a slow start, guiding them to the Eastern Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But at 42 he carries a résumé marked by ups and downs. He was up in 2002 when the Canes reached the Stanley Cup finals. He was down, out and fired in 2003 when they started the season 8-12. It was no starry-eyed kid giving this motivational speech.

Language is key

"I have no idea what you people do for a living," said Maurice, who filled in on short notice for Canes General Manager Jim Rutherford. "I have the advantage I get to use much worse language than you do in my locker room. If you don't use those words, they don't fully understand. There's a culture of profanity."

But he won the crowd with a series of leadership maxims.

In the NHL, you can tell who's working hard and who's slacking off by a simple method: the shirt-off test. When Maurice was coaching the Hartford Whalers, seven players had higher than the 12 percent body fat cutoff, and they didn't have a winning month in four years of play.

"Looks like we're trying to do it again," he joked.

Mostly, Maurice urged building a winner out of available parts, not wishing for shiny replacements. You can tell a team gone bad at meal time, he said. All the rich veterans sit together and complain about the new guys. All the rookies sit together and complain about the has-beens. All the Europeans sit together and say, "Nobody talks to me."

To fix it, he explained, you grab one guy from each group and tell him to switch tables. Heads in the crowd nodded.

Thus instructed, one CEO in the crowd made a humble request for a losing season: a chance to drive the Zamboni.

"That's the one thing I might be able to fix," Maurice laughed. "I know the guy who has the keys to that."

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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