After coaching the Jets for nine seasons, Paul Maurice is back in Winnipeg only Tuesday night he will be behind the visitors’ bench with the Florida Panthers.
The best moments of the second-coming of the Jets in Winnipeg came with Maurice behind the bench.
In his first full season with the Jets — he replaced the fired Claude Noel midway through the 2013-14 seasons — they made the playoffs for the first time since the franchise left Atlanta and relocated in Winnipeg.
Two seasons after that, the Jets not only won the first playoff series in Thrashers/Jets history, but they went all the way to the Western Conference finals only to lose to the first-year Golden Knights.
It was a pretty nice run for Maurice and his family in Winnipeg and it is a town he still has fondness for and great memories of.
“It’s still home for some of my family and a special place,” Maurice said before the Panthers took off on their five-game road trip which ends at the arena on Portage Avenue.
“It’s a really good team, a tremendously well-run organization and a special market because it needs the fans to survive. It’s not a big building, it’s not a big market. So that connection there between the fans and the players is unique. And special.
“It will always be a special place. They understand the loss (of the team to Arizona) so the connection they have is unusual and important. That franchise is a great model in the league for smaller and maybe unique markets.”
The final few years of Maurice’s tenure in Winnipeg were definitely not highlight moments and, he says, the hard Covid restrictions cooled his excitement level when it came to coaching.
After the lockdown in 2020 and playing in front of empty arenas throughout Canada in 2021, Maurice said it was “the first time I did not enjoy coming to the rink” adding he had lost some of his passion for the job.
With the Jets sagging last December, he resigned as coach saying he could not reach them anymore.
“When you’ve had a 26-year coaching professional hockey career, you know they need a new voice,’’ Maurice said. “They need someone to help them get to that next place.”
Even though Winnipeg held the final wild card spot in the West on Thanksgiving, it had lost nine of 13 going into the mutual decision between himself and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to move on.
”They built that team, they did not inherit a well-stocked organization,’’ Maurice said, referring to the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg in 2011.
“It took them years to build it and they did so through the draft. Many of the star players now were kids when we came in. They went from being a team that had not won a playoff game much less a series and built it into a very good team. They have good depth of talent and character.”
According to Maurice, he was flipping around watching hockey games with his wife Michelle in their living room in Winnipeg a few weeks after he left the Jets.
The freewheeling Panthers came on the screen, as Maurice recalls, and he mentioned to his wife “that’s an exciting team.”
When she asked if he would be interested in coaching the Panthers, he said he would be.
Of course, a lot of things had to go down from January in Winnipeg until he was hired in the heat of a South Florida summer.
The Panthers cruised into the postseason, beat the Capitals for their first postseason series win since the magical 1996 run and then scored three goals in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Lightning.
Florida general manager Bill Zito wanted to change things around the team and after speaking with Maurice, knew he had found his coach.
“We took some time and then we did our internal review,’’ Zito told FHN back in July. “And it was a prudent responsibility to the organization to say, ‘OK, let’s look to the outside.’
”We had talked to a few people and when we spoke to Paul, it was overwhelming. His mastery of the game, his presence, the way he communicated with us, in tandem with his record and the way he succeeded in communicating the game to us.
“You can tell his intellect right away, but is emotional side — his E.Q. — in how conveyed ideas … quite frankly overwhelmed us.”
Maurice was excited to get back to Winnipeg for a number of reasons.
First, while two of his children have relocated to South Florida, Maurice’s daughter Sydney still lives in Winnipeg.
Second, returning to the arena he called home for so long gives him a chance to say hello to a lot of people he got to know over the years.
Maurice has coached in a number of places from Hartford to Toronto and now Sunrise, but it is apparent Winnipeg means a lot to him.
“I am looking forward to the memories that you get by accident,” Maurice said. “You know, driving down the street and you have memories of that or seeing someone at the arena who is a familiar face.
“I’m going to kind of let it just happen when I get there. I get to see my daughter who I have not sene in a while so I am looking forward to that. It’s a great building, a great atmosphere.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT WINNIPEG JETS
- When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
- Where: Canada Life Center; Winnipeg, Manitoba
- TV: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-0
- All-time regular season series: Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets lead 50-31-8, 5 ties