Maurice longs to see Jets perform in playoffs

Paul Maurice is anxious for the resumption of the NHL season and the opportunity to see how a healthy Winnipeg Jets squad performs in the run to the playoffs and beyond.

That’s the veteran head coach in him.

But Maurice is very aware hockey is inconsequential right now against the enormity of the health crisis facing the province, Canada and the rest of the world.

“My desire is completely personal. I want to see this team, the Winnipeg Jets, play. An over-arching comment to everything I’ve said, this is small potatoes compared to what people are going through. People are losing their lives, the hardships out there, people losing their jobs,” the Jets bench boss said Monday morning during a 40-minute video conference call with local media. “Certainly, the challenges the world faces with this far outweigh what Paul Maurice wants to see happen with the Winnipeg Jets, and I believe that.

“I want to see this team play. It has been an incredible year. Some of the most enjoyable moments of my career have been knowing the struggle, knowing the hardship this team faced and got itself to a point where it was feeling good. And you could feel that in the room: the confidence, a hope, a belief. Then, right at that point it started to grow the season ended. I want the season played. I want this group back together. I want to see what they can do.”

The NHL put its season on pause on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s unclear if or when hockey will resume.

Maurice had guided the team to four straight victories before the hiatus. The Central Division team was 37-28-6 and occupying the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

Maurice coached the 1,600th game of his 22-year coaching career in Edmonton, a 4-2 victory over the Oilers on March 11, the night before the season was halted.

“I don’t care what format it is. I want an opportunity to compete for the playoffs, I want a fair opportunity to do that. But I want to see this season played,” Maurice said. “I’m not concerned about next year or what this season would do to next year. Those are all real problems and real issues that smart people gotta figure out.

Winnipeg had lost more than 300 man-games to injury during the ’19-20 campaign but was a relatively healthy bunch on its last road trip. A pair of forwards Adam Lowry (upper body) and Mathieu Perreault (upper body) had returned to the lineup and centre Cody Eakin was fitting in nicely after being acquired from Vegas near the trade deadline.

A blue-line in flux since the off-season was sound, with the addition of Dylan DeMelo and a healthy Nathan Beaulieu. And goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was performing at an elite level.

The Jets, too, faced a manageable schedule in March, playing only nine games in 21 days.

Maurice said so many signs of optimism made the sudden stoppage difficult to accept — until the magnitude of the pandemic started to be revealed.

“It was a trying season, beyond all the things that were obviously a challenge for us. You’re still trying to win with a really young team and every day it’s was a grind,” he said. “We didn’t fully appreciate — and I guess nobody did — the seriousness of this virus and what it would do to the world, at that time. Those first three or four days right after they paused this season were really hard because I felt this team was stressed right to its maximum but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Our March was good… we were just starting to get healthy and here comes the payoff for these guys.

“You’re pulling for them and so that’s why those first few days after (it’s) ‘Uncle, enough.’ We had earned the right. We were set up to be healthy and good and strong going into the playoffs, having survived an incredible year. It still bothers me.

“But again, against the backdrop of the world’s dealing with, it’s something we can get over.”

Maurice, who took over the Jets bench midway through the 2013-14 campaign, agreed to a multi-year contract extension in mid-February, although terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

Overall, Maurice has a 272-190-54 record with the Jets. The team has made the playoffs three times, including a run to the conference final in 2018.

Maurice, his wife and three kids have been heeding the advice of medical professionals and saying home during the crisis. He’s finding a balance between getting some work done and enjoying a unique chance to spend lots of time with the family.

He talks with general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff daily, as well as his coaching staff. The job of touching base with players every couple of days is split up.

“We want to make sure we are in contact with players. We rotate through so that everybody’s hearing a different voice,” he said. “The positive for me and my family is I have three (university-aged) kids home, so it’s a window I’ll never get again. Have dinners together, watch bad movies they think are funny and clearly are not. We’re making the most of it.”

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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