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Paul Maurice, a hockey lifer, now has a Stanley Cup. And it was worth the wait

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SUNRISE, Fla. -

Paul Maurice was once the last player picked in the NHL draft. An afterthought, almost. He never made it to the league as a player. And there were many times when he wondered if his name would ever be on the Stanley Cup.

Wonder no more.

It took 1,985 games, 939 wins, four different franchises, a team relocation, three times getting fired -- twice by Carolina alone -- and a semi-retirement to get him to this moment, one he'd dreamed about for most of his 57 years walking the planet and had never experienced until now.

It's over. Florida 2, Edmonton 1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night was the last act of the lifetime quest. His name will be on Lord Stanley's chalice. A lifetime of work now has checked the final box, now that the words "Paul Maurice" will soon be etched into a silver and nickel band for all the hockey world to see for decades to come.

"He's the type of guy everybody respects and it's because it's earned," Panthers forward Ryan Lomberg said. "He doesn't expect people's respect just because he's the head coach. He does it the right way. He truly cares about each individual in this locker room and it goes a long way. So, yeah, we all respect him as much as possible."

This was a void on Maurice's resume, no question about it. Nobody has -- well, now, change that to "had" -- coached more games, won more games and coached more seasons without a Stanley Cup than Maurice. He was going to go down in history as a good coach, a veteran coach, a well-liked coach no matter whether he won a Cup or not, even though the start to his Florida tenure was rocky.

"One of my favorite memories ever of coaching in Florida was in about December last year," Maurice said. "So, our (team) marketing program is `Time to hunt.' And the guy had a poster over there on the wall and it was beautiful. It said, `time to hunt for a new coach.' It was awesome. He kept putting it up at every whistle."

Retire the poster. Maurice is forever a Panthers legend now.

And let's face it, had the Panthers not won Monday night and blown a 3-0 lead in the title series, it would have followed Maurice around forever. But now, whenever his career ends, they'll have to call him a champion coach. The glaring hole has been filled.

"Literally, whatever he says, he means it," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. "Going back to that first year when we had those tough moments in the regular season, he would give us the game plan and he would just say, `All right, it's time to wake up.' It would literally work almost every time. So that's probably when we realized, `OK, you've got to listen to him."'

As almost every hockey story that ends with the sport's ultimate championship goes, this one began with Maurice as a little kid.

The memories, for him, go back to around the age of 5 growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, 350 miles or so north of Detroit. They got three channels at his house: a French channel, CBC and WKBD out of Detroit. Saturday nights in season were hockey nights; they were either playing or skating or watching, without fail.

"My mom would make a pot of spaghetti or chili and we watched hockey," Maurice said. "You knew that you were getting older because you could make it to the third period. That's the way it was. My mom would make popcorn with a half-pound of butter. The half glass of coke you got was smeared with butter. There was salt everywhere."

The early years, Maurice doesn't remember much in the way of specifics. But by his mid-teens, in a bit of irony given who this Cup came against, Maurice was all about a pair of Oilers players -- Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. The reason: they both spent time in Sault Ste. Marie playing junior hockey on their way to the Oilers.

"They used to play street hockey sometimes in the tennis courts across the street from my house," Maurice said. "My mom and dad still live there today. So, that was where it became the dream."

He found himself rooting more for players than teams. Gretzky, the greatest ever. Coffey, an Oilers legend and now an Edmonton assistant coach. Lanny MacDonald. They hoisted Cup after Cup after Cup. The seeds were planted.

"The arduous pursuit of excellence," Maurice said, "without the guarantee of reward."

Little did he know how arduous the pursuit would be, or how difficult it would be to secure the greatest reward.

Maurice didn't go to the 1985 NHL draft in Toronto. He wasn't even paying much attention to it. Imagine his surprise when his mother called that night and said he'd been picked by the Philadelphia Flyers. Maurice started doing the math. The Flyers had the last pick in the draft, No. 252 of 252. That was him. And, oh, how his friends reveled in that.

"We were going to a bar and I had to do everything last," Maurice said. "I got into the cab last, I got the last beer and I had to pick up the check because I was last. Friends. Close friends."

After four years of playing in the Ontario Hockey League, Maurice decided to give coaching a shot. Five years as an assistant first, then two years as a head coach of what were then called the Detroit Junior Red Wings. He made it look easy. Made the finals his first year, won the title the next year and headed to the NHL's Hartford Whalers as an assistant before getting promoted to head coach almost right away.

Coaching, suddenly, was no longer easy. In his first 19 NHL seasons, he either missed the playoffs or got fired in 14 of them. And when he stepped down in Winnipeg, nobody, not even Maurice, knew what was next. The rest is history. He started watching Panthers games and got smitten. A few months later, his phone rang. Maurice moved to Florida with a championship goal, one that was, at long last, realized Monday night.

"He was the fit," Panthers president of hockey operations and general manager Bill Zito said.

Maurice is one of hockey's personalities. He tells jokes. He's sarcastic. He swears; some would say profusely, he would say he simply does it well. He likes to say he doesn't do much, always points out that he knows nothing about goaltending, keeps his big speeches to a minimum.

"It can't be about you as a coach," Maurice said. "It's about the room. It's about the players."

On Monday night, it was about him. The last pick in the 1985 draft never saw the NHL as a player. He's now atop it as a coach. Finally.

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