Two weeks ago, when Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice won the 500th game of his NHL career, he considered celebrating it the way he did the first, with a run through the Burger King drive-through on the way home from the rink. But it was late, his wife, Mitch, was with him, as well as the youngest of his three children, and there was school the next day to consider.
"If there had been one remotely on the way, we would have done it, because we were talking about it," Maurice said with a laugh. "But there wasn't one that we could easily go through. Up where we are, it's Harvey's but there's no drive-through, so we couldn't do it."
The glamour of an NHL coaching life never ceases, no matter how well or badly things may be going. Maurice's 500th career win came in the midst of the Jets' most challenging stretch of the season – seven games in 11 days – so he had about 60 seconds to ponder the milestone before moving on.
With apologies to the New York Islanders, the Jets may be the single biggest surprise story in the NHL this season, sitting fifth in the Western Conference at the all-star break, seven points clear of a playoff spot.
The Jets play in the ultracompetitive Central Division, the only division in which all seven teams remain in the playoff hunt. Last year, five of seven made it, but the Jets didn't – finishing last, which is where many had them picked to finish again.
Maurice took over in January, 2014, and the team responded to the coaching change by winning eight of its first 10 games. Ultimately, the Jets faded down the stretch – injuries had something to do with that – but were a respectable 18-12-5 in Maurice's first 35 games behind the bench. Currently, he has exactly 83 games of experience with the Jets and in that time, they are 44-26-13 – a respectable winning percentage for any team, remarkable for a team that is using a rookie goaltender, Michael Hutchinson, about half the time and at different times this season was missing up to five starters on its blueline.
Winnipeg, which had won five in a row going into the NHL all-star break, is a team committed to building through the NHL entry draft because attracting the top free agents is not a viable business option for an organization that will not spend to the limit of the salary cap. And yet here are the Jets, defying expectation, and generally getting the most out of the talent at hand, threatening to make the playoffs for the first time since relocating from Atlanta in 2011 and for only the second in the franchise's 15-year history.
Maurice is, in the words of Jets defenceman Jay Harrison (who previously played for him in both Carolina and Toronto) "dedicated to his craft … a professor of the game. His love for the game comes through with everything he does, and guys rally around it. It's inspiring."
Maurice has made a significant difference in the way the team plays, especially on defence – they are No. 5 in the NHL after finishing 22nd overall defensively last year.
Former NHL defenceman Brian Engblom, who regularly does colour commentary on Jets telecasts, says Maurice "instantly" changed the demeanour of the team upon his arrival last year.
"He's pretty well known for being a quick assessor of teams, and he really came in last year and proved that," Engblom said. "He knew exactly what needed to change and what parts he wanted to move around. He got a feel very quickly of how he wanted to handle the players and that has increased this year.
"He's very good at language; the players know exactly what's going on. If you don't get it after Paul Maurice tells it to you, you're an idiot. And they do get it. And he makes them accountable – in no uncertain terms."
Maurice became the second-youngest coach in NHL history to reach 500 wins (at 47 years and 11 months, he was two years and eight months older than Scotty Bowman, when Bowman reached the milestone), in part because he was hired by Jim Rutherford in 1995 to coach the Hartford Whalers at the ripe old age of 28.
Rutherford, now the Pittsburgh Penguins' general manager, says he knew Maurice would have a long and enduring coaching career back when he was still a teenager, the captain of the Windsor Spitfires, soon after an eye injury had ended his playing career.
"We had a year-end party and Paul gave a speech – and what he said and how he presented it showed what great leadership qualities he had," Rutherford said. "That was at a time when he was just a teenager and had lost his eye and knew he wasn't going to play at the pro level. I knew this was a guy that had a future in hockey, so when his junior career was over, I offered him a chance to get into coaching right away.
"People talk about him getting his NHL coaching opportunity at such a young age, but if you look at it, it's not about age, it's about experience. The fact is, he started coaching when he was 20. By the time he got to coach in Hartford, he had seven years of experience. It's no different than if a former player retires and then goes to the minors or coaches as an assistant in the NHL for a few years and then becomes a head coach. Paul had a lot of experience at a young age."
