RALEIGH — Before the lockout was over, after he’d spent the spring helping coach Canada at the World Championships in Scandinavia and the summer moving his family south and the fall spending time with his older sister Sherry before she sadly passed away, after all of that was behind him, the strenuous and the painful alike, Kirk Muller took a little time to explore North Carolina.
He went to the Outer Banks and he went to Asheville and all kinds of places between, becoming the kind of tourist hockey coaches don’t often get the chance to be. He went to an N.C. State football game, not only as a neighbor, but as the father of a student, with one of his four daughters now enrolled there. He took the measure of the Old North State like a man putting down roots.
And just as Muller, 46, has adjusted to his new home, the coach of the Carolina Hurricanes has adjusted to his new job. He took over last November having never been an NHL head coach before. He enters what should have been his first full season but will instead be a 48-game sprint with 57 games of experience and a team full of returning players who have little doubt more is expected of them.
“You’re always learning every day as a player or a coach,” Muller said. “More than anything, I’m more confident in the system I’m coaching. I believe the players that are here fit that style. We’ve made some moves, some adjustments, that give us an identity as a hockey club.”
When Muller took over for Paul Maurice, he had two immediate goals: To restore the confidence of a team beat down by losing and to re-create a culture of accountability that had been lost. “Accountability” is an overused word in hockey, often without any real meaning. For Muller and the Hurricanes, it meant tying playing time and opportunity to newly and clearly defined roles.
Between Muller’s ebullient personality and the results the team saw on the ice, a long-forgotten emotion returned to the Hurricanes’ dressing room: Fun.
“He came in with a positive attitude and talked to us not only about turning things around on the ice but in the locker room and getting that different sort of atmosphere and getting that accountability back,” Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner said. “That’s the word he’s used all along is accountability. He’s been consistent. Obviously, he’s really hands on and communicates with the guys a lot, and that’s what you want as a player.”
This is no coincidence. Muller is only 10 years removed from playing the game. These players grew up watching him play, and Muller hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be on the other side of the whistle. During the first practice of training camp, as Muller instructed Chad LaRose on one of the finer points of the power play, Muller took up a position at the inside edge of the faceoff circle, demonstrating exactly the technique involved.
But for his helmetless hair and his track suit, Muller could have been LaRose’s linemate, not his coach.
“He remembers what it was like to be in our situation,” Hurricanes center Tim Brent said. “It’s a little easier for him to relate. And vice versa, for us to relate to him. Whatever he’s trying to explain or message he’s trying to send, he puts it in a way where players understand what he means and why he’s doing it.”
Messages have been sent, and received, and the uncertainty that surrounded the hire of Muller – clearly with the potential to be the next great NHL head coach, but an unproven commodity nonetheless – faded eons ago. This is his team now. He has made himself at home.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947