Head Coach Peter DeBoer and Assistant Coach Mike Kitchen (Getty Images)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
Before his first game as head coach of the Panthers, Peter DeBoer remembers getting a tug from behind on his suit coat from assistant coach Mike Kitchen.
“It was before the first exhibition game in Edmonton,” recalled DeBoer, a wide grin creasing his face. “He grabbed me by the coat because I was walking out to the wrong bench.”
As a rookie head coach in the NHL, DeBoer’s learning curve has had to be swift. When do you give the team a day off? When do you push? How do you maintain a team’s energy level? And, yes, where’s the visiting bench and locker rooms?
For DeBoer, his first year in the league has been made smoother due to the presence of Kitchen, who has spent more than 30 years in the NHL as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
“He’s been invaluable to me,” DeBoer said. “I think as a young coach in this league there’s obviously a learning curve, and having Kitch there - a guy who’s been in the league for more than 20 years as a player, having been a head coach in the NHL – he really has a good feel of things and he made things immeasurably easy the first half in getting through those obstacles and some of things that I hadn’t much familiarity with.”
Kitchen, a former head coach with the Blues and an assistant with the Maple Leafs who played eight NHL seasons, joked; “I just try to show him what bench we’re going to and what dressing room on the road to go to…and a couple good restaurants.”
But Kitchen admits he’s been impressed with DeBoer, who he first met in 1988 when he was coaching in Toronto and DeBoer was a 12th-round draft pick.
“Pete’s done a great job,” Kitchen said. “He’s come in and handled himself very well. Very professional. He runs a good practice. I’m there for Pete to bounce things off, having been around a while and fortunate enough to be in the league for a while.
“But the biggest thing is he had so much success in juniors, in Kitchener, and we watched a lot of their games. They were always in the playoffs, and long runs in the playoffs if not winning the Memorial Cup. So you get to see those games and you get to see how he coaches. And I know a lot of people who are good friends of mine who are also close to Peter and they speak highly of him.”
Kitchen, in his second season with the Panthers, said one of the things he’s tried to stress to DeBoer is going with his instinct.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” Kitchen said. “Sometimes it’s nice for him to go along and feel his way through and use his instincts. I keep telling Pete when you’re a head coach you’d be surprised how much you have to go on your instincts. It could be putting a guy out in the last minute of play or you might switch lines. That’s really important. But if he has questions on anything else within the game, like systems or personnel, I can help.”
And Kitchen said he’s benefited from the help of DeBoer, first-year NHL assistant Jim Hulton and goaltending coach Pierre Groulx.
“The one thing about our coaching staff is they know a lot of young players, the junior players, and they help me a lot in that aspect and telling me about players like (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane in Chicago. So it kind of goes hand and hand. It’s a little refreshing, actually, having the younger coaches here, and then with the veteran guys, I try to help them out.”
Kitchen, the 38th overall pick in the 1976 NHL Draft, said he remembers Gary Lariviere being a mentor to him when he first joined the staff of the Maple Leafs.
“He was a big help,” Kitchen said. “He was the other assistant coach there and he just said, ‘If you have any question, just ask.’ He wouldn’t throw you into the fire. He brought you along slowly. I remember him because he let me grow at my own pace, growing into an assistant coach. It was a big jump for me. And being a head coach? I learned a lot from the head coaches I worked with, the Tom Watts, Pat Burns, Joel Quennevilles, Mike Murphys.
“You take a piece of their coaching, and you learned from the guys on your staff. I had Curt Fraser in one year. He was head coach in Atlanta. We had Brad Shaw when he finished up with the Islanders. That was nice because you’re focusing so much on certain areas of your game. This way you get assistants and they help feed the head coach information.”
DeBoer made the decision on his staff last summer while attending the NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa.
“We talked about his system, whether it would work at this level, and we just bounced a lot of stuff off each other,” Kitchen said.
“We had some good chemistry right off the bat,” DeBoer said. “Mike’s reputation precedes. He’s known around the league as a gentleman and a real good hockey guy, and I was very excited about the opportunity of working with him. I didn’t think there was a better fit out there for me.
“To come in here and have Mike…I feel real lucky that he’s been here.”