By Dave Joseph
|Peter DeBoer, was introduced as the Cats 10th coach in franchise history on Monday, June 16, 2008. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter) |
The sky is big from here.
Outside these windows at BankAtlantic Center, outside this office on the club level, the skyline stretches over the Everglades and beyond.
Past the haze outside these windows, to the charcoal clouds gathering 10 miles out, to the lightning ripping through a gunmetal heaven somewhere along Alligator Alley, there are no boundaries.
The possibilities are endless.
Peter DeBoer sits inside this office never looking at the great expanse outside the window. He doesn’t have to. He already knows about possibilities and promise.
And for the son of an immigrant coal miner, for a kid who’s earned everything he’s ever got, this is where it’s all led.
To fans seeking hope. To a team seeking wins. To a franchise seeking a way out from playoff purgatory.
All this from a guy with a law degree who wasn’t sure just 15 years ago whether he wanted to coach hockey. From a guy who some players say can put the fear of God in you.
From a guy taking his first NHL head coaching job in a city that hasn’t seen a playoff victory in more than a decade.
Peter DeBoer looks at you, looks straight into your eyes, and asks; “What’s the identity of the Florida Panthers going to be?” And then he answers his question.
“It’s my job that it’s a hard-working, honest group of guys,” he says. “You have to have a strong work ethic, strong character. And you push yourself and push the people around you as far as you can to have them reach their potential.”
And if Peter DeBoer does that? Look out the window; past the tall grass and rip in heaven.
The possibilities are endless.
By the time he was introduced as the Panthers 10th head coach on June 16, DeBoer had built up an impressive resume in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
He had a combined regular-season record of 539-248-60-31 with Kitchener and the Detroit/Plymouth Whalers, where he began his OHL coaching career in 1995. That’s a .676 win percentage.
A two-time Coach of the Year in the OHL, winner of the Memorial Cup in Kitchener in 2003, DeBoer was arguably the most sought after coach this summer to never stand behind an NHL bench.
And he found himself in that position, according to his players and colleagues, by playing a strong forecheck, an up-tempo game, and with a demanding but fair attitude.
“I would say I’m a disciplinarian,” DeBoer said.
For instance, when Panther center Stephen Weiss
played for DeBoer in Plymouth, he didn’t dress after missing class. During the 2003 Memorial Cup, DeBoer benched Derek Roy, one of his best players, for missing curfew.
|DeBoer spent the last seven seasons, coaching the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. (Getty Images) |
In DeBoer’s world, it doesn’t matter who you are or how many points you score. If you’re not on the bus, you won’t see the bus.
“He holds everyone to the same standard,” Weiss said. “He treats everyone the same whether you’re a fourth line guy or a first line center.”
Panther prospect Mike Duco, who played under DeBoer in Kitchener for five years, said; “If you’re not giving your all, if you’re not doing your best, you probably won’t be playing.”
For DeBoer, this is the way it should be, the way it’s always been. You work for what you get. You battle for everything you have. Nothing comes free. You climb the ladder rung by rung.
“That’s what I know, that what I grew up around,” DeBoer said. “That’s what was expected of me. You got up in the morning and went to work that day. Anything else was non-negotiable.”
And maybe that’s how you begin to understand Peter DeBoer’s work ethic? You just don’t trace the line back to his hometown of Dunnville, Ontario. No, you begin in Holland, the country of his father and the man who decided his fate by the flip of a coin.
Fred DeBoer wanted to go to New Zealand when he turned 18.
After World War II, “after Canada and the United States got rid of the Germans,” Fred DeBoer had his heart set on traveling to New Zealand.
“After the war, there wasn’t a lot of work in Holland,” he recalled. “But my mother didn’t want me to go to New Zealand. It was too far. Back then, probably five days by plane. So she said, ‘Go to Canada or the U.S.’ ”
So Fred DeBoer made his decision by flipping a coin.
“That was it,” he recalled. “Heads or tail. Turned out Canada.”
DeBoer arrived in Manitoba and found employment on a farm for his first five months. “It wasn’t for me,” he said. “So I went to work in the nickel mines. I worked there for five, six years and loved every minute of it.”
He met his wife, Sylvia, in Manitoba. Fred started an environmental business and the two worked their way to southern Ontario in Dunnville, a small town of 10,000 people where Fred passed his work ethic on to his son.
