Panthers’ DeBoer is ready to rumble

September 14, 2009, 1:22 PM

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Something just doesn’t feel quite right for Peter DeBoer.

For the past 14 years he’s been back on the ice by late August and right in the thick of an Ontario Hockey League training camp. This summer, the new head coach of the Florida Panthers is still three full weeks away from running his first camp for the pros.

"It’s hurry up and wait," DeBoer told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "My internal clock is telling me, `All right, let’s go’ — and I’ve still got a month to wait."

Other than that, life could hardly be better.

DeBoer is set to start the next chapter of his career working for a general manager (Jacques Martin) who should have plenty of empathy because he was the last man to hold the team’s coaching position. He’s also in a city (Miami) where he’s already looking forward to wearing shorts to the practice rink in January.

One thing that won’t be any different from the seven years DeBoer just spent with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers is that his performance will be measured largely by the success of his team.

He’ll be able to start shaping that success when Florida’s training camp finally opens on Sept. 18. Preparing for his first NHL camp hasn’t been as much work as he had to put in while running OHL teams.

"From a hockey standpoint, your preparation isn’t much different," said DeBoer. "I think there’s a lot less to worry about (in the NHL). As coach and general manager in Kitchener, I oversaw every detail of training camp — from travel to booking ice time to cutting players to scheduling exhibition games.

"At this level you’ve got people that do all those things. You just coach."

It’s one of the things he does best.

He spent 13 years as a head coach in the OHL and only one of his teams had a losing record — a remarkable rate of achievement given the rapid turnover of junior-aged players. DeBoer was twice recognized as the league’s coach of the year and guided the Rangers to two OHL championships and a Memorial Cup title.

Making a move to the pro ranks is something he always hoped to do eventually.

"I always wanted to coach in the NHL, I knew that," said DeBoer. "At the same time, I wasn’t in a rush to get there. I really appreciated the level I was at."

After winning the OHL Championship and hosting the Memorial Cup in the spring, the time had come to make a change. The Ottawa Senators were among the NHL teams that pursued DeBoer before he eventually signed a deal with the Panthers on June 13 — his 40th birthday.

One of the things he liked about Florida is that there are some familiar players on the roster: Gregory Campbell and Stephen Weiss played for him in Kitchener while Brett McLean was on Canada’s world junior team when he was an assistant coach in 1998. Nathan Horton is also from DeBoer’s hometown of Dunnville, Ont.

Those players — like everyone else — will all be starting on the same line in his ledger.

"I really want to go in with a clean slate with this team," said DeBoer. "No pre-conceived opinions on the players. I really want to give them the opportunity in camp to come out and (prove themselves) — regardless of what’s happened in the past here or how they’ve played and performed."

It’s a pretty logical approach given that the Panthers haven’t appeared in a playoff game since 2000 and haven’t won one since 1997.

That’s bound to take a toll on a franchise and the players who have experienced the worst of it. One shining example is all-star defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who first cracked the Florida lineup as a teenager and has now appeared in almost 400 NHL games — all of them during the regular season.

DeBoer knows the culture has to change.

"When you don’t make the playoffs for seven or eight years, there is some baggage that gets dragged through year to year with you," he said. "We’re going to try and eliminate that and start fresh."

The only baggage he’s been worried about this summer is the physical stuff that belongs to his family. DeBoer, his wife Susan and their three children have all made the move to Florida and are still getting settled.

"We haven’t unpacked all the boxes yet," he said.

The family was sorry to say goodbye to Kitchener after seven years while also understanding that moving is part of the job.

Although DeBoer has left the OHL behind, he’s still got at least one reason to follow the league. He and former junior teammate Adam Graves purchased part of the Oshawa Generals last month.

It’s not something that will take up much of his time.

"I’ve got my hands full here," said DeBoer. "It was a way for me to simply stay a small piece of a league that I owe everything to for where I am today."

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