Paul Maurice’s ability to motivate Jets players turning into success on ice

WINNIPEG — It was almost a month after Paul Maurice was hired to coach the Winnipeg Jets when his boss received further proof he was the right man for the job.

The Jets had just lost in a shootout to the St. Louis Blues on the road and players were heading off in all directions for the 2014 Olympic break.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was there to help with travel arrangements and made a rare appearance in the post-game dressing room.

“How he left the players, their state of mind after that conversation going into the break, the confidence that he gave that group after a tough loss like that, was amazing,” Cheveldayoff said Saturday, during Winnipeg’s 5-1 victory over Calgary.

“The transformation of the guys walking off the ice, to what they were walking out of there in their suits, it was a real eye-opener. To know how he thinks, how he’s able to motivate, how he’s able to get guys to rally, it was a pretty impressive thing.”

What Maurice has been able to do since then has also been impressive, and surprising to many.

Despite injuries to key players, question marks about goaltending and both hot and cold stretches, he’s guided the Jets (43-26-13) into the playoffs for the first time since the Atlanta Thrashers organization relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

The Jets face the Ducks (51-24-7) in the first round, beginning with games Thursday and Saturday in Anaheim. They host Anaheim on April 20 in what will be the first playoff game in Winnipeg since 1996.

Maurice deflected any personal praise after the team finished the regular season with a franchise-record 99 points.

“We did a good job separating what was our job and what was (the players’) job. . .,” Maurice said. “So we did our job, but far more importantly is the players took the things that they were responsible for and handled them.”

The players will say Maurice’s motivational skills and hockey smarts have been the driving force since he replaced Claude Noel on Jan. 12, 2014.

“Right from the first day that we saw him, you could tell just how he can just command an audience,” said centre Mark Scheifele.

“He’s such a strong talker and he’s just so confident. He oozes confidence to his players. He’s just a smart guy. He understands the game so well and he knows when you start panicking, that’s when you get into trouble.

“He’s definitely the best coach I’ve ever had. I’ve learned so much.”

Maurice, 48, coached his 1,201st NHL game on Saturday, a career that included stints with the Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Veteran Jets defenceman Jay Harrison, acquired in a December trade with Carolina, was happy to reunite with Maurice. He’d played under him with the Leafs and Hurricanes.

“He has a great balance of the ability to motivate and that personal connection to the team, as well as the Xs and the Os,” Harrison said. “There are a lot of unique personalities in this room and it takes a certain individual to be able to understand how to approach each one.”

Assistant coach Charlie Huddy has admired the way Maurice builds relationships with the players.

“He’ll have casual conversations with guys, make sure everything is going good, just lifestyle and stuff like that — make sure everything’s good away from the rink, which is important.”

Combine that with Maurice’s work ethic and it’s a package that’s helped turn the Jets around.

“For me, the biggest thing is just the way he works,” Huddy said. “He’ll watch our games two or three times just to get a feel for how the game’s going.

“At the end of the day it pays off because you really get to understand your team and how they’re performing.”

His players, staff and boss all point out Maurice’s sense of humour as one of his notable traits.

“It’s because of how sharp he is and intelligent he is,” Cheveldayoff said. “There’s humour in there that’s well thought out.

“We’ve got a great relationship where you can just sit and have a good conversation. You can’t walk away from a conversation with him and not either feel good about yourself or good about the situation.”

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press

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