Florida Panthers coach Maurice reflects on Toronto tenure 15 years later
TORONTO — Paul Maurice was driving home from the rink one day.
Then came an epiphany.
In the pressure cooker of hockey's most intense media market, the then-head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs had just conducted a series of interviews and was concerned about his messaging.
Maurice decided, in that moment, enough was enough.
"That's it," he recalled telling himself. "I'm never, ever worrying about what I say again, ever. I'm just going to go try to tell the truth, get off and leave it. And if I mess it up, I mess it up.
"That's one of the things that I learned here."
Maurice is back here — in Toronto, some 15 years later — with the Florida Panthers in the second round of the playoffs following a stunning upset of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
The 56-year-old coached the Leafs for two seasons from 2006 to 2008 in his second NHL gig. Despite having already led the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes for nearly a decade, Maurice eventually came to the realization he wasn't ready for the intense microscope and pressure.
"Really valuable to me," Maurice said Tuesday of his time in Toronto ahead of Game 1 against the Leafs. "So many lessons that I've used going forward. In truth, a lot of it has to do with dealing with the Canadian market. It's a completely different animal. You have to be aware of the impact of what you say in your room.
"I don't think that I was necessarily prepared for it."
Maurice certainly has figured things out since.
He would return to Carolina for a second stint, coach a year in Russia, and then spend parts of nine seasons with the Winnipeg Jets before resigning in December 2021.
He thought he was done with coaching until last June.
"A number comes up on my phone that I don't know," said Maurice, whose team downed Boston after falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series against a club that set NHL records for wins and points.
"I don't answer because I don't know the number. And then I got a call from (Panthers general manager) Bill Zito. Four days later I was in Florida."
The Panthers won last season's Presidents' Trophy with the league's best record, but underwent major changes in the summer following a disappointing second-round playoff exit, including Maurice's arrival and the acquisition of Matthew Tkachuk.
Florida was in big trouble in late March before Maurice unloaded on his team in full public view during a game at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena with his group staring down a fifth straight regulation loss.
Beet-red and veins bulging from his face and neck as he went nuclear, the Sault-Ste. Marie, Ont., native got the desired result. The Panthers won that game in overtime and took the next five on the way to sneaking into the playoffs.
"Changed our season," Tkachuk said. "We were able to get the ball rolling.
"Can't really write that story the way it all happened."
Veteran forward Eric Staal played for Maurice twice in Carolina before reuniting with the Panthers.
"Him and I both look a little older now," Staal said. "That's probably the (angriest) I've seen him as far as letting the fellas have it. He's pretty calculated in what he does and how he approaches things.
"He wouldn't have done it if he didn't know that our group could handle that."
Maurice, who sits sixth on the NHL's all-time coaching wins list, also led the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies for a season, which is the same route to the Leafs taken by current head coach Sheldon Keefe.
"Paul's been around, and seen it and done it all," said Keefe, who added Maurice reached out to him when he got the Toronto job in 2019. "Whether it's as a junior coach or an (AHL) coach or an NHL coach, Paul's been tremendous in support.
"He does a great job as a coach, but also for coaches and for the league."
Tkachuk credits Maurice with taking his game to new heights after putting up a career-high 109 points in 2022-23.
"I've loved every minute of it," Tkachuk said. "He's very bright and somebody that I've learned a lot from. I've enjoyed playing for him so much.
"Made me a way better player. For that, I thank him. What he was able to do with our team and preparing us for especially that first round ... definitely was a very calming influence for us and allowed us to prepare and beat the team that we did."
Now the Panthers turn their attention to the Leafs.
Having finally conquered a 19-year hurdle by reaching the second round of the playoffs, an sport psychology professor said it's important for Toronto to "not complicate things" against Florida.
"I can only imagine how freeing that must be for them," said Natalie Durand-Bush, a mental performance consultant and professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Human Kinetics. "To not necessarily play more relaxed, but just having conquered that, to have the confidence to just play and to just try to get to the next level."
The Leafs have home-ice advantage for the series that started Tuesday.
"There's no need for setting these new complex or difficult goals," she said. "Just go back to what the team needs to do to be successful and stick to that. Stick to the plan.
"It's just a matter of following that and not getting carried away by all those other external factors that could be unnecessarily draining."
-With files from Gregory Strong.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press