Some months ago, on his way to coach hockey in Russia, former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice bumped into one of his ex-players, Nolan Pratt, at the airport in Columbus, Ohio. Pratt had played in the Continental Hockey League (KHL) and Maurice thought he could get a quick primer on what to expect.
“So I asked him, ‘What was it like?’ and he looked at me and after a long pause, he said, ‘It’s different. Just different,’” Maurice said. “It was the way he said it more than what he actually said, but honest to God, that’s been it exactly. It’s different. My assistant coach, Ilya Vorobiev, is Russian born but English speaking and he must have said that to me and to Tom Barrasso a thousand times: ‘Hey, things are different here,’ and they are.
“The hockey’s different,” Maurice added. “How they view it is different. The travel’s different. How everything moves is different. It’s so difficult to describe. Your first month, you notice everything that’s different, and everything seems to be different.
“Then after you’re here for a while, you start to notice some of the similarities, and you realize there’s not much difference in a lot of areas after all. And I guess you get to the point where you realize, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Maurice is coaching Metallurg Magnitogorsk, a perennial KHL powerhouse that was in a rebuilding year until the NHL lockout became official. At that point, Magnitogorsk received three valuable reinforcements: Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s reigning MVP; Sergei Gonchar, the Ottawa Senators’ defenceman; and Nikolai Kulemin, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward.
All three played for Magnitogorsk during the 2004-05 lockout and Gonchar helped smooth Malkin’s NHL transition to the Pittsburgh Penguins when play resumed in the fall of 2005. Pittsburgh is a steel town, Magnitogorsk is a steel town, and Maurice grew up in a steel town, Sault Ste. Marie, so the sights, the sounds and the smells are not much different than what he was used to in his hometown.
Maurice, 45, tackled the challenge of coaching in Russia for multiple reasons, among them, career development. With 1,084 NHL games coached under his belt, he was at a point in his life where he was looking for something new.
“I’ll give you the exact honest truth,” Maurice said. “I knew at the time I was coming over here that I wasn’t getting an NHL job and I wanted to work. So I got this phone call from Russia, out of the blue, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go over and check it out.’ Professionally, it was something I wanted to do. I thought it would be such a challenge to try and communicate with a team that doesn’t speak English and to translate your ideas like that.
“But there was something missing. Maybe it was the distance from home, or the age of my family. but when I left the first time, I thought, ‘Geez, I’d like to take this job, but it might be too big a challenge. I probably won’t do it.’
“Then, when I got home, the Barrassos came over for dinner one night and I said to Tom, ‘I need a goalie coach, an assistant coach and a strength coach. Do you want a job in Russia?’ And he just said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ And that was it. We decided.
“Maybe it was a small part of a midlife crisis,” Maurice said. “I’m never going to get a chance to do this again. I didn’t travel in Europe as a teenager, I didn’t do any of those things that other people do. I was coaching from the time I was 20 years on. You know exactly what your life is, every day of the week. This? This was a bit of an adventure.”
That nicely sums up Maurice’s first three months on the job. It has been an adventure, an experience that has roused him out of his comfort zone.
“I haven’t watched TV, other than the KHL network, in three months, and realize now, ‘Boy, I burned a lot of time watching stuff that didn’t matter.’ There’s just a lot of things that you suddenly don’t have in your daily life. I haven’t driven a car since July. That’s unusual. All those kinds of things that change in your life, you enjoy. I’ve walked more in the last four or five months than I have in the last 25 years. That’s the way it’s gone.”