How Paul Maurice fuels Florida Panthers with profanity, humor and eloquence

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla., It was 10 minutes after the Florida Panthers took a 3-2 series lead in this Eastern Conference final when Paul Maurice and his assistant coaches walked out of the locker room. They filed one after the other 75 feet through the “maze,” as Maurice has called it, to the coach’s office on the 5th-floor event level of the aged Madison Square Garden.

One minute later, Maurice marched back in the same direction with an exaggeratedly agitated look on his face.

Holding a mic pack and a bunch of wires, Maurice held out his hand to show a reporter at The Athletic.

“I’m so f—ing overexposed, it’s ridiculous,” Maurice said before walking up to an NHL employee for help getting the rest of the wires out from under his sports coat and dress shirt.

Just like earlier in the series, Maurice was again mic’d up behind the bench during the Panthers’ come-from-behind 3-2 victory to put themselves on the brink of a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance.

And why wouldn’t he be?

Maurice, win or lose, has made covering and watching the Panthers this latest playoff run fun with his quick wit, cracked jokes, eloquent quotes and … propensity for profanity.

But it’s not just with reporters.

It’s inside the room with players where he’ll attempt to lighten the mood and tension with his sense of humor. But he does try to pick his spots when most appropriate.

“You want to maybe sometimes loosen the guys up, apply a little humor, do something a little unusual,” Maurice said. “At the same time now’s not the time for the chicken suit. Because they’re so serious, you have to be tapped into the fact that they are wired and there is some tension.”

That’s natural, of course, because after coming so close to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since its 1993 inception last season before Vegas beat them in the fourth round, the Panthers aren’t “just happy to be here” again.

They are much more focused than last year and want to be put in the best position to take full advantage of this latest opportunity by snagging one more victory against the New York Rangers so they have a chance at the pinnacle.

“I try to feel the room over the course of a day,” Maurice said. “What do they need? I missed the boat I think early on this year. Last year we had a really funny team, I thought, or at least they thought I was funny, which I appreciated. The (Radko) Gudas beard would shake. These guys are a little more serious, so I think I probably toned it down a little bit with them.

“What do they need from me? What’s the tone of our day? So, we have lots of days where it’s not funny. If we don’t like the way we’ve played, we deal with it. And directly, … respectfully, but those are direct days. I think all I’m trying to do other than read the team is to make sure everybody understands what an incredible time this is.”

Maurice may look young despite his self-deprecation that he does not, but at 57, Maurice knows how hard it is to get to this point.

Once the youngest coach in the NHL when he took over the Hartford Whalers in 1996 before they moved to Greensboro, N.C., and eventually Raleigh, Maurice guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002. They lost to the Detroit Red Wings, and Maurice wouldn’t get to a Stanley Cup Final again for another 21 years in 2023.

In that time, he was fired and rehired by Carolina and coached Toronto and Winnipeg, plus took a trip to the KHL to coach there. He has coached the second-most regular-season games in NHL history with 1,849 over 26 seasons. The leader of the pack is Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, so by that virtue alone, we know Maurice has coached the most games in NHL history without a Stanley Cup.

So as stressful as this is with the pressure ratcheting up the deeper the Panthers go and the closer they get to the prize they all ultimately want, Maurice is trying to convey to his players to enjoy this. After all, the players on 28 other teams are on vacation. The Panthers are fighting for hockey’s most precious prize.

“You get older, you start to understand how fleeting it is and you also understand how hard it is to get there,” Maurice said. “Sometimes the enormity of the pressure, it keeps you from, … it’s not even enjoying, it’s just being in the moment, not worrying about the last mistake you made, not worrying about the next shift on the ice. Just, play the game, be present.

“But God, you got to make sure you take it in, or there’s no point in this. We start working the coaches in late August, early September. You take a couple of days off at Christmas, you take three or four days off the All-Star break. And after that that’s all you do is work. Why? So we get here, you got to be able to find some joy in this, and I want the players to feel that from me, too.”

Maurice admits it took him a while to get over losing in last year’s Stanley Cup Final because he knows how hard it was to get there. But it would be a short summer, and as soon as he started cutting video for the team’s system package in August, he was jacked up and ready to go for this season again.

“I don’t know if sadness is the right word, but I know how hard it is to get there and a missed opportunity, but also somewhat peaceful because I don’t think there was anything left of our team anyway,” Maurice said. “But all my sense of loss was gone probably about the middle to late August last year when I started going through the video of the season.”

