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A familiar fresh start

by Mike Sundheim

 

 

The life of the head coach of a professional sports franchise is not an easy one. Regardless of how successful a coach might be, a cloud of inevitability hangs over his head with the knowledge that one day he — similar to all professional coaches — likely will be let go by the team. Regardless of the heights of their successes, even men like Joe Torre, Casey Stengel, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells and Scotty Bowman ultimately were let go or forced to resign by teams that they had led to championships.

 

But, as the Hurricanes proved this past December, sometimes what goes around comes back around.

 

In December 2003, Jim Rutherford, the team’s president and general manager, made one of the most difficult decisions of his professional life, letting go of friend and head coach Paul Maurice after nine seasons with the team. Maurice had helped to turn around the franchise, leading the Hurricanes to more than 250 wins, two Southeast Division titles and the team’s first Eastern Conference Championship. But when the team got off to a rough start in 2003 after finishing last in the 2002-2003 season, a change felt necessary.

 

Maurice bounced back quickly. After coaching the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, he was named head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, possibly the most prestigious head coaching position in hockey. He guided a young Maple Leafs squad to a record of 76-66-22 over two seasons, including a career-best 40-win season in 2006-2007.

 

Then came the return. In December, Rutherford called his old friend again and asked if he was interested in returning to North Carolina. Maurice accepted, and a familiar face returned behind the bench once again for the Hurricanes.

 

While Maurice might be familiar to Hurricanes fans and staff, he wasn’t such a familiar face to most of the team itself. Only four players — Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour, Niclas Wallin and Ryan Bayda — remain from Maurice’s first term with the team. Another former player, Ron Francis, had traded in the Hurricanes uniform he wore during Maurice’s previous stint for the suit of an associate coach.

 

Even for those who knew Maurice the first time around, it still felt like a new beginning because a lot can change in five years. The team experienced the highest of highs during that time, winning its first Stanley Cup championship, only to go through the frustration of narrowly missing the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Maurice had experienced the pressures of coaching under the microscope of the toughest media corps in the sport, dealing with different groups of players and personalities along the way. In a sense, everyone experienced distinct types of growth over those five years, and it was clear from the first few practices that Maurice’s methods and style had adapted with the changing teams and times.

 

We all owe a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude to Peter Laviolette, who as head coach helped bring the state — and all of us — our first major sports championship. There is little doubt Laviolette will land back on his feet and be successful with another team.

 

But sports can be a funny business, and sometimes the act of simply introducing a new voice and new methods into the locker room can light a spark. The early returns have displayed the desired effect: The Hurricanes have jumped back firmly into the mix of teams that will battle for spots in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

 

The team will face plenty of challenges during the second half of the season, as teams adjust and focus on grabbing one of the Eastern Conference’s eight coveted positions in the playoffs. But Rutherford’s decision to bring back Maurice most certainly will be considered the turning point of the season.

 

Perhaps the best fresh start of all can come with a little familiarity.  

 

Mike Sundheim is director of media relations for the Carolina Hurricanes. Check out his blog on the team’s official Web site at www.carolinahurricanes.com.