TORONTO – On a couple of occasions, it looked like emotion was going to get the best of Paul Maurice during his final news conference with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He met with the media at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday after losing his job as head coach, paying the price for missing the playoffs for a second straight season.
Maurice was able to keep himself together for the half-hour session, but his voice did crack somewhat when he discussed his lone regret.
“When I look back at the two years, I have one and that was John (Ferguson) being fired,” Maurice said. “I look at that as under my watch.”
Maurice’s job was spared when Ferguson was let go last January. Cliff Fletcher was brought in as interim general manager and the Leafs went on to finish 12th in the Eastern Conference with a 36-35-11 record, missing a playoff spot by 11 points.
“I watched in complete admiration of how (Ferguson) handled himself in a very, very difficult situation,” Maurice said. “He came in every day with the same chin up and support for our group and it was really something to watch.”
Fletcher told Maurice of his dismissal Wednesday morning. The 41-year-old native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., said it was disappointing but not a surprise.
“Cliff said to me that when it became clear, he would tell me,” Maurice said. “The reasons that it became clear, I’m not sure of the timing of all that, but he was a man of his word and I really appreciated that.”
A new coach won’t be hired until a search committee headed by Toronto lawyer Gord Kirke finds a permanent general manager.
Maurice spent one season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies before joining the parent club in 2006. The Maple Leafs finished with 91 points in his first season behind the bench, missing the playoffs by a single point. Toronto had just 83 points this season.
Maurice entered the NHL coaching ranks in 1995 with the Hartford Whalers and spent parts of nine seasons with the franchise, which moved to Carolina in 1997. The Hurricanes reached the Stanley Cup final in 2002, bowing to Detroit in five games.
Maurice often called the Leafs position a “dream job” and said he relished the challenge of coaching in the hockey-mad city.
“You love it, even in the dark days,” Maurice said. “You get up out of bed every day and there’s a new challenge even if you’re winning.”
Both Maurice and Ferguson stated before the season that the Leafs would be a playoff team competing for the Stanley Cup. Instead, the club spent a good chunk of the season hovering near the bottom of the standings.
“I’d make the statement again,” Maurice said. “I know it will be kicked back around at me a few times, but I don’t have a problem with that. That’s what I believed if we had squeezed the maximum out of here.
“There’s a place for pessimism and realism, but in the coaching world optimism is, I think, the only way you can do it.”
Assistant coach Randy Ladouceur was also fired this week and assistant Dallas Eakins was offered a position elsewhere in the organization. Keith Acton will remain as an assistant while Mike Penny, the assistant GM and director of hockey operations, will become Toronto’s director of pro scouting.
There will also be changes on the ice with buyouts and trades expected before next season. One big question mark is the status of captain Mats Sundin, who was one of the team’s few bright spots. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent July 1.
You could hear the emotion in Maurice’s voice when he spoke of the veteran centre.
“This guy is all the things that you want in a captain,” Maurice said. “He’s the kind of guy you want your kids to grow up to be.”
Sundin has yet to state his plans for next season.
“If Mats has said he’s not ready, there’s no other agenda,” Maurice said. “He’s just not ready to make that decision and when it comes time, it’ll be the right time. He’s a really unique man and I really enjoyed working with him.”
As for the future, Maurice said he hopes to continue coaching at the NHL level. He added he will have fond memories of his time with the Maple Leafs.
“It is clearly an experience that I can’t put into words,” Maurice said. “I wanted so much better for this team and this group and had hoped for more, but it was a great experience and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
He also offered some thoughts on the good and the bad during his two years behind the Leafs bench.
“The best part for me right now was the interest in the team,” Maurice said. “Not in the coaching position, just knowing how important the team is to the fans here in Toronto. That’s the best part of it, the excitement.
“The difficulty, believe it or not, some of it was the exposure. You just prefer not to have everybody know what time you’re getting up and those kinds of things, where your kids go to school and where you live. That takes some getting used to without question, but it’s part of it.”
He feels there are building blocks in place for the franchise to become a success in the future.
“I know that the entire operation gets painted with a negative when coaches get fired, GM’s get fired, players get moved,” Maurice said. “But there are some good people in that room, some good pieces to this hockey team and I think that’s what carried us. I think there’s some good solid leadership in there.”