Kirk Muller always liked baseball better

*Coach Kirk Muller (Kingston, Ont.) grew up loving baseball before turning to hockey, is in the minors for the first time, coaching the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals. 2012 Canadians draft list

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By Bob Elliott

MILWAUKEE  - The rookie head coach came off the ice dressed in new black sweats.

One leg looked as if he’d been out rolling in the mud.

“White paint, I brushed against the boards, freshening things up for opening night,” said Kirk Muller, coach of the undefeated, untied Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League.

The Kingston native is head man of his first pro team after five years as an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens.

“I earned my stripes, now it’s time to move forward,” said Muller on Monday afternoon at the Bradley Center. “Time to create my own identity. I don’t have any time table set (for coaching in the NHL).”

Muller is 1-0 after a 4-1 victory over the Peroria Rivermen on Friday, his first ever game in the minors -- like John Olerud he never played a day in the minor leagues (well Olerud was there on a rehab assignment). The Admirals’ home opener is this Friday against the hated Chicago Wolves.

“The two coaches I learned the most from were Pat Burns and Jacques Demers,” said Muller, who played 19 years in the NHL. “Pat was hard but fair and consistent, a defensive-minded guy.

“Jacques never claimed he had all the answers but was secure enough to listen to others and then make his decision.”

Milwaukee is unlike any other city in pro sports.

If you are a major leaguer and get sent down, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin demotes you to triple-A Nashville.

If you are a hockey player and you skate well for the Admirals you get promoted to Nashville.

David Poile and Paul Fenton (Nashville GM, assistant GM) hired me,” said Muller, who flew here after three weeks at Predators training camp in Nashville.

Muller had offers from Minnesota for a coaching job in Houston and from Dallas for a job in Austin.

Muller had Thanksgiving dinner Sunday like any good Canadian. His wife, the former Stacey Goulding from Bayridge, cooked a 20-pounder as their 20-year-old twin daughters Brittney, who attends McGill University, and Kourtney, a University of Ottawa student, flew in for the weekend to join ma, pa, and younger sisters Bryelle, 17 and Kira, 13. The teenagers attend school at nearby White Fish Bay.

“There are a lot of leftovers,” laughed Muller. “Cooking for four girls is not the same as for four boys.”

Guelph Storm grad and now Admirals forward Taylor Beck, from St. Catharines, recalls watching Muller on TV.

“All my buddies remember him,” said Beck, who played for Scott Walker, a 17-year NHL veteran last season. “I’ve been lucky to have guys with so much NHL experience.”

Muller attended Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Monday and threw out the first pitch the final week of the season at Miller Park.

“No, not a strike. I probably would have hit the guy in the shoulder,” Muller said. “Nowadays, kids concentrate on one sport. I played hockey and baseball, too, until I was 16. I loved baseball better.”

He played in the Kingscourt Little League for Legion No. 9, LaSalle and Navy Vets travelling teams.

“I’d pitch, we’d switch, Tim Ferguson would go in and I’d catch,” Muller said. "I'm still real close with John Senior when I go back to Kingston every summer."

Senior is the son of legendary goalie Bob (Ox) Senior, who played in the American Hockey League and later coached the Kingston Frontenaces Jr. B team.

His most influential coach was his late father Ed.

Muller joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1995-96 season.

“I score the first night, Dougie Gilmour set me up against Eddie Belfour,” Muller said. “Fans were chanting ‘Edd-EE!, Edd-EE! We come outside the room and my father’s there — this is when he was battling cancer — and Dougie says, ‘First night in the building, you have everyone chanting your name. Nice job Ed.’

“My dad grew up a Leaf fan, he loved the blue and white.”

After taking a year off his first year of retirement, Muller coached Queen’s University Golden Gaels in 2005-06.

“I was happy there, it was a good bunch. They were playing because they loved the game, they weren’t worrying about going pro,” Muller said. “I was going to stay.”

Then, old teammate Guy Charbonneau called offering him an assistant’s job with the Canadiens.

And now, Muller embarks on his second journey to the NHL.

What's in a name?

• • •

For nine seasons Kirk Muller was in the Montreal Canadiens locker room.

Does he remember what it read above the lockers?

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high,” Muller says.

The Milwaukee Admirals finished practice Monday with rink board ads like: New York Texas Toast garlic, Potowatomi Bingo Casino, 102.9 The Hog, and Sendiks Food Market.

Yet the Bradley Centre, which seats 18,600 for the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA, and 17,800 for hockey is not some arena out of Slapshot.

High in the rafters of are banners from past championship years: the 2005-06 AHL division title, 2003-04 Calder Cup, 1994-95 and 1995-96 International League and 1975-76 United States League.

“They tell me we drew just under 6,000 last season,” said Muller. “We’ll see this year. If the NBA doesn’t go, we may draw more. But the Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers are having great seasons too.