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For Panthers coach Paul Maurice, this Florida run is no everyday fish story

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice, left, talks with forward Aleksi Heponiemi, of Finland, right, as defender Santtu Kinnunen, also from Finland, looks on, during the first day of the NHL hockey team's training camp, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Coral Springs, Fla.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Florida Panthers' Sam Reinhart (13) and Matthew Tkachuk celebrate after the tying goal by Brandon Montour during the third period of Game 7 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins, Sunday, April 30, 2023, in Boston.

Paul Maurice never considered himself retired. He was good.

Here’s what that means: When Maurice stepped down as coach of the Winnipeg Jets in December 2021, it wasn’t clear if he would take another job. Some teams called. He'd listen. He'd then hang up the phone still convinced that his time would be better spent continuing to fish for walleye on Lake of the Woods, where he has a little spot.

And then the Florida Panthers called.

“Pardon the pun,” Maurice said. “I was hooked.”

This is no wild fisherman’s tale anymore. The Panthers are in the NHL’s final four for the first time in 27 years, set to take on the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final starting Thursday. They’re eight wins away from their first Stanley Cup. So is their coach, someone with the sixth-most regular season wins in NHL history but who has yet to hoist the grandest silver chalice in all of sports over his head.

“I think he’s got a phenomenal feel for what we have in our locker room and what he needs to do to push our buttons to make us play at our best,” Panthers forward Eric Staal said. “I wouldn’t be the first guy to say I think he’s a phenomenal coach. He’s our leader and we’re really happy to play for him and play for each other. For sure, he has a great pulse on what we have. And we want to continue to just keep building this thing as the playoffs can move on.”

If any player can speak with authority on the trajectory of Maurice’s career, or his effectiveness, it’s Staal. Maurice was his first coach — ironically, with Carolina in 2003. He’s played for nine other coaches, and now is reunited with Maurice with the Panthers, with the Hurricanes waiting for them in a matchup to decide which club will represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final.

Can Maurice be a yeller and screamer? Oh, absolutely.

Can he also be a comedian? Oh, absolutely.

Maurice’s viral rant on the bench in late March during a Florida game at Toronto is one of the biggest moments of the Panthers’ season. He shredded his team, a profane rant the likes of which he rarely if ever doles out publicly. “A nice opportunity to share my feelings,” he called it.

The Panthers won that night, kick-starting their push to the playoffs and they haven’t stopped kicking since.

“He’s coached probably over 2,000 games in the NHL,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said, coming close but slightly overshooting Maurice’s total of 1,871 games including playoffs. “He literally knows every situation, how to handle it. He’s the guy we trust, the guy we believe and love playing for. He knows what to do and he tells us the right thing.”

The screaming moments are rare. The funny ones happen with far more regularity. Maurice isn't a control freak; the locker room belongs to the players, with a bit of guidance from the coaches' office when needed. He famously says he doesn't even coach Sergei Bobrovsky. (“I know nothing about goaltending,” Maurice says, and he's not kidding.)

He drew hysterical laughter in a postgame interview when chiding the media for not believing in the Panthers (and with a few choice profanity drops in there as well). He knows when to be serious and sarcastic, doesn't mind taking a few minutes to tell a story, and cringes when anyone tries to give him the credit for Florida's success.

“Fit,” Florida general manager Bill Zito said. “This was about fit. He was the right fit.”

Zito knew it before Maurice did. Other teams had called Maurice to gauge his interest, and Maurice always had the same reaction.

“There was no fit,” Maurice said.

There's that word again. Everything wound up fitting perfectly in Florida. Zito called Maurice late last spring to schedule a more formal phone meeting to talk about the Panthers. It was an hour, and then an hour turned into two, and then Maurice found himself flying south to visit Zito's home. A five-hour meeting followed on Day 1, a 10-hour meeting followed on Day 2.

“I guess it was a job interview,” Maurice said.

Zito's offer was wild: Take over a team that just had the best regular season in the NHL, only to sputter in the second round of last year's playoffs, and help change everything. Change the approach, change the playing style, and turn a regular-season juggernaut into a real playoff contender. That was daunting enough; then came a serious roster shakeup in the trade for Matthew Tkachuk, followed by a run of injuries that obviously nobody saw coming. Year 1 could have been a disaster; Florida was thisssss close to not making the playoffs.

Then came the rant, then the Toronto rally, then a stunning win over a record-setting Boston team in Round 1, then ousting Toronto in Round 2. And here they are, in the conference finals. Starting in Carolina, no less.

All three of Maurice's children were born in Raleigh; he was the last coach of the Hartford Whalers and the first coach of the Carolina Hurricanes when the franchise relocated there. One of his players on his last Carolina team was Rod Brind'Amour, who now coaches the Hurricanes. He still has close friends in the organization and raves about how brilliant a coach he thinks Brind'Amour is.

Fishing can wait for a few more weeks. There might be a Cup to catch first.

“I knew this was going to be hard,” Maurice said. “But this is the stuff that makes you excited.”

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