With strong ties to Paul Maurice and Aaron Ekblad, Windsor has close eye on Stanley Cup final

Paul Maurice, left, played junior hockey and started his coaching career in Windsor, Ont. Aaron Ekblad is from Windsor and has been with the Florida Panthers since being taken first overall in the 2014 NHL draft. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images - image credit)
Paul Maurice, left, played junior hockey and started his coaching career in Windsor, Ont. Aaron Ekblad is from Windsor and has been with the Florida Panthers since being taken first overall in the 2014 NHL draft. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images - image credit)

The Florida Panthers are in their first Stanley Cup final since 1996 and head coach Paul Maurice and defenceman Aaron Ekblad have close connections to Windsor, Ont.

Maurice started coaching junior hockey earlier than most, becoming an assistant at the tail end of his OHL career with the Windsor Spitfires.

His Windsor billet, Charlie McGregor, says he saw leadership qualities in Maurice right away as a player — as teammates gravitated to him and their home on off days and weekends.

"And I'm talking about players that had been there for a couple of years before Paul came. Keith Gretzky being one," he said.

McGregor described Maurice as a dependable defenceman who "wasn't going to light up the scoreboard."

"Very committed, very sure of himself."

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Florida Panthers head coach suffered a serious eye injury early on during his OHL career.

"To this day, he still has very poor peripheral vision in his right eye. It caused him to consider not playing anymore."

A strong 1988 Windsor Spitfires team that made it to the Memorial Cup finally squeezed Maurice out of the lineup. The team agreed to move him elsewhere or offer him an assistant coaching job.

"He wasn't sure at that time if he would contribute enough to feel good about himself. He didn't know what to do. After some soul searching and speaking to some of his friends and his family, he decided to take the job and the rest is history."

Jim R. Bounds/Associated Press
Jim R. Bounds/Associated Press

Longtime Windsor sports personality Domenic Papa says even as a teenager Maurice was very mature.

"He had a great personality — a great guy to be around," said Papa, who's also the founder of WE Digital Productions.

"But there was just something maybe a little bit different where he was. He had that leadership quality.… Just approached everything the right way."

Maurice is the second youngest coach in NHL history when he took over in Hartford/Carolina at the age of 28. He also became the youngest NHL bench boss to coach 1,000 games. Aside from his time with the Whalers/Hurricanes, he's been a head coach in Carolina, Toronto, Winnipeg and now Florida — with a brief stint in the KHL in Russia.

McGregor says seeing his team make the cup final makes him feel good.

"I've kept in close contact with Paul … over the years, I've spent many times in Carolina. North Carolina, at his house and in Toronto. So we had a good bond."

WATCH | Aaron Ekblad's dad says it was 'euphoric' to make it to the Stanley Cup final: 

Windsor's Aaron Ekblad has been with the Panthers for nine seasons since they drafted him first overall in 2014.

His dad, Dave, says these playoffs have been a wild ride since Florida was down 3-1 in their first round series to the regular season champion Bruins.

"It's so euphoric," he said.

"It's been very surprising and incredible that they were able to go this far."

Michael Evans/CBC
Michael Evans/CBC

Ekblad says he was in attendance in Florida for the NHL Eastern Conference sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes — sending the Panthers to the Stanley Cup — saying the home crowd was incredible with their white towels waving and everyone going "crazy."

"There is a video where he actually looks up into the stands at us and gives us a little wave. So that was a really memorable moment. We really enjoyed that."

Papa says Aaron Ekblad brings a lot to the table and has developed nicely since being given exceptional status to enter the OHL as a 15-year-old.

"He's become a leader on that team, comes from a great family."

Michael Evans/CBC
Michael Evans/CBC

Ekblad says he hopes to make it to every Stanley Cup game because watching his son in the final is possibly a once in a lifetime experience.

"Any time your children do something well on any level it's the same. It's just a different playoff, a different championship that you're chasing. But it's always great to see whatever your children are doing well."

Due to Windsor's location, and the Detroit Red Wings not qualifying for the playoffs, Ekblad says a lot of his friends are Maple Leafs fans, which made for tension in the second round.

"They were torn certainly, but they've come around. The Panthers were always their second favourite team because of the connection."

McGregor says he's a Toronto fan, and like Ekblad's friends, once Florida took out the Leafs in five games he was left with no choice but to cheer for Maurice's Panthers.

"I'm a Maple Leaf fan. And I had some torn allegiance, you know, during the Leaf Florida games. But my wife was 100 per cent behind Paul, and she made my life miserable for those … games."

If you're from the Windsor region and you're not pulling for the Panthers, "Shame on you," says Papa.

The Florida Panthers take on the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.