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Panthers head coach Paul Maurice gets emotional in return to Winnipeg

Former Jets head coach Paul Maurice was expecting an emotional return to Winnipeg when he brought his Florida Panthers to town on Tuesday.

Maurice knew being introduced before the game at Canada Life Centre would be a stirring moment.

“It’s a big part of your life. You invest so much into it, and you don’t separate the personal and the professional because they always come together, right? My kids came here at a young age, and they became who they are in Winnipeg,” said Maurice, who spent parts of nine seasons behind the Jets bench.

After a sudden departure from the Jets last December, Maurice accepted the head coaching position with the Panthers in June.

During his stint in Winnipeg, Maurice posted a 315-229-62 record and led the team to its first playoff series victory in Atlanta/Jets franchise history in 2016, losing the Western Conference Final to the Vegas Golden Knights.

He also holds the franchise record for most games coached (600) and most wins (315).

“We’re not here long enough to see all the people you care for or you’d like to,” Maurice said about his short stop in Manitoba. “I haven’t seen the [Jets] players, haven’t run into any of them, really. I talked to them occasionally, briefly, early on in the summertime, but it’ll be different for sure.”

One of those people he had planned to see while in town was his daughter, Sydney, who has remained in Winnipeg.

Although he left in an abrupt way, the Jets still mean a lot to Maurice.

“It will always be a special place,” he said in a story posted on the Panthers website. “It’s a well-run organization and a special market because it needs fans to survive.”

Maurice had ‘lost passion for the job’

Maurice said he stepped down a year ago because he had lost passion for the job, and that first began during the COVID-19 lockdown. He regrets not stepping aside sooner.

“I should have got off the bench in the summer,” said Maurice, 55. “Because you can see it. I was in a very unique position to see it. I could see it in the summer. You run eight, nine years, and we’d gone from winning a playoff game to banging out 114 points one year and you’ve kind of hit that crest, and then it was time.”

After Dave Lowry finished off the season as interim coach, the Jets hired former Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness to take over the reins this season.

“[Bowness is] someone that does a really good job at getting down to — pardon the pun — the bones of it,” Maurice said. “To get to the structure of it, the skeleton of fixing some basic things and getting a real simple kind of mindset in all three zones. Real consistent game. I think he did that in Dallas as well. Bit of a defensive bent on it. He has got a real, real good goaltender [Connor Hellebuyck] here, so structured right.”

Maurice has led the Panthers to a 12-9-4 record while Bowness has got the Jets off to a 15-7-1 start heading into Tuesday’s game.

“Listen, Paul is an excellent coach and he had a great run here,” Bowness said. “So, you give him full marks for that. And he’s doing a great job with Florida. So, give him full marks for that. But for me, I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it every day, I keep the focus on our team and how we want to play, regardless of who is coming in. That’s noise outside of the game.”

Veteran Jets forward Blake Wheeler appreciated what Maurice did in Winnipeg.

“This franchise had never been to the playoffs before Paul was here,” he said. “We had a couple of playoff series victories, and those are big stepping-stones for a franchise that hadn’t won anything. He helped instil a culture where we expected to win. We definitely came close one time and had opportunities. That’s all you can ask for.”

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