But what also drove him was his nervousness that the Panthers could get off to a tough start.

He knew defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, who were injured last postseason, weren’t going to be ready to start this season. He knew Matthew Tkachuk, who broke his sternum in the Stanley Cup Final, wouldn’t probably be 100 percent or at a minimum feeling completely comfortable during the first several weeks of the season.

But he credits the work GM Bill Zito and his staff did by acquiring defensemen Niko Mikkola, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov to fill holes on the blue line until the returns of Ekblad and Montour and the pickup of Kevin Stenlund, a big right-shot center, to help remedy the team’s Achilles’ heel — its penalty kill.

Well, that PK has been so good in the Eastern Conference final, that the Panthers have largely shut down a Rangers team that relies on a prolific power play to win games.

“What they did is they saw the potential problem and gave us a chance at the start,” Maurice said of Zito and his management team. “The first 20 games was going to be survival mode for us, so we had to be good in some hard areas, some defensive areas. And I have full faith that those are conversations that they had in the locker room without the coaches in there because we saw it on the ice. Having those players out gave the leadership an opportunity to help define our game and be committed to that game.”

If you ask those who were around Maurice during his first and second stints in Carolina — he was replaced by current Rangers coach Peter Laviolette in 2003, then returned to replace Laviolette in 2008, it was almost like Maurice was a different version of the same person the second go-around.

But throughout his entire career, with each stop, he has constantly evolved.

“I had no idea what I was doing. None,” Maurice said of when he first coached the Whalers/Hurricanes. “I had two years (of) head coaching experience in the Ontario Hockey League and I wasn’t ready to be an NHL assistant coach. And then in November, I became the head coach. So I was way in over my head. I was learning on the fly. The next time you come through, I did eight years and I think my first tour, we won a Conference Championship, but we were still pretty thin at the time. And then, yeah, you come back at 11 years pro instead of zero years pro. So you’re completely different with that.

“And then another big inflection point would be coming here, a completely different perspective. I think early on, as a hockey coach, I would carry the wins and losses every day. There was no separation of days. If you lost, your days were lousy until the next win. I had a better appreciation for just the presence of handling every day now. Jimmy (Rutherford) once said to me in my first year, ‘The toughest part for you is just figuring out what door to walk into each building.’ So I was starting from scratch, how do I get into the door first and you get some time on the clock and then you know what door to walk in.”

Every now and then though, as laid back as Maurice tends to be with his cracking of jokes and things like that, he’ll show that he’s still old-school at heart.

Take for instance the Panthers’ dress code.

It used to be that all players and staff in the NHL would get on buses and on planes during travel days in full game-day attire — i.e. suits. Now, they’re wearing team-issued hoodies, casual pants and … sneakers!

When Zito informed Maurice of the travel-day dress code when he hired him in 2022, Maurice said, “That’s OK. I’ll still wear a suit.”

Zito told him, “No,” that they’ll all dress the same because they’re a “team.”

“And I don’t like it because I can’t pack for it,” Maurice said. “I’m still the only guy that goes out for dinner all dressed up like the Panther coach (in a suit). I like a shirt and tie. It’s easy to pack. I did it for whatever it was, 25 years. And I get here, (and no).

“I went to Russia in the early teens (to coach) there and when I came back, I get hired into Winnipeg and guys are wearing jeans on their off day and I’m going, ‘What is going on? What happened?’ In one year, the National Hockey League went to jeans on their off day. So it was casual. You might think I’m making this one up, but it’s true, it’s a shift. And then Bill (said we’re) more casually dressed, so I just decided not to fight it.”

Saturday night, Maurice will be in his spiffy suit behind the bench at Amerant Bank Arena.

Three hours later, in that suit, he hopes to celebrate coaching the Panthers to a second consecutive Prince of Wales Trophy.

When a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series is tied 2-2, the victor in Game 5 goes on to win the series 78.8 percent of the time (231-62). including a 50-15 (.769) record in the conference final. He doesn’t want to leave it to chance and return to New York City for a Game 7.

Neither does his players.

As Maurice said Thursday morning before Game 5, “the desperation of finality is real, … 48 hours from now a very good team will be on the brink of elimination.”

The Panthers have more work to be done, one more win to get.

His focused group will be serious. His players probably won’t care for Maurice cracking a couple pregame jokes even though he may not be able to help himself in an attempt to lighten the tension.

But Maurice wants his team to enjoy this because it doesn’t happen every day and there’s no guarantee of it happening again.

(Phot0: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

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