Nearly 20 years ago, Jacques Demers opened a lot of conversations with Kirk Muller with, “When you coach,...”
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to coach,’” Muller said.
It turns out that Demers, a coach with four different NHL franchises, knew one when he saw one.
The Nashville Predators introduced Muller on Monday as the new head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals. The 45-year-old became the sixth coach to lead Milwaukee during that franchise’s affiliation with Nashville but his hiring brought unprecedented name recognition and cache’ to the post.
“It’s certainly great that he can bring some credibility to the organization as a guy who has had the success he’s had and the career that he had,” Predators Assistant GM Paul Fenton said. “There were some criteria I was looking at, but it was my feel for the type of guy that I wanted to have going forward. … At the end of the day, I have to make the call with my gut on which guy I feel is going to be the best leader for us.”
Fenton, no doubt, saw some of the same things in Muller that Demers did so many years ago, even if Muller did not see them in himself. Not that he had reason to see them.
A leading theory in the sports world is that the most talented players typically do not make good coaches because so much of their success comes from natural ability and instinct that cannot be taught.
Muller qualified as an extremely talented player over a 19-year NHL career, which ended in 2003. He was the second overall pick in the 1984 entry draft behind Mario Lemieux and ultimately played more than 1,300 career games. He scored 25 goals or more seven times and twice had as many as 94 points in a single season. He played in six All-Star games, one Olympics and won the 1993 Stanley Cup with Montreal under Demers.
“I look back at my career and I don’t know if I would say I’m a great player, so maybe we can rule that out right there,” Muller said. “Over my career, I know what it’s like to be a high draft pick … and [someone] they want to build around. I was a second line center, a third line checking center and a fourth line guy late in my career. I’ve been a winger, a penalty killer, a power play guy and a healthy scratch.
“…I never thought about it when I was a player, but now I think that part of it really helped me communicate with the guys. I think a large part of it is communication.”
The five previous Milwaukee coaches combined for fewer than 800 career NHL games, and the vast majority of those came from the first, Al Sims (476), and the last, Lane Lambert (283), who was promoted to a Predators assistant earlier this month.
Following a year off, Muller broke into coaching as the top man at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and then spent the last five seasons as an assistant with the Canadiens.
“Hopefully Kirk has some new ideas,” Predators General Manager David Poile said. “Hopefully both sides can learn from each other and — hopefully — be a little bit better.
“… Kirk is a character guy and well-respected in all hockey circles. … When we brought this all together, between us and the coaching staff, Kirk is the guy we wanted to guide our younger players. … I think our younger players are in good hands.”
Fenton said he responded to more than 50 people who expressed interest and winnowed the list of potential candidates from there. Eventually, his focus was firmly on Muller.
“Some of the things that he’s probably forgotten is more knowledge than a lot of people have about the game,” Fenton said. “Just by being around, with his teaching skills he’s going to bring our kids more knowledge and continue to give them a chance to develop.
“I’m not worried about him having a star effect.”