Paul MacLean had had nothing but success as a coach after his 11-year NHL career ended in 1991.
In eight seasons as a head coach in the minors with the Quad City Mallards, Peoria Rivermen and Kansas City Blades, he got his teams to the playoffs seven times, winning the United Hockey League’s Colonial Cup championship with the Mallards in 2001.
And as an assistant to Mike Babcock in both Anaheim and Detroit, he went to the Stanley Cup final three times, once with the Ducks and twice with the Red Wings (winning in 2008).
But still he waited, got passed over, and wondered if he’d ever get a chance to be a head coach in the NHL. It was lonely.
Then Bryan Murray called.
Ten years before, the Ottawa Senators general manager had hired MacLean to be an assistant in Anaheim. Looking for his fourth coach in four years, Murray thought MacLean might be the one who could finally coach what was looking like an uncoachable team.
Fortunately, this time he was right.
One season after missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, the Senators are back in and — unless the world goes mad — MacLean will be one of the three finalists for NHL coach of the year
“He’s a good person, he communicates, and the one thing that kept coming back about him is that he’s genuine,” said Murray. “He knew the game and he deserved a chance.”
Murray had a lot at stake when he went looking for a coach last summer.
He had already burned through John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg, and Cory Clouston, good men all, but unable to win the confidence of the players.
It’s like legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel said: “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”
And neither Paddock, Hartsburg, or Clouston could.
But worse was the effect it was having on the franchise. Ottawa was becoming a black hole for coaches.
According to a USA Today study of coaching tenures in February, the average of the last five Ottawa coaches (MacLean, Paddock, Hartsburg, Clouston, and Murray) was 1.26 years. That was second worst in the league.
Only New Jersey, with an average of .98, was worse. Even the New York Islanders were better, with an average tenure of 1.80 years.
MacLean has started to reverse the trend.
For the first time since Murray took the team to the Stanley Cup final in 2008, the players are playing for a coach instead of against him. And they’re having fun doing it.
It’s exactly what Murray hoped would happen and why he sought a coach who would make talking and listening to the players his No. 1 priority.
It’s not rocket science. This is not the NHL of 25 years ago where the coach spoke and the players listened.
Modern players wants to have a say in their future, and that’s what MacLean gave them. He gathered the leaders of the team — Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips, Sergei Gonchar, Craig Anderson, and Chris Neil — set out his expectations, asked for their suggestions and then married them into a plan both sides could live with.
“The coach can’t be the brick wall and not be willing to give,” said MacLean.
“You have to be open to new ideas and some of those new ideas might come from your own players.
“I felt that if I came in and I was myself and open and honest with the core players, I felt I would have a way to play that they would like, and that they would enjoy it.
“I also felt that if there were any issues with it, I would be able to solve them.
“I would be willing listen to what they had to say and how they thought the game should be played, and how I feel the game should be played, and somehow marry those two thoughts to make a way we could play, because maybe they have a better way to play.
“You have to be open to that.
“For me, it was just important to have that conversation with them. If they feel they’re invested in it, then it makes everything better for everybody.”
Alfredsson, who has played for every coach the franchise has had since rejoining the league in 1992, said the players understand MacLean is the boss and has the final word.
But once the business part of the day is finished, MacLean has an approachable attitude. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, people skills. And the players like him.
“He came in and was clear about what he wants and what he expects,” said Alfredsson.
“But when you’re done working, when you’re done practising, he’s also a person who can make a joke, make guys feel that he’s not just the boss but also a guy you can talk to.
“He’s just a good person that everybody respects.
“I think the biggest thing is that he makes every guy feel like he’s an important part of the team. He doesn’t neglect some guys, or favour some guys more than others.
“Just a real solid person.”
But it’s not just giving the players a voice that has made MacLean successful.
With his like-minded assistants, Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds, the coaching staff has been able to give the players a sense of confidence.
MacLean is blunt and doesn’t make excuses when the team loses. But his players know if they work hard, they’re going to play, that one mistake isn’t going to earn them a bus ticket to the minors.
Kyle Turris is a case in point. In Phoenix, he was in coach Dave Tippett’s doghouse and he wasn’t going to get out. A former first-round draft pick, his career was sinking fast.
The best thing that could have happened to him, he said, was getting traded to Ottawa and having MacLean as a coach.
“He’s given me the confidence to be the player I want to be, and to have fun playing, too,” said Turris. “It’s something I can’t thank him enough for.”
MacLean’s own NHL career, which was pretty good by any standard, earns him points with the players, because they can see that he walked the talk by scoring almost a point a game. Turris says they listen closely because they know he’s been in the same situations.
But the real value of his career, says MacLean, is that it has put him in their skates. Even if that career ended 20 years ago, he knows what they’re living and understands that it’s often a struggle to survive.
“I’ve been Daniel Alfredsson, I’ve been Jason Spezza, I’ve been the player on the team who’s expected to score and carry that responsibility and pressure every day,” he said.
“I understand what that means and what it’s like, trying to find the consistency to be the player you’re supposed to be.
“Even though it was a long time ago, it’s still in the same league, and I think the fact that I’ve lived through it and know what it’s like maybe gives me a little more insight into what their day-to-day troubles might be.”
So credit Murray with a home run this time. After this season, the question is going to be: why didn’t MacLean get an NHL job sooner?
“I use the word communicate a lot, but communicating is not only talking, it’s also listening and including, and all those words,” said Murray.
“What I saw in Paul was a guy who was open. The big change was when he came in and got the leadership core together and said ‘This is what we hope to do, what do you think?’ and allowed them to have a voice.
“He took their advice, used what he thought was right from it, and let it happen.
“If you ask the players, they’ve had a good year because they’ve had a little fun doing it.”