“I was always expected to have a strong work ethic,” DeBoer recalled. “My father worked on a farm, my mom, too. And working hard was par for the course.”
DeBoer recalls starting to play hockey when he was “eight or nine” in Dunnville. He had enough skill – just enough – to get drafted in the 14th round by the Windsor Compuware Spitfires. And so, at the age of 17, DeBoer left Dunnville and began his hockey career.
DeBoer spent four years playing in Windsor alongside teammates Paul Maurice and Adam Graves while learning the game from coach Tom Webster, who recalled DeBoer as someone who “worked for everything he got.”
“It was not easy for him,” said Webster, now a scout for the Calgary Flames. “He was not a natural, but he persevered and put in the time and it evolved into a character trait. He became my captain after Adam Graves and Paul Maurice left. He took on the leadership role and he was a player who led by example.”
Four years in Windsor led to DeBoer being drafted in the 12th round (237th overall) of the 1988 Entry Draft by the Maple Leafs. That led to two years in the International Hockey League playing for the Milwaukee Admirals, where he had 48 goals (102 points) in 151 games playing for coach Ron Wilson.
When asked if the game came naturally to him, DeBoer allowed a smile to crease his face.
“I was far from gifted,” he said. “Everything was a battle for me. It was a lot of hard work and perseverance and knocking down doors. I definitely wasn’t handed any opportunities. I found a way to play because of work ethic and learning the details of the game because I wasn’t skilled enough.
“I mean, I was a 14th round pick in junior hockey and a 12th round pick in the NHL. You don’t take skilled guys in those rounds.”
It was after his second season in Milwaukee that DeBoer decided to stop playing hockey and attend law school with an eye toward the management end of the sport.
“I had no aspirations of being a coach at that time. I really didn’t,” he said. “I got into law school and I know I wanted to stay in sports, but at that point I was looking more at agency or management after I was done.
“Things just fell into my lap.”
The first was a call from ex-teammate Paul Maurice, who wanted to know if DeBoer would assist him coaching the Detroit Junior Red Wings in 1994.
“To get away from the books, he asked me to come and help him out until he could find a full time assistant,” he recalled. “I fell in love with.”
When Maurice was hired to coach the Hartford Whalers the following year, DeBoer was named coach of the Junior Wings.
“I had a job lined up at a law firm in downtown Windsor, to work there in September after I graduated,” DeBoer said. “I was ready to hang up my coaching hat then. But I put my law career on hold and kind of jumped in with both feet, and that was 12, 13 years ago.”
Fred DeBoer is asked what he thought of his son’s decision back in ’95. “I think my wife was more happy back then that he was going to law school,” he said. “But I’m happy he’s in hockey.”
|DeBoer (Left) was also a coach for Team Canada during International play. |
When Panther GM Jacques Martin was quizzed about the fact he hired a coach with no professional experience, he replied; “The answer is easy.”
“You just have to look at Peter’s coaching record,” he added. “Coaching is coaching. To me, he has demonstrated that he has the skill to lead young men to be a tremendous leader for our team. At the same time, he’s a tremendous teacher. He handles the bench very well. He has good game-time decisions and has tremendous respect. When you find all those attributes, to me, he doesn’t have to change anything and he will be successful at this level.”
To be successful, DeBoer will have to work with a core group of players who haven’t made the playoffs since they’ve been in the NHL. It will be DeBoer’s job to get the most out of the Panthers. Does that mean putting the fear of God in them?
“I think all players want accountability,” DeBoer said. “They want structure and they want fairness. Regardless of the technique, they are going to respond to it. That’s what we try to do.”
And DeBoer doesn’t question his players desire to make the playoffs.
“The first thing is they need to know that, come September, there’s a change and things are going to be different here,” he said. “Not being in the playoffs in seven years is disappointing to everyone and, trust me, through my conversations with these players, they’re as disappointed as any of the fans or the coaches or management. They want to be playing playoff hockey. I think we have a captive audience in the group of players we have, and we have to come in and get off on the right track. The big thing will be establishing an identity.”
That identity will come in part from DeBoer’s playing days. Because he didn’t have the physical tools, DeBoer learned “hockey smarts and you learned to know the systems better than other people and you had to do the little things that coaches liked to get an opportunity.”
“I carry that to the teams I coach,” he added. “I really believe if you can get your best players to do those things, you’re going to be a good team.”
The sky is growing dark over the Everglades, but the haze over BankAtlantic Center is pushing west.