July 3, 2020

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Jets coach waiting for answers, generating questions

Opinion

Paul Maurice is trying to avoid going down the proverbial "rabbit hole." That's easier said than done for a hockey lifer who suddenly has nothing but time on his hands.

"You’re careful not to get stuck in front of your computer that much. You can get over-hockeyed at times like this," the Winnipeg Jets head coach admitted Monday while, ironically, sitting in front of his screen speaking with a couple of dozen media members over a Zoom conference call. Such is the state of availabilities in these days of isolation and self-quarantining.

It's also clear that Maurice, like pretty much everyone else in the NHL right now, is also trying to avoid facing the reality that the current season is most likely over, shelved by the COVID-19 pandemic. That means no un-pausing of the regular season. No playoffs. And no Stanley Cup being awarded.

Head coach Paul Maurice is trying to avoid facing the reality that the current season is most likely over. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Head coach Paul Maurice is trying to avoid facing the reality that the current season is most likely over. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Just look at how the veteran bench boss stickhandled his way through a query about whether it would be best for everyone to simply pull the plug now, rather than cling to some fleeting sense of hope that the sports world can magically resume anytime soon.

"If the question is, 'What do I want to see happen?' I want to see the '19-'20 Winnipeg Jets play," Maurice replied.

No, that actually wasn't the question, but it's a nice thought. Not that I blame Maurice for clinging to hope. After all, it's easy to see why he might have a hard time coming to grips with the fact his squad has likely played its last game until the 2020-21 season, whatever that might look like.

And so Maurice continues to review video of his club's first 71 contests, speak regularly with other coaches and players and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, look for little tweaks to systems that could be implemented down the road, and prepare for the next big game even though the calendar is empty for the foreseeable future.

"If the question is, 'What do I want to see happen?' I want to see the '19-'20 Winnipeg Jets play." - Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets head coach

With so much uncertainty swirling, here are some other questions taking up space in my head after the hot-stove session with Maurice.

When hockey does return, what will it look like?

I can't see how any team, in any league, can play in front of fans until we have a vaccine, which experts say could still be a year or more away. Sure, we're going to eventually "flatten the curve," but social-distancing measures will likely become the new normal until such time as medical officials can ensure we're all protected from another deadly flare-up.

As a result, get used to the idea of empty arenas and stadiums. And perhaps, as some have speculated, neutral-site locations where players and teams can be isolated, tested and regularly monitored.

There was a report over the weekend that one of them could be a couple of hours down the highway in Grand Forks. Apparently the lack of population density would make North Dakota a potential option if this route is ultimately explored.

Maurice admitted that any resumption of play in the coming months would likely involve "something unusual." In that sense, could a made-for-TV type of event work?

"I'm not much of a TV watcher at all, but I've been surfing TV recently at night and if there was a hockey game on, man, I'd be watching it," said Maurice, who apparently hasn't caught Tiger King fever like the rest of us.

"I don't care where games are played. I want it at home in Winnipeg, but we just want to play. It'd be a wonderful, maybe partial, distraction for some people that are dealing with tough times to watch a game. There'd be lots of energy. God, it'd be playoffs with fresh hockey players and it'd be pretty darn exciting. We'd play anywhere."

If the season is truly over, would the Jets have made the playoffs?

Things were really clicking when this invisible enemy seemingly came out of nowhere to derail everything they'd been building. As Maurice noted, the team was finally healthy. The March schedule was one of the most favourable in the league in terms of rest. And they were rolling, winning a season-high four straight. All signs were starting to point to something special.

And then, poof. Just like that, none of it mattered. A gut punch, for sure, but given the state of what's happening around us, a completely necessary one.

Winnipeg had 11 games left, including seven on the road. Most were head-to-head meetings with the teams they were in a battle with. In other words, they very much were going to control their fate.

If there's one thing I learned about the Jets this year, expect the unexpected. Just when you thought you had them figured out, they went and did something that surprised you. Bet against them at your own peril.

Would Connor Hellebuyck have won the Vezina?

We may actually get an answer to this even if no further games are played. I would expect the NHL to eventually hand out its year-end hardware, and you can bank on the Jets No. 1 netminder standing tall among his masked colleagues. Hellebuyck had a sensational season, and it would be a shame if he isn't properly rewarded for it. I'm on record as suggesting he should also get Hart Trophy consideration as most valuable player in the league.

What are the biggest takeaways from this season?

"Stay in the fight," wasn't just a cheesy slogan, but a way of life for these Jets.

To me, the campaign turned around out of the All-Star break, which Winnipeg limped into on a four-game losing streak, outscored 20-7 in that span and with their once-promising season very much hanging in the balance. Their first game back, at home to Boston, was a 2-1 loss that extended the drought,but they played perhaps their best game of the year, one which set the table for an 8-5-2 February which got them right back into the playoff race.

Maurice alluded to that turning point on Monday, while also pointing out impressive back-to-back road victories over San Jose and Vegas that launched a November to remember.

What's with all the globes in Maurice's house?

I counted at least seven visible on the conference call. Turns out Maurice's wife, a former high school history teacher, has quite the collection representing various time periods. Same goes with the impressive number of books behind him; he admitted to reading very few of them.

 

Memo to Maurice: You might want to crack the spines on a few of those. If nothing else, it will help keep you out of the rabbit hole.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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