Devils quickly embraced DeBoer in his first season
NEWARK, N.J. -- Devils captain Zach Parise could have called a few of his buddies that know Peter DeBoer well -- someone like David Booth, who played for him in Florida. He opted against it because he didn't want his opinion to be jaded, because he wanted to decide for himself what life was going to be like with his new coach.
It took Parise one meeting to know DeBoer was going to work, that he was going to be different.
"From the way he wanted us to play, I think right away for me it was like, 'This is going to be fun,' " Parise told NHL.com. "Then you see throughout the season how prepared he is and the way he reacts to different situations.
"I remember early in the season we were in Florida and up 3-0 -- this is his old team -- and we lose the game 4-3. We all expected him to be throwing Gatorade across the room, and he just came in and said, 'That happens to every team through the course of a season, so let's not let it happen again.' And, that was it. I think everyone was like, 'This guy gets it.' "
The Devils got DeBoer quickly. From the day he came in to the dressing room for the first time and put his system up on the white board to the celebration after beating the Rangers in Game 6 on Friday, DeBoer has been the heartbeat of the Eastern Conference champions.
The players feed off his emotion, which was evident in the series against the Rangers. They fully picked up his aggressive forechecking system by about the halfway mark of the season, and have executed well enough in the playoffs to earn a date with the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final. They never feel unprepared or inferior.
DeBoer is not only well liked by his players, he is respected. They play hard for him less because he demands it but more because they want to.
"He's a very open person. He will always talk to you face to face. He will always be there if you want to talk to him about something," Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk said. "When people care about you, that's the most important thing. When you see the people trust you and want you to do well -- he wants to win. You see him on the bench, he is emotional. He is pushing us. Even when we are a little tired or we don't do very well, he finds the words to say to you to push the right buttons."
DeBoer felt like he hit the jackpot when Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello called him, brought him in for an interview, and then showed enough faith to make him the 16th man to be the Devils head coach on July 19, 2011.
"It could have been a number of different candidates that he talked to," DeBoer said, "and I'm thankful that I got the opportunity."
The choice of DeBoer was questionable to most everyone but Lamoriello and DeBoer.
A successful coach in junior hockey, DeBoer was out of work when Lamoriello called. He was fired by Florida general manager Dale Tallon after failing to make the playoffs in three straight seasons in the sun. He was a good hockey man, but not a successful NHL man.
""I remember early in the season we were in Florida and up 3-0 -- this is his old team -- and we lose the game 4-3. We all expected him to be throwing Gatorade across the room, and he just came in and said, 'That happens to every team through the course of a season, so let's not let it happen again.' And, that was it. I think everyone was like, 'This guy gets it.' "" -- Devils' captain Zach Parise on coach Peter Deboer
DeBoer was 103-107-36 behind the Panthers bench. He never made it to the League as a player.
Meanwhile, the Devils were coming off a rare bad season and they were in need of a leader, a coach with NHL experience, after Jacques Lemaire was able to stabilize a normally strong ship that was nearly wrecked in John MacLean's brutal 33-game run as coach.
They were a veteran team that needed a jolt, a change, someone to lead them back to the playoffs.
"You walk in and it's like any job, they want to know how you can help them get to where they want to get to, and you don't have a long time to grab their attention or their trust to do that," DeBoer said. "So having a pedigree or playing in the League for a lot of years gets you in that door; I didn't have that. But, once you're in the door, it's how quickly you can sell them that you can get them to where they want to go."
DeBoer joked that if he was a used car salesman that he would be starving and poor. So, while he had to sell himself to the veteran Devils, instead of doing it through any type of pitch he simply stuck to his belief system, one that has been built through 18 years of coaching, 17 as the head man in charge.
"You get the job because of a belief system. I think that's what Lou saw," DeBoer said. "And, I think when you believe in how the game should be played and you have the conviction in that, I think it sells itself. I don't think there was any premeditated salesmanship. I just think it's the fact that you believe how the game should be played. You have a conviction in that, and I think that the players see that and they bought in."
David Clarkson played for DeBoer in the Ontario Hockey League. He said his old coach had the same conviction then.
Clarkson, DeBoer and the Kitchener Rangers won the Memorial Cup in 2003.
"He still had that structure and belief in structure," Clarkson said. "That's why we were successful."
DeBoer was fired by Florida after failing to make the playoffs in three straight seasons. However, the tables have turned as his Devils team has ventured to the Cup Final in his first season at the helm. (Photo: Getty Images)
DeBoer said it took the Devils "a full 40 games to move around the ice seamlessly within our system." They were 23-16-2 at the 41-game mark, but eight of those wins came by way of a shootout. The Devils went 25-12-4 in the second half, winning only four games in the shootout.
"I'm not sure if there was a turning point, but it took us a while to adjust and for all of us to be in sync," Parise said. "Sometimes we did it and sometimes we didn't. You could tell when we did it right because it worked, but it's a hard thing to do. When you've been playing the same way for so many years, sometimes the D are a little hesitant to jump in because they've been told not to for so long. It just kind of all came together."
Even through the struggles, DeBoer never wavered in his belief system.
He never changed the approach when the Devils scuffled early in the season. He stuck with it even after they lost three in a row by a combined 14-5 from Nov. 30 - Dec. 3. Nothing changed in mid-March, when they lost five of seven.
The Devils responded by winning six in a row to end the season.
The system stayed the same when they were down 2-1 to Florida. They won the series in seven games.
The message was the same after the Rangers came back in Game 5 to tie it 3-3 in the third period. Nothing was different when the Devils blew their 2-0 lead in Game 6.
"He said the right things, 'Get on the forecheck, get going,' " Devils forward Patrik Elias said. "It's not like sit back, wait for an opportunity or don't make a mistake. He wants us to still be aggressive and move our legs. It paid off for us."
Now they're in the Stanley Cup Final.
Parise was right.
DeBoer has worked. This is fun.
"We believe in what Pete wants us to do, and that goes a long way," Parise said. "We all love playing for him."