KINGSTON, ONT. - Here in the final days of a torturously long National Hockey League regular season, the trickle turns to a flow, a babbling brook of praise and plaudits targeting head coach Kirk Muller of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The kudos, emanating near daily from the minds of his peers and the patrons and pundits of top-shelf shinny, hail his ability to stabilize a club and instil a sense of self-belief.
Of course this treatment is old hat for Muller. He’s been coated in compliments before. Plenty of times, in fact, though always as a player — and it’s been almost a decade since Capt. Kirk skated for shekels.
“Doesn’t matter,” Don Cherry boomed into the phone, chiming in on the subject from his lair in Mississauga. “You know it’s easy to praise him now, you know, with his team goin’ good and all. But Kirkie was a captain almost everywhere he played. He was the leader. He was the guy who settled everyone down and got them goin’ again.
“That’s kinda how he’s doin’ it as a coach,” Ol’ Highcollar continued, “a player’s coach, I might add. He’s got them believin’ in themselves and playin’ pretty good.”
Many feel Muller has been a central force in the re-strengthening of these Hurricanes, who were but gentle breezes early in the year.
On Nov. 28, the Canes, perched one rung up from the bottom of a 30-rung National Hockey League ladder, fired Paul Maurice and hired Muller as his replacement, despite the latter’s inexperience (two months in the American Hockey League) as a pro hockey head coach.
At the time of the switch, Carolina had dropped 10 of 11 (8-13-4 overall) and was in free fall and fizzling fast.
Since Muller’s arrival the Canes are 23-18-11 and still, remarkably, in a playoff hunt, albeit barely.
“We text all the time,” Todd Muller said earlier this week after his younger brother’s bunch hog-tied the host Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-0, to bound past the buds in the standings and draw level at .500 (31-31-15). “I texted him five minutes after the game and congratulated him on the win.
“I also mentioned I noticed a couple of (Carolina) players, (Anthony) Stewart and (Derek) Joslin, got a ton of extra ice time.”
“He texted back, ‘Hometown boys.’
“I know how he thinks,” observed Muller the elder. “Those are fourth-line players — Joslin’s been moved up from defence — who haven’t played a whole lot. Kirk knew they were from Toronto and that they’d have family and friends at the game.
“That’s why guys play their heart out for him. It’s those types of little things that get players to play hard for you.”
The team’s resurgence to respectability began, Todd suggested, with coach Kirk’s introductory chat with all-star centreman Eric Staal, whose sluggish start mirrored the team’s woes. One of the league’s elite players, Staal was mired in what for him was a miserable slump: 11 points in the team’s first 25 games, a minus-17.
“He was the first player I talked with,” Kirk recalled on the phone from his home an hour west of his Raleigh workplace. “At the time I didn’t know Staalsie very well. I told him I needed two things from him: Good body language, even when we’re losing, in fact especially when we’re losing, and second, to be my hardest-working player.”
Muller, nicknamed Kirk Is Work as a player, watched both requests fulfilled in spades.
“It’s like Eric’s been on auto-pilot in terms of his effort,” he said of his team captain. “He’s worked his tail off, both at practice and in games. He plays against the top guys, plays aggressive, plays 22 minutes a game, kills penalties, blocks shots. He’s our leading scorer, and he doesn’t play with anyone close to a first-line guy.”
Under his new coach, Staal has averaged better than a point per game and tops the club in goals and assists.
Former Habs teammate Guy Carbonneau once noted that Muller could board a full bus and know everyone aboard within five minutes. That gregarious nature has served him well.
“Let’s face it, we’re in the people business,” Muller pointed out on the coaching fraternity. “We manage people with different personalities. You get to know them and try to learn how to get the most out of each one — that’s the trick.”
Giving Stewart and Joslin quality minutes in their hometown is an example of the ‘little things.’
“I’d been going with pretty much three lines the last six weeks, because we’ve been on a pretty good playoff chase,” Muller explained. “I told Stewie and Jos I was going to load up their ice time and said: ‘Show me what you can do.’ Stuff like that goes a long way in forming a bond.”
He also puts great stock in accountability, a word Muller repeated several times during the interview.
“I’m all about accountability. Show me you’re willing to play and you’ll play, it’s that simple.”
Mostly, he’s a staunch proponent of sacrifice and team-first temperament. Do what you do for the betterment of the team.
“Kirk’s always been that way,” noted his brother. “He knows when someone needs a pick-up, and it doesn’t matter who it is. As a player, he’d always try to help a teammate through a tough time. It’s easy to be friends with the guys who are doing well, not so easy with guys who aren’t.”
Todd Muller recounts a moment at the end of the 1993 campaign at the old Montreal Forum, where the resident Canadiens have just captured the franchise’s 24th Stanley Cup. His brother, an assistant captain, tallied the eventual Cup-winning goal, the last of four Limestone City pucksters to turn that trick.
League commissioner Gary Bettman hands the trophy to Habs captain Carbonneau, who passes it to the injured Denis Savard dressed in civvies. Ordinarily, the on-ice chain of command puts the two assistant captains next in line for a Cup-hoist, and sure enough Mike Keane takes hold. However, in the swelling chaos and excitement the chain is broken and the Cup is suddenly up for grabs. As Muller melts into the middle of the pack, video evidence reveals the Cup being passed, in order, from Keane to Schneider to Desjardins to Bellows to Daigneault to Roy to Damphousse to Lebeau. Finally, at the far east end, Muller accepts the Cup from Stephan Lebeau and raises the only prize that matters to selfless serfs like him. He lifts it high for the benefit of fans gathered in the corner.
“Later in the dressing room, Todd recalled, “I asked him why he didn’t take the Cup until it was way down in the corner.
“He said, ‘That’s where Mom and Dad were sitting,”
In the defining moment of arguably a hall-of-fame-playing career, the kid from Barbara Avenue wasn’t about to forget the two people most responsible.