WASHINGTON — Paul Maurice never played a minute in the National Hockey League, his playing days cut short by an eye injury.
Maurice has never won a Stanley Cup as a coach, nor does he have a winning overall record.
But today, Maurice will walk behind the bench for the 1,000th time in his career, the youngest coach ever to do so, coaching the Carolina Hurricanes against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center. Only 18 other NHL coaches in league history have that distinction, and it says a lot about him.
It speaks to his staying power in his profession, which is overflowing with former NHL players. It speaks to having loyal bosses. But it also speaks to his ability to handle and mold teams, his ability to deal with players and the pressures that come in coaching.
"It's a funny thing," Maurice said. "I feel like it's been a thousand games. It does feel that long.
"At the same time, I just feel now like I'm coming into it, like now is a good starting point."
As Hurricanes forward Jussi Jokinen put it, "Who knows, at his age he might coach 3,000 games."
Maurice is just 43. He's still in many ways a young man and certainly a young head coach.
Maurice was 28 years old in November 1995 when the Hartford Whalers fired coach Paul Holmgren 12 games into the season and general manager Jim Rutherford hired Maurice. The next night, Maurice, who was coaching a junior team in the Ontario Hockey League the year before, was behind the bench in the NHL.
Maurice easily recalls the highlights of that first game more than 15 years later.
"San Jose, we win 7-3, at home," he said, smiling. "We were rolling."
But Maurice already had a self-realization, even before the game.
"I knew I was in over my head," he said. "Jim [Rutherford] and I had talked about it. He felt the team was a long ways from getting where it needed to get to, and that I could grow and learn and suffer through the changes that were to come."
Rutherford said he was impressed with Maurice years before the hiring, and well before Maurice coached the Detroit Junior Red Wings to the 1995 OHL championship.
"It was actually when he played and was captain of his [Windsor Spitfires] junior team," Rutherford said. "At the year-end banquet, he spoke at it and I thought, 'There's something special about this person,' in the way he handled himself at such a young age.
"He had the eye injury and couldn't go on with his playing career. We gave him a coaching job in junior [hockey] at 20. People talk about him coaching in the NHL at 28, but it wasn't so much his age as his coaching experience by then. And we were trying to build an organization with people we knew and felt comfortable with."
Whalers owner Peter Karmanos Jr. felt comfortable with Maurice. Rutherford liked him. He already was like family.
And change was coming. Karmanos relocated the franchise to North Carolina after the 1996-1997 season and renamed it the Carolina Hurricanes. For the two years while the RBC Center was being completed in Raleigh, the Canes played before sparse turnouts in Greensboro, testing everyone's resolve.
The Hurricanes reached the playoffs in 1999 and 2001, then beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2002 Eastern Conference final. They lost to the Detroit Red Wings, a veritable All-Star team, in five games in the Cup final but it was quite an achievement.
Ron Francis was the Canes captain then, on his way to a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He's now Carolina's associate head coach and director of player personnel, seeing another side of Maurice.
"You can use the term 'players' coach,' " Francis said. "He's firm with his players and he demands what he wants out of them, but he's very fair in his assessment and how he treats them.
"He's open and honest. As a player that's what you want, that honesty."
In December 2003, the Canes were struggling. Rutherford decided to fire Maurice, replacing him with Peter Laviolette, who then guided the Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup and became a local hero and celebrity in his own right.
Back behind the bench
Maurice, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., had found another coaching job -- in Toronto, coaching the Marlies, the Leafs' AHL team. He then moved up to coach the Leafs, going 76-66-22 in two seasons, only to be fired after the 2007-2008 season.
Maurice said he never doubted he would find another head job in the NHL, noting, "I've never feared that part of it."
By December 2008, Karmanos had soured on Laviolette after the Canes missed the playoffs two straight seasons after winning the Cup. Laviolette was fired. The choice to succeed him: Maurice, again.
The Hurricanes, with better offensive and defensive balance, finished 45-30-7 and made a run to the Eastern Conference finals, knocking off the top-seeded Boston Bruins before being swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. It earned Maurice a three-year contract.
"He brings a lot to the table," Canes captain Eric Staal said. "He's very well-organized. You're always prepared no matter what opponent you're playing.
"There's no hidden agenda with him. He'll tell you what he thinks. I really like him."
Last season was a major disappointment, doomed by a 14-game winless streak early in the year. Several players were traded, the team reshaped and the payroll cut, and the Canes go into today's game 10-10-2 after a solid 3-0 road win Friday over the Bruins.
"With a younger team I find myself in similar situations that I did early in my career and realize I'm handling them completely different," Maurice said. "My first year, I ran three lines. That fourth line didn't get near the ice. I took the job in early November and the first day off I gave them was Dec. 16.
"Now, instead of reacting to the wins and losses, so much more is reacting to where you think you're at as a team, and where you're trying to get to, and having a bigger picture as a coach and playing kids and putting them in situations."
Maurice, in his 12th season with the Canes, has an overall record of 422-423-154. Today, he will play kids and put them in situations for the 1,000th time.
"Not many get to do it, or get to do it in the fashion Paul has, with the challenges of some of those teams and sometimes coaching teams on a lower-end budget," Rutherford said. "He has had teams with real challenges. For him to get through all those and get to a thousand games is a real accomplishment."
Francis played more than 1,700 regular-season games in his career. Coaching 1,000, he said, is impressive.
"It hasn't always been smooth but he hasn't shied away from it," Francis said. "He's rolled up his sleeves and he's continued to learn and put the effort in and the time. The result is he's getting to coach his 1,000th game, which is a great feat."
Maurice, a husband and father of three, typically used a touch of humor to sum up his feelings about the milestone game, about the highs and lows of reaching his 1,000th game in his 14th season as a coach.
"There are points in the season, I don't know maybe it's like child birth," he said. "In the summer time you forget what you're going to have to go through. Then you have those bad nights in the season and you go, 'Oh, yeah. I remember that feeling.'
"I think what you do over time is learn to handle those better. Where you don't try to let two or three games affect what you're trying to do and you handle it a little better.
"It's like having that child. Maybe it's easier when you're having that 12th child."
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