Maurice, Rutherford are still friends

9 Jun 2024

Published Jun 08, 2024  •  Last updated 14 hours ago  •  4 minute read

Sault Ste. Marie native Paul Maurice Photo by Lynne Sladky /AP

Jim Rutherford watches a lot of hockey.

Paul Maurice - Figure 1
Photo Sault Star

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It’s a huge part of his job — and his four-decade-long success — after all.

But when the Stanley Cup Final begins Saturday on the edge of the Everglades, he’ll have another reason to pay attention: one of the coaches involved is one of his oldest friends — coach Paul Maurice.

It’s been 40 years since Rutherford picked Maurice, a lanky defenceman from Sault Ste. Marie, in the OHL’s draft.

Maurice wasn’t actually at that draft, so when Rutherford, then running the Windsor Compuware Spitfires, called out his name and Maurice didn’t appear, Rutherford had a moment of anxiety.

“I thought, oh boy, this may be a player going to college,” he said. But Maurice showed up for training camp, but in the team’s first pre-season game, a deflected puck struck Maurice in the right eye.

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He suffered extensive damage but recovered well enough to carry on with his playing career. The Philadelphia Flyers picked him with the last selection of the 1985 NHL draft, but Maurice to this day has issues with his peripheral vision and a blind spot in the centre of his right eye.

This weakened vision meant his NHL dream wouldn’t become a reality.

“That would be the end for most people,” Rutherford said. “But that’s when I really got to know him — his determination and his character — and he was determined he was still going to play with one eye. And so he did. He played for four years for the Spitfires. He was a good defenceman.”

But when Rutherford started loading up the Spitfires’ roster midway through the 1987-88 season, the team had too many overagers and Maurice wasn’t essential. Rutherford and owner Peter Karmanos told Maurice he would either be released, or he could become an assistant coach and start to learn how to teach the game.

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Maurice leapt at the opportunity. The Spitfires won the OHL title that spring, then lost in the final of the Memorial Cup to Trevor Linden’s Medicine Hat Tigers.

He served as an assistant until 1993, following Rutherford and Karmanos as they shifted to an expansion operation across the river in Detroit. He was promoted to head coach and, at the end of his second season in charge of the team by then known as the Junior Red Wings, he guided Detroit to the OHL title and again found his team in the Memorial Cup final.

The Kamloops Blazers, led by Jarome Iginla, crushed Detroit, but Maurice had made his mark. He was one of the hottest commodities in hockey coaching.

In 1994, Rutherford and Karmanos had bought the Hartford Whalers. A year later, they hired Maurice to be an assistant to Paul Holmgren, who Rutherford had asked to be his first head coach in 1994.

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Early in the 1995-96 season, with the Whalers struggling, Rutherford fired Holmgren and handed the reins to Maurice. Maurice was 28 and still remains the second-youngest head coach in league history, after Gary Green.

The Whalers were struggling financially and in 1997, Karmanos and Rutherford moved them to North Carolina where they became the Hurricanes.

The team was supposed to be based in Raleigh, but for their first two seasons they played in Greensboro, 144 km away. It was going to be hard enough to sell the team and the sport in a region that knew next to nothing about hockey; it was even harder when they were playing in a city where everyone knew they wouldn’t stay.

Rutherford credits Maurice’s role in the transition.

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“He took a tough situation,” Rutherford said.

Maurice and Rutherford and the Hurricanes grew together over the next six years. Along the way, Maurice guided a plucky, hard-working Hurricanes squad to the cup final in 2002.

But with the team struggling in 2003-04, Rutherford had to make the hardest call of his professional life to that date: he had to fire his friend.

“It’s hard to terminate anybody, these coaches because it’s never personal. It’s just change needs to be made,” Rutherford said. Maurice was replaced by Peter Laviolette and under the fiery American, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006.

Maurice wasn’t out of hockey long. He spent the lockout season out of work, doing some TV work with TSN, then was hired to coach the AHL’s Toronto Marlies in 2005. A year later he was promoted to the Maple Leafs’ job and ran the Toronto bench for two seasons. Then he was back to Carolina; Rutherford hired him for the third time in his life.

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He was the Hurricanes’ coach until midway through the 2011-12 season, when Rutherford fired him again.

A dozen season later, Maurice is in his second consecutive cup final. He coached a year in Russia after his second Carolina dismissal, then was the Winnipeg Jets’ coach for eight seasons.

He took over the Panthers ahead of the 2022-23 season.

His longevity, Rutherford said, is due to the respect and loyalty he has for his co-workers, which he earns in return.

“He’s very smart. He reads the situations well. He’s a good communicator and is very loyal to the people that he works with. And it works the same the other way.”

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