|Peter DeBoer wants to help the Florida Panthers play meaningful games in April and May next season.|
It’s fair to say that family fun in the hot sun were never a part of DeBoer’s NHL dream. It is now, and the 40-year-old NHL rookie believes he couldn’t have found a more perfect setting.
DeBoer, who spent the past 13 seasons coaching in the Ontario Hockey League, the last seven as head coach of the Kitchener Rangers, will participate in his first official NHL game next season as the Florida Panthers’ head coach. The closest he’s come to the League was when he played in exhibition games for Vancouver nearly 20 years ago.
“I’m looking forward to it,” DeBoer told NHL.com. “We had the largest snowfall in the history of the Kitchener-Waterloo region last year. In fact, I just bought myself a snow blower two months ago when they went on sale. I’ll have to put a ‘For Sale’ sign on that. It’s a real exciting change for me and my family.”
DeBoer, who interviewed with four teams before accepting the offer from Florida GM Jacques Martin, was confident his NHL dream would come true this offseason.
“As I went through the interview process with some of the teams I felt comfortable that I was going to get an opportunity somewhere,” he said.
DeBoer even flew to Barbados to interview with Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. He said the Senators told him they were choosing between him and Craig Hartsburg, who eventually got the job just hours before the Panthers announced DeBoer’s hiring.
DeBoer, though, said the Panthers were his No. 1 choice all along.
“When Jacques and ownership stepped up and committed to me I never went another step with other teams,” he said.
“The opportunity to mentor under Jacques Martin, who has won over 500 games,” DeBoer explained. “If I have one deficiency it’s inexperience at the NHL level and here’s a guy who has stood behind the bench in coaching wars just last year. The franchise is also on the way up. With some of the proper guidance we can do some things here.”
One of them, DeBoer said, is to convince a fan base, which also has NFL, NBA and NCAA options in the winter, to stay interested in the NHL for the entire season. The Panthers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2000, or won a playoff game since 1997.
“I know part of the job here is selling hockey,” DeBoer said, “and the only way to sell hockey is by playing meaningful games in April and May.”
To do that the Panthers have put their stock in a veteran junior hockey coach because someone with that background seems like the perfect fit for them right now.
Some of Florida’s top players are still young NHL players, including Nathan Horton, David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Gregory Campbell, Kamil Kreps, Jay Bouwmeester and Rostislav Olesz. DeBoer coached Weiss and Campbell in the OHL.
DeBoer, who also coached the Plymouth Whalers, is excited about working with top prospects like Shawn Matthias, Keaton Ellerby and Michael Frolik.
“I’ve played for Pete for two years and one year we made it to the OHL Final and the next year we won the Memorial Cup,” Campbell told NHL.com. “Pete is a proven winner. It’s going to be an adjustment for him as it is for anybody coming out of the junior ranks, but he’s ready for it. We have a fairly young team and that’s one of the reasons Pete chose our team, or why our team chose him. He likes the teaching part of the game and he’ll be able to do that with our team and the young talent we have. I’m looking forward to the changes that are going to happen.”
“All of his teams forecheck extremely hard. They all skate hard. All his teams finish their checks,” Campbell said. “He likes guys to take the body and to kind of play an in-your-face style of play. He likes his teams to be real aggressive and to not sit back.”
Brian Kilrea, the Hall of Fame coach of the Ottawa 67s, told NHL.com DeBoer’s teams were some of the most disciplined he faced over the last 13 OHL seasons.
“He’s one of those guys that goes after you whether its aggressive on the PK or whatever,” Kilrea said. “They’ll forecheck and pinch the walls, but they’re accountable to the point that once the one job is done they’ll come back and do the other.”
Kilrea has so much respect for DeBoer that he said “he has been the best coach in our League.”
As for notion that DeBoer carries the reputation as a disciplinarian, Campbell agreed but said it’s not as if the coach is out to get his players.
“It might seem harsh at first and some guys might not take it the right way, but he’ll honest with you and if he sees something you’re not doing right he’s going to let you know,” Campbell said. “It’s important for the players to be honest with themselves and to realize he’s only trying to make you and the team better.
“I remember when I played for Pete it wasn’t always happy days, but he made me a better player and that’s why I respect him as much as I do.”
DeBoer doesn’t believe he’ll have any problem getting the Panthers’ attention simply because this is a team hungry for some success.
“I have a real captive audience, a group of players that haven’t been in the playoffs,” DeBoer said. “I know the character and makeup of a lot of these young players. I know the will to win is in there. I don’t believe character is holding this team back. It’s heading in the right direction and putting some accountability and a plan.”
That process will begin in a couple of months. Until then, DeBoer has to endure what he believes will be the toughest part of his transition to the NHL.
“When you have been in a community for seven years, the tough part is moving your family, finding schools, finding a house,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the hockey part. My life will be a lot easier when we start playing.”
DeBoer said he had opportunities to move to an NHL bench over the past four or five seasons but chose to stay in Kitchener for family reasons. His daughter, Abby, is nine. His boys, Jack and Matthew, are seven and five, respectively.
“My boys are really excited. The NHL is a big deal for them,” DeBoer said. “My daughter was a little traumatized at first, but seems to be getting a handle on it now. Slowly, though (laughing). The NHL isn’t as big of a deal for her.”
Kilrea believes DeBoer’s loyalty to Kitchener is another reason he didn’t make the jump to the NHL sooner.
“I don’t know if he said it, but I will: He was offered a job two years ago and turned it down,” Kilrea said. “Last year he felt Kitchener was so good to him so he stayed because they had the Memorial Cup and he felt he could do something big with it. He was loyal to Kitchener even though he could have left.”
DeBoer, though, always had the NHL on his mind. He waited until his 40th birthday to get here. He was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 12th round of the 1988 Entry Draft. At the 1989 trade deadline he was shipped to Vancouver. DeBoer wound up playing two professional seasons for the Milwaukee Admirals (1989-91), then of the International Hockey League. He had the option to go back for a third year, but instead chose to go to law school.
He holds degrees from both the University of Windsor in Canada and the University of Detroit-Mercy in the United States, but has no use for them now that he’s finally made it to the big leagues.
“It’s everybody’s dream when they start playing to get to the NHL and I almost got there as a player,” DeBoer said. “Didn’t quite make it, but to be behind the bench is another lifelong dream come true.”
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com