Nothing could be finer than a win in Carolina

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:02 AM ET

Paul Maurice remembers the first time he took an extended leave from his house in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

It was deep in the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs, and given the frequent travel and time spent at the rink, the busy Carolina Hurricanes coach let things slide on the spring cleaning front, mentioning to the media one day that his lawn was overgrown and several gardening projects were neglected.

He came home a couple of days later to find the grass cut and everything else in order. When you live in a city for seven years, even with the high risk job of a pro sports coach, it's important to have close friends and neighbours first, and good hockey fans second.

Maurice makes his first trip back to the RBC Center tomorrow night in the employment of another National Hockey League team, three years to the day the 'Canes dismissed him. He had become coach of the Hartford Whalers as a 28-year-old in 1995.

"My three kids (Sydney, Jake and Luke) were born there, my wife Mitch had a lot of friends ... we knew so many terrific people there," Maurice said yesterday.

"The kids still ask about Mr. Jim ('Canes general manager Jim Rutherford) and of course, his dogs.

"It's an unusual place in that there are so many people from other parts of North America mixed in with native North Carolinans . On our cul-de-sac, I think we had families from places such as Wisconsin and Kansas City and they moved in and out depending on job transfers."

Maurice made a strong go of it, persevering through the migration from Hartford to Greensboro, N.C. Crowds were low and the whole league had a chuckle about the team's name, logo and the hour-plus drive from Raleigh airport to Greensboro.

But construction of the 18,730-seat RBC Center in Raleigh and Maurice's conversion of the team into hard working bruisers with no established stars caught the fancy of the locals.

They were three victories away from the 2002 Stanley Cup, but Maurice would win just 30 more games the next two seasons before being terminated.

He knows coaches are hired to be fired, but with a record of 268-291-99 and the longest stretch with one team among active coaches, he thought he might end up a lifer in Carolina, assuming Rutherford and longtime owner Peter Karmanos were in charge.

"I was open to staying with the team after getting let go and Jim wanted me to work," said Maurice, who tried scouting for a while and then bringing his quick wit to television. "But deep down. I wanted to coach."

Rutherford let him know that an American Hockey League job in Toronto was opening up in the summer of 2004 and Maurice jumped. A year later, he replaced Pat Quinn behind the Leafs bench.

"My wife received a cellphone call as I was walking into the press conference at the ACC," Maurice said. "It was her best friend from Carolina. When Mitch said she couldn't talk because I was about to become coach of the Leafs, her friend asked 'are they in the NHL?' "

Maurice doesn't expect a parade tomorrow, with Peter Laviolette usurping his popularity as coach by winning the Cup last spring. Maurice says he might dine with Rutherford and old friends tonight, but would be just as happy to keep a regular routine of meeting with his Leaf assistant coaches.

"I've been back to Raleigh a few times, but when I was fired, we sold the house and moved on," he said. "That's life."


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