Canes adjust to life without hockey

Those still in N.C. fill time with travel, family and lots of golf

calexander@newsobserver.comNovember 18, 2012 

— In the past few months, Kirk Muller has played a lot of golf, tailgated at an N.C. State football game, toured the Duke basketball facilities and even tried surfing for the first time.

Muller has watched the Charlotte Checkers play hockey. He has watched hockey video and analyzed hockey statistics. He also helped coach a few junior hockey practices in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

But Muller can’t do what he wants to do most: coach the Carolina Hurricanes.

Muller is a hockey man. This is his time of year. But with the NHL lockout lingering, with a collective bargaining agreement still to be signed, there is no team for him to coach and no hockey to be played.

Muller has tried to make the most of his unexpected free time. So have John Forslund, the Hurricanes’ longtime television play-by-play announcer, and Jay Harrison, a veteran defenseman for the Canes.

“I’m more or less the concierge at my house,” Forslund said this week. “Laundry, homework, shuttling people around. Whatever needs to be done, I’m your guy.”

Some players have headed overseas. Jussi Jokinen and Jamie McBain are in Finland. Jiri Tlusty is in the Czech Republic and Anthony Stewart is playing in England.

Others have stayed put for now. Harrison is part of a dwindling group of players – along with brothers Eric and Jordan Staal – who are skating at Raleigh Center Ice, hoping for a CBA breakthrough.

“It has been an up-and-down rollercoaster,” Eric Staal said of the CBA talks.

Muller and his wife moved into a new house in March, but he wasn’t able to get much work done in it with the hockey season ending in April. He then had to leave for Finland, where he was an assistant coach for Team Canada in the 2012 IIHF World Championships.

“I’ve now got the to-do list for getting the house organized and settling in,” Muller said.

Muller had another to-do list – the schedule he and his staff set up for the Canes’ preseason training camp. But the lockout, which began Sept. 16, wiped out the NHL’s camps. Muller said he now has a revised, shorter training-camp regimen, not that he can say when it will be needed.

The NHL lockout allowed Muller to go back to Kingston for a few weeks last month and be with his sister. After battling cancer, Sherry Muller died Oct. 24 at age 49.

“If we had been playing, I would never have had that opportunity to be there at the end with her,” he said. “So on a selfish note, it was really nice that I was able to have that time.”

Muller also got a taste of hockey. His 15-year-old nephew, Mathew Muller, plays junior hockey and he helped run a few team practices. He also took in a few junior games.

“Had not been able to do that in a long time,” Muller said.

Back in Raleigh, Muller said he has “played more golf in two months than the last four or five years.” One recent golf partner, he said, was former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

Muller said he attended the N.C. State-Virginia football game with daughter, Bryelle, a freshman at N.C. State. During his visit to Duke this week, the Blue Devils’ basketball team was in Atlanta to play Kentucky but he met football coach David Cutcliffe.

Then there was the trip to Wrightsville Beach. Muller grabbed a board and caught a wave – or at least tried to.

“It was not easy,” he said.

While there have been no Hurricanes games, there still has been hockey. He went to Charlotte with general manager Jim Rutherford and others to get a closer look at the Canes prospects playing in the American Hockey League.

“That got me up to speed on the players in the organization,” he said. “It’s good to know who’s (playing well). When our season starts, if you’re going, you’ve probably got a pretty good opportunity to seize the moment with doors opening up with the big team.”

Forslund and Harrison, like Muller, can only wonder when the lockout will end and NHL season begin. There were no labor negotiations this week.

“Everywhere I go people ask the question, when will it all be over. I don’t have any answers,” Forslund said.

Forslund, who has been with the Hurricanes franchise for 18 years, said he was asked to come to Charlotte for the Checkers’ Nov. 4 home opener and be a part of their cable broadcast. He considered it but declined.

“I just didn’t have the appetite to do it,” he said.

Harrison has played organized hockey since he was 5 and his Octobers and Novembers have centered around games and competition. Not this fall. He has conditioning workouts and skates three times a week at RCI, but often it seems as if he’s spinning his wheels.

“It’s frustrating,” Harrison said. “But whether we’re playing or not, we’re professionals. You make do with what you have ... but by no means is it an ideal environment at the moment.”

Harrison has been able to lend his wife, Jodean, a bigger hand at home and spend more family time with their three young daughters.

“That’s been a bright spot of the lockout,” Harrison said. Muller said he was taking the family to Washington, D.C., for Thanksgiving. They’ll see the White House and play the role of tourists.

It’ll be different for Muller. It’s November. He’s a hockey man.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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