NHL News

Vegas coach Peter DeBoer on the NHL’s coronavirus pause, and coaching a team that hated him

Peter DeBoer said the NHL’s decision to pause its season due to the coronavirus pandemic was “surreal.” The same word could apply to the rest of the coach’s 2019-20 season, too.

DeBoer was fired by the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 11, 2019, following their 15-16-2 start. He resurfaced quickly when the Vegas Golden Knights stunned the hockey world by firing coach Gerard Gallant on Jan. 15, 2020, and hiring DeBoer, who had quickly become an archenemy for both Gallant and the franchise during the Knights’ rivalry with the Sharks