Montreal

Kirk Muller leans in to hockey nostalgia while NHL is on COVID-19 pause

Kirk Muller says the best skaters make the best hockey players regardless of the era in which they played.

Habs' associate coach says the best skaters make the best players regardless of era

Montreal Canadiens' associate head coach Kirk Muller, left, says he's been watching classic NHL games while the season is on hiatus due to the pandemic. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Kirk Muller has a lot of great memories from his days playing in the NHL, but he didn't make a habit of holding on to many momentos.

The exception, he says, are his gloves and the puck from Game 5 of the 1993 final when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings and hoisted the franchise's 24th Stanley Cup.

"I didn't collect too much when I played but I made sure that I collected that," Muller said from his home in Kingston, Ont. where he has been isolating since the leage went on pause in March.

The items, which sit in his home office, are a reminder that dreams can come true.

"I did what my biggest dream was to do — to win the cup and score the Stanley Cup-winning goal and to score in Montreal at the old Forum," said Muller, who is now the team's associate head coach.

"To score in front of all my family that was there and the fans of Montreal, I mean I can't have a more memorable moment in my head these days."

Kirk Muller and the rest of the Montreal Canadiens pose for a photograph with the Stanley Cup following their 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings in Montreal on June 9, 1993. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Muller, like many sports fans during the pandemic, is enjoying watching reruns of classic games on TV including the Habs' 1993 playoff run.

He said he's particularly liked comparing and contrasting the different eras of hockey with his son-in-law Brad Malone — a player in the Edmonton Oilers organization who is in isolation along with him.

"It's been a fun combination of sitting there watching the games with my family and also watching with a player that's playing the present game of hockey, comparing the game from today to back then," Muller said.

No matter the era, the best skaters are the most dominant players

With sports shut down and classic games on TV every night, the debate over how bygone superstars from the '70s, '80s and '90s would fare in today's NHL is raging hotter than ever.

Last week, hockey columnist Marc Dumont pointed out that Andrei Markov had better statistics than every other Montreal Canadiens defenceman not named Robinson, implying he deserved consideration to be included on an all-time Habs team.

The backlash included a torrent of Doug Harvey supporters surfacing online and a lot of sharp words being exchanged between the two camps.

The debate is far from settled, because comparing eras is a nearly impossible task.

Over the decades, the rules in the NHL have changed dramatically, the technology used in equipment has improved and the science around training has evolved.

Montreal Canadiens' Kirk Muller in action Oct. 6, 1993 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Muller, for his part, played through an era where slowing an opponent down with a clutch or a grab was normal.

"That's where you had to use all your energy — to battle through everything and everybody to get from point A to point B. Today, the players have the luxury of more free skating," Muller said.

He believes that no matter the era — be it Bobby Orr in the '70s, Paul Coffey in the '80s, Muller's cohort in the '90s or Connor McDavid today — skating is the one skill that has always separated the best from the rest.

"These guys who can skate quicker than their peers always have a type of advantage," Muller said.

"(Modern players) might not have to fight and battle, scratch and claw to get from one zone to another, but the pace of the game is so fast now. So it's a difference of how the energy is used in the '90s to today's game."

Missing hockey people

Muller's motivation for watching classic games goes beyond family time and weighing in on debates over which era's superstars were better.

Adapting to change is how he's managed to remain employed with the world's top hockey league for three decades, first as a player and now as a coach.

Muller says one of the keys to his longevity in hockey is understanding how to coach the new generation of players differently than his generation was coached. (Karl B DeBlaker/The Associated Press)

"As coaches, you have to evolve with the new generations or you fall behind," Muller said.

"You (must) keep up with the times and understand the new generations and how to coach them differently than we were coached."

Muller didn't want to speculate on what a return to play in summer might look like for the NHL, or what the challenges might be for teams and players, because right now there is still no clear path for the season to resume.

But he looks forward to the day when the game is back — and he can shift the conversation from the past back to the present and to the next game. Although he added that there will always be a place for nostalgia.

"It's who we are. We are hockey people. It's sitting around talking hockey. That's the biggest thing that you miss," Muller said.

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