Commentary

Devils' DeBoer has found his niche

Updated: May 18, 2012, 9:07 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- The fall of 1985.

Peter DeBoer and his parents are talking with Windsor Spitfires GM Jim Rutherford in historic Windsor Arena in downtown Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit.

Rutherford, who took the teenage forward in the 13th round of the junior draft, wanted DeBoer to stay in Windsor, see whether he liked it, maybe play some Junior B with the Windsor Bulldogs, maybe some with the big junior club.

DeBoer wasn't so sure.

"It was a little overwhelming for a kid from a small town," DeBoer recalled Friday.

He had been playing Junior C hockey in his hometown of Dunnville, Ontario. He wondered whether he should go home.

But he didn't.

And that, as Robert Frost once opined, has made all the difference.

"The best move I ever made," said DeBoer, who would play four years for the Spitfires, winning a league championship and losing in a Memorial Cup final along the way.

Those are crossroads moments in a career, in a life, DeBoer told ESPN.com.

If Rutherford hadn't made DeBoer and his family feel comfortable enough about playing in Windsor, who knows how all of this would have turned out?

"I wouldn't be standing here. No doubt about that," DeBoer said.

"Here" happens to be the Prudential Center in Newark, where DeBoer's Devils will look to take a 2-1 series advantage over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals Saturday afternoon.

Ask longtime friend Paul Maurice what he thinks of when he thinks of DeBoer, and this is what he comes up with.

Maurice, then the head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Detroit Junior Red Wings, and DeBoer, then an assistant coach with the team, are driving back home from the OHL's annual scheduling meeting.

It had been a grueling affair, and at the end of it, Maurice was going through the schedule and wasn't happy with his team's prospects.

"It was the worst schedule in the history of the OHL," Maurice recalled recently.

Maurice pointed to a portion of the schedule that had the Junior Red Wings set to play four games in five nights in far-flung OHL cities or something equally hellacious. While Maurice was grumbling, DeBoer looked over at his friend and sometimes roommate.

"And he said, 'It won't be a bad schedule if we get seven of eight,'" Maurice said.

And that's what happened.

"I never ever forgot that," Maurice said. "He just thinks the right way. That's just Pete. He has an inner confidence."

DeBoer and Maurice met as junior teammates in Windsor. The two and other friends shared a house during the summer near the University of Windsor, and ultimately both Maurice and DeBoer ended up taking classes there. When Maurice was hired by Rutherford to take over as head coach of the Junior Red Wings in 1994-95, he asked DeBoer, then going to law school, whether he would come along as his assistant.

Even now DeBoer shakes his head at the thought.

"The fact that he and I basically had the keys to a junior franchise at that age. It was great learning on the job," he said.

Two years later, Maurice was in the NHL as an assistant, soon to be a head coach in Hartford, while DeBoer took over for Maurice as the junior club's bench boss.

The two have remained close over the years, standing in each other's weddings. They are in many ways very similar in terms of their character, their leadership abilities, their personalities, Rutherford told ESPN.com.

"We both saw many things in terms of black and white but we were willing to argue with each other," Maurice said. "He'll tell you he was a lot faster than me but neither of us was that fast."

[+] EnlargePeter DeBoer
Robert Duyos/Getty ImagesPeter DeBoer cut his teeth at the NHL level with the Florida Panthers.

At the time, the prospect of coaching as a career path wasn't necessarily a given. For two bright young men, it was merely one of many possibilities.

"It was something that we both really enjoyed while we were doing other things," Maurice said. "We talked about [being NHL coaches] occasionally but we weren't really afraid of what three years down the road were going to mean for us."

In the end, though, the game -- or rather, coaching the game -- would sustain both for many years.

Maurice, of course, went on to a successful career coaching in Carolina (twice), taking the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals and the 2009 Eastern Conference finals. He also coached in Toronto.

DeBoer parlayed a long, successful junior coaching career into an NHL job with the Florida Panthers.

That gig lasted three seasons, and while the Panthers actually ended up tied for eighth place in DeBoer's second season, they never qualified for the playoffs, and he was shown the door last June.

Although he was confident he would get another shot, there were moments of doubt.

"Everything crosses your mind at that point," DeBoer said. "I was surprised at the lack of calls for some of the openings that were out there. But the right guy called, and I'm glad he did."

So, too, is that fellow, New Jersey president and GM Lou Lamoriello.

The longtime New Jersey boss was attracted to a number of qualities, including DeBoer's overall intelligence and his receptiveness to outside opinions.

"He has no ego," Lamoriello told ESPN.com. "He is someone who listens. He is also someone who hears."

DeBoer is candid enough to confess that those are qualities that aren't necessarily lifelong qualities but qualities born of mistakes made and understood.

"I coached junior hockey for 15 years. You don't ask junior players what they think of the systems or what they think curfew should be," DeBoer said. "It's a dictatorship."

That's not how it works in the NHL.

Indeed, last summer after getting the job, DeBoer sought out top players such as captain Zach Parise and inquired about how they thought the team could have the most success.

There is very often a symbiotic relationship between a pro coach and his team. When it works, when there is simpatico, teams adopt the personality of the coach. It is so with the Los Angeles Kings and Darryl Sutter. It has always been so for teams coached by Dave Tippett, now in Phoenix. Likewise for teams coached by John Tortorella, the other final four coach.

Fair to say no one knew exactly how that would play out for DeBoer and the Devils. And yet DeBoer has accomplished something quite remarkable in his first year in New Jersey. He has managed to stay true to the team's historic reliance on defense and goaltending while marrying that to a surprising level of aggressive creativity.

More impressive, perhaps, is that the quiet confidence that defines DeBoer has been reflected on the ice by his players.

"You're seeing it now. He's the right guy to be in that position," Maurice said.

Rutherford said he's not surprised Lamoriello was quick to give DeBoer a shot.

"He got the most out of those teams in Florida he could," Rutherford said.

"He didn't have the team he has today. Now he's dealing with a good team and he's done a real good job with it," Rutherford said. "I've always had great respect for him. He's getting what he deserves."

It has been a long journey to this point for DeBoer.

He is doing his best to savor this playoff run.

"My wife reminds me every day to enjoy it or try and enjoy it," he said. "I have a better appreciation and understanding of what it means because of what I went through in Florida."