The smile that creases Kirk Muller's face is there perpetually, it seems, even in these hard, early days as the Carolina Hurricanes' new head coach. The Hurricanes had lost four in a row under his guidance, after he replaced Paul Maurice behind the bench last week, until they slipped into Edmonton on Wednesday night and escaped with a 5-3 win, his first as an NHL head coach.
For Muller, whose Canes meet the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, retaining his good humour under trying circumstances is a personal strength and also something of a trademark. He is an eternal optimist – and even though there are no physical resemblances whatsoever, his bubbling cauldron of enthusiasm conjures up no less a figure than Bob Johnson, the Hall Of Fame coach, who memorably coined the phrase, "it's a great day for hockey," and made it true, even in the darkest of times.
Johnson once made a key distinction about coaching styles that is as true today as it was it in the 1980s – that you can coach by either emphasizing fear or stressing pride. Johnson cited Scotty Bowman, Mike Keenan and others of that ilk as disciples of the former approach – tough-love guys before the concept of tough love became an Oprah staple. Johnson put himself in the latter category, someone who emphasized pride, improvement, and helping the players get better every day.
Muller is in that category too, part of a generation of players that many thought would exit the game once their playing careers ended because they'd made their fortunes already. Just the opposite happened. Many became hockey lifers and Carolina boasts a star-studded front-office lineup that includes Ron Francis, plus assistant coaches Rod Brind'Amour, Tom Barrasso and John MacLean, all of whom would look good in Hurricane uniforms right now.
"I never took for granted a day I played in the NHL, I really didn't," Muller said of his desire to coach. "I just thought, 'Man, are we lucky?' Dad was a postman, a blue-collar mail carrier. My family is all blue collar. I had no problem when people said [about coaching] 'Man, it's a lot of hours.' I love it."
Muller says he received some good advice from former Montreal Canadiens' general manager Bob Gainey upon his retirement, who suggested he take a full year off before determining what he wanted to do next in his life.
"I already knew before the year was out that I wanted to get back into it," Muller said, "so I went to coach at Queen's [in his hometown of Kingston, Ont.]because it was an opportunity to see if I liked it. There'd be 50 people in the stands, but you know what? It didn't matter. There could have been 20,000. It was more about the competitive level and the teaching. I knew after that I was going to have fun with it. And from there, I just followed the path. I didn't know where it was going to lead, but ..."
But ultimately it led here – to Carolina, a small-market, low-budget team that puts a primary emphasis on building from within. Two blue-chip youngsters, Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk, came in the first two rounds of 2010 and are playing in the NHL as teenagers already. It is up to Muller to take the raw material at his disposal and craft it into a winner.
Muller was a mainstay on the Canadiens' coaching staff up until last year, when he decided that to get a head-coaching job in the NHL, he would need to move to the minors to run his own team. Carolina plucked him out of Milwaukee, where he was guiding the Nashville Predators' AHL affiliate and handed him the reins of a slumping, dispirited team. It's been all Up With People ever since.
"I more or less said, 'From today on, let's clear the heads and move forward,'" Muller explained. "I don't care who is minus-15. I don't care who has one goal. Let's look at today and how can we be better? And let's do it together. Nobody has to be Superman. There is strength in numbers. So let's come to the rink and have fun and play hard and see where we're at."
A sentiment that Badger Bob, if he were eavesdropping, would heartily echo and endorse.