1207 for publication February 19, 2017
The Winnipeg Jets are in tenth place in the West, and everything about them has an “almost” feel to them. Almost everything except they sit four points behind Los Angeles, five behind Calgary and St. Louis, and six back of Nashville who are in sixth place. Out of the playoffs
Those six points are no small matter, nor are the list of teams they have to climb and leap-frog over in the games remaining to make a playoff birth. Do-able with an occasional good run but difficult in the extreme.
What’s required is a generous helping of luck, a lack of injuries, finding a stingy goal-keeper, and keeping Patrick Laine’s eyes on the learning curve. The Jets really haven’t accomplished much since their resurrection, considering they had little to work with when they arrived from Atlanta.
But since acquiring the second overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft and landing the aforementioned Laine, with a few add-ons and re-jigs they have shown the makings of a team in the top-eight. Whether it’s this year or not is the job coach Paul Maurice faces.
I first met Maurice at the John Ferguson Golf Classic, the annual tournament held in Windsor for a dozen years. It was there, in Windsor of the 80’s, that Maurice was a defenceman with the OHL Spitfires. In his fourth season he suffered an eye injury that ended his hockey career, but when Spitfires owner Peter Karmanos offered him a job as an assistant coach, he was happy to stayo on. This was the same owner that hired and fired him later in his NHL career during his initial go-round with the Hartford Whalers who became the Carolina Hurricanes.
When Karmanos fired him from Carolina, his replacement was Peter Laviolette, and Maurice moved to the AHL Toronto Marlies in 2005, then was bumped up to the Maple Leafs in 2006 for two desultory seasons.
Laviolette was with the Hurricanes long enough to pick up a Stanley Cup in 2006 but by 2008 Karmanos was canning Laviolette and rehiring Maurice. Coaching, being the nomadic, unpredictable journey it is, saw Maurice return to the Hurricanes once more for two seasons, before he was let go by Karmanos yet again.
His next stop was in the Russian KHL, for the 2012-13 season, a one-and-done deal. His timing was perfect as he was offered the job in Winnipeg, replacing Claude Noel on January 12, 2014, and at the end of that half-season, they liked him so much he signed a four-year extension with the Jets.
At those Windsor Golf tournaments I had a chance to talk with Maurice on a few random occasions, the kind of round-table exchanges that occur randomly, where you can observe and converse with people in the news, while in a favourable setting. One of those sit-downs included a special one, in my book with at least, with John Ferguson Sr. and Jr., Maurice, and Scotty Bowman.
One post-note in interveiw shorthand I recall making in my car on observing Maurice in that gathering at the Essex GC, was “esh-but-Bc… stud – no name – patc pays – sens of hoo – f i persp.” Translated into working English it reads “excellent sense of humour, but be careful, studious, not a name-dropper, patience pays off with him, good sense of who he is, even his firings are in perspective.”
This translation is only doable minutes after the conversation.
Therefore it was with a constant smile as I saw him on the Thursday morning interviewed on Sports TV, and watched him with a stern deadpan and tongue-in-cheek “apologize to the residents of Manitoba”. He also coyly confessed after what seemed criticism of Laine, in cutting short the rookie’s ice time by a few minutes, adding “I still love Patrick, (pause) I’m gonna play him again.”
The smile broke through at precisely the right moment, letting his audience know he was less than serious, and it took me back to those insights he conveyed in Windsor, so long ago.
With that kind of regard for the value of humour in teaching the game, the Jets could very well make-up the playoff gap.