The proof of Maurice's commitment to the craft of coaching came during the most recent NHL lockout when he opted to leave a TV studio job with TSN to coach in Russia – in the steel town of Magnitogorsk. Maurice lived in a barracks – assistant coach Tom Barrasso was his primary company for the better part of a year.
Maurice said he went to Russia largely out of a spirit of adventure – that he'd been coaching all his adult life, never ventured to Europe on a Grand Tour the way some of his peers did, and wanted to see if he could coach a team where the vast majority of players didn't speak English.
In the end, Maurice believed it made him a better coach – and gave him a far clearer understanding of the challenges a European player faces when first arriving in North America.
Fundamentally, Maurice is a teacher – but he also views coaching as a life-long learning experience.
"Honestly, I just feel like I'm starting to get the hang of this," Maurice said. "I had a real unusual start. I started learning about coaching in the NHL. I had two years of junior experience and then you're doing it. My time in Russia had a big impact on how I view the game, and maybe even more importantly, my appreciation for the National Hockey League – for how good the players are and how much of an honour it is to be here. So in so many ways, I just feel like I'm starting. I don't know what lies ahead, but I hope it lies in Winnipeg, because I've really enjoyed my time here.
"This may sound funny, but Winnipeg is so much like my home, Sault Ste. Marie, that there's a feeling of coming home in some ways – and then you hit 500. That's a big number. So this one's a little different for sure, and at the same time, I'm brand new here. I'm still just 47. I'm hoping there's quite a few more."
Engblom generally does his commentary from between the benches and from his perch there suggested that one of Maurice's more understated contributions to the Jets' success was injecting more life into a team that was spookily quiet before he arrived.
"All their leaders are very quiet," Engblom said. "Dustin Byfuglien jokes around, but Bryan Little's quiet. Andrew Ladd's quiet. Zach Bogosian's quiet. Toby Enstrom – you can't hear anything from him. So he made them talk. He went in there and told them, 'Guys, start talking. I don't care what you say, but start talking.' It carried through on the bench; now there's a lot more talk on the bench; they're a lot livelier, and they're in the game far more quickly.
"That may seem small, but it's made a big difference. He told players, after last year, 'Training's camp going to be really tough so you better be ready' – and he followed through. Guys who were in the league 10 years said that's one of the toughest camps they've ever had and it made them ready to play a fast-paced game.
"He knew he had a big team, he knew he had a fast team and he knew he had a physical team, and they've really become a tough-minded team through this last difficult stretch, and it's something they did not have last year or the year before. It's basically the same core group and they've responded to him in a big way. He knows when to get all over them and when to back off. He's fun to be around."
Beyond his impact on the team, Maurice has had a significant impact on the city of Winnipeg, according to Mark Chipman, the Jets' executive chairman and governor.
"Paul is what you see – and that straightforward humility really resonated with people here," Chipman said. "It's not just people that are watching our team play live, but people frequently say to me how impressive he is, in terms of the way he articulates himself and does it in a really grounded, humble way. So I think people felt right away he was a fit.
"The other thing is, I've seen Paul in rinks around town. His kids are playing hockey here and he's very involved in their lives. It's interesting because he'll turn heads when he walks into the rink, but he doesn't see himself as special in any way. He's a real humble guy. Obviously, he's had a positive effect on the fortunes of our team, but I think he and his wife have embraced the city – and the city's embraced them. It's real gratifying to see."
Maurice will likely get serious consideration for the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL's coach of the year, if he can get the Jets into the playoffs. Just in the past fortnight, he has moved past two Hall of Famers, Toe Blake and Pat Burns, up to No. 17 on the all-time coaching wins list. A key to longevity is to keep calm and carry on, even in the midst of, say, that run of injuries to defencemen they had earlier this season.
"We lost our top four and we play that little game in the coaches' office when it happened: 'What would the other team look like without their top four?' Which is a foolish game to play, but it makes you feel better somehow," Maurice said. "But coming in here and changing the focus on what we're good at, then being good at that, there wasn't any falloff when we had the injuries. The message didn't have to change because the message was, 'We're all going to try and do these two or three different things and hold ourselves accountable to them' and then it won't matter, when players went down to injury."