DETROIT - Paul MacLean spent six years behind the bench with Mike Babcock and he wants to make one fact crystal clear.
“I’m not Mike Babcock. I’m not even trying to be,” said the Senators’ new coach in a 1-on-1 interview with the Sun.
It’s only fitting the Senators will open their 20th anniversary season against MacLean’s old Detroit Red Wings at the Joe Louis Arena Friday in a place where he spent the past nine years of his coaching career and won a Cup.
But as MacLean embarks on the next chapter in his hockey career — his debut as the top boss behind an NHL bench — he’s honest enough to admit that he’d rather not be facing a team where he has so much history.
“Why couldn’t it be somewhere else was my first reaction to it?,” said MacLean with a smile. “I know a lot of people in Detroit. I had a lot of success in Detroit. It’s a place that I’m comfortable in.
“So, going there for the first game, I’m still going to be anxious and have that nervous energy that you have at the start of every season — being the first time as a head coach, my first official game in the league.
“There’s going to be a certain amount of comfort because I know all the people there. The comfort will be there, but it’s not going to change the anxiety of it or the pressure of it. I’m looking forward to it.”
Despite the jitters, this debut has been a long time coming. He has paid his dues. He had a storied career as a player, then had coaching stops in such outposts as the Quad Cities, Kansas City and Peoria on his way back to the NHL.
The adjustment has been big during the past three weeks at Senators camp. One of the biggest attributes he learned from Babcock was taking the input of others before taking a course of action. This time, it’s MacLean’s call.
“I have to make decisions,” said MacLean. “In Detroit for the last nine years, I had input, but that’s not making the decision. You have input on the decision, but you’re not actually making the decision.
“The head coach’s job is to gather information and make decisions based on what’s best for the team.”
MacLean is not a man on an island. He’s willing to discuss his actions with GM Bryan Murray, assistant Tim Murray and other staffers before deciding what’s best.
Unlike predecessor Cory Clouston — who had issues with keeping the communication lines open with the dressing room — MacLean has asked the players to offer their two cents.
“They can’t be in on every (decision),” said MacLean. “But the style of play, how we work on the power play and how we kill penalties. They’re on the ice. They see it. On the bench, we see it from a different angle.
“They’re actually out there doing it and some of them are pretty good. They see the game well. To me, why wouldn’t you ask them what they think or how things should go? It doesn’t mean you have to do it. The ultimate decision is going to be mine, but the players are a real good resource to get some intel and make adjustments to your game.”
It helps that MacLean spent 11 seasons in the NHL as a forward with St. Louis, Winnipeg and Detroit — from 1980-91. He knows what players want from their coach.
“I was probably like a lot of players, I loved the coaches to leave me alone and let me play,” said MacLean. “You can’t do that and they didn’t just let you play. I always liked the coaches that told me what to do and just gave me the direction that I needed.
“A lot of times I told the players if you go on YouTube you’re not going to find a lot clips of Paul MacLean backchecking. I scored 40 goals a year so I was given the rope. When they told me that was what they wanted, I was fine with it.
“The best coaches are the guys that are human and talk to you, gave you the time of day and cared that I had a family and what was going on. Those things were important.”
That’s no different than any approach MacLean has taken in the past.
“If I was coaching the Antigonish Bulldogs, it would be the same,” said MacLean. “The players have to be able to come in here and talk and I have to be able to go in there and talk. I can’t hide in here and they can’t hide in there.
“There has to be a give and take. You have to have the ability to listen to opinions. They have an opinion and they should be allowed to express it. They understand the final decision is going to come from this room, but the ultimate decision comes from that room. They might not like the answer, but if they have the opportunity to be in on it, they might be receptive to it.”