A sad day for Winnipeg sports Maurice will be missed at the rink and in the community
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/12/2021 (291 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Paul Maurice stated Friday was a “great day” for the Winnipeg Jets. With apologies to the now-former coach of the team, he’s wrong.
There’s nothing positive about someone losing their job, let alone a quality human being such as Maurice who has meant so much to the organization and the community. His rather stunning departure — the result of what appears to be a classic “I’ll resign before you have to fire me” situation — leaves a big hole, and a gaping wound, that’s going to be tough to repair.
Just like Dustin Byfuglien’s retirement, or Patrik Laine’s trade, a massive part of the organization’s DNA and personality is suddenly gone. Maurice is a class act, a Hall of Fame communicator and a terrific leader who is universally respected in hockey circles and took Winnipeg to its greatest NHL heights, coming three victories short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. Oh, to think what could have been.
He truly is one of a kind and will be missed dearly, for many reasons.
That said, Friday was a painfully necessary day for the Jets, one that quite frankly was overdue. There were plenty of warning signs over the past few seasons that this team had lost its way and Maurice’s message had grown stale, as they failed to find consistency and reach their full potential. That’s not a character flaw or personal indictment, but simply a reality in the sports world where even the best and brightest have a shelf life.
“The law of diminishing returns,” as Maurice himself described it. Only Jon Cooper has been at his current job longer, and he has the luxury of back-to-back championships down in Tampa Bay on his resume.
Good on Maurice for having the self-awareness, and the humility, to realize he had reached his expiration date, which became clear over the past few weeks in which the Jets were seemingly drowning under increased expectations and pressure to win as a 9-3-3 start turned into a 4-7-2 plummet. For a team spending to the salary-cap ceiling, with a core of players in their prime and all the pieces for success supposedly in place, that’s not even close to good enough.
An ugly 4-2 loss to Buffalo on Tuesday, in which the home team was booed off the ice by what was left of an angry crowd that was nearly 2,000 short of a sellout at puck drop, was apparently the breaking point for all parties. And behind-the-scenes discussions between Maurice, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and co-owner Mark Chipman about an exit strategy heated up, with the veteran bench boss allowed to go out gracefully on his own terms, including a nice severance package that can afford him some well-earned time off with family.
I was struck by what I saw at Wednesday’s practice, which had the atmosphere of a funeral. It was eerily quiet during the 42-minute skate, with almost none of the customary barking from Maurice that has been the norm over the years. And the body language and lack of energy from the players was concerning, so much so I asked Maurice about it after. He chalked it up to the heavy skate he put them through. There was a slightly more positive air to Thursday’s skate, but there still was a sense that everyone was waiting for something to happen. Hours later, it did.
The timing wasn’t ideal, with players arriving at Canada Life Centre to prepare for a big game against the Washington Capitals, only to be pulled into a meeting that left them shocked. For many of them, Maurice is the only NHL coach they’ve known. Blake Wheeler, who suffered a serious knee injury a week ago, was actually the first player to learn as Maurice pulled him aside for a one-on-one chat. Wheeler has said in the past he would “go through a wall” for Maurice, so there’s no question the captain, who didn’t speak publicly, is stinging at this development.
Maurice and Cheveldayoff pulled back the curtain a bit on Friday, revealing how the subject of his leaving been broached plenty of times in the past, including last summer. But it had always ended with a decision to keep moving forward, with the hope that brighter skies were on the horizon. Instead, the storm clouds have gathered.
It will take some time to see how exactly Dave Lowry’s philosophy is different than the man he’s replacing. There’s no magic wand to wave, although teams often experience at least a temporary bump with a new voice in charge. Just look at the Vancouver Canucks and Bruce “There It Is” Boudreau, who have rattled off six straight victories. Boudreau would have been a perfect fit here in the ‘Peg, but that ship has now sailed. This is Lowry’s team to steer at least through the rest of the regular-season, when a more thorough search will commence.
As we’ve seen at various points this year, this team has the talent to succeed. But there was clearly something else missing, which Lowry and the remaining staff are tasked with trying to now find before it’s too late and a once-promising season goes under.
Fixing the woeful special teams should be priority No. 1, as the only thing the Jets are killing when they take a penalty these days is their chance of winning. The power play has been rather impotent as well, and in a league where it’s often a razor-thin line between success and failure, that must change. Whether it’s different personnel, or different systems, the status quo hasn’t been working under the admittedly stubborn Maurice.
And as several players themselves stated, it might also mean being pushed outside their comfort zone. Loyalty and longevity can often lead to blind spots when it comes to making cold, hard decisions that are necessary in a results-oriented business. With Maurice now in his ninth year in Winnipeg — an eternity for his typically perilous job profession — it would be understandable if things got a bit too cushy around here. His departure should now have everyone on their toes.
Perhaps a fresh approach can lead to some great days ahead for the hockey club. Despite Maurice bravely trying to put a positive spin on things as he bid farewell, Friday was not one of them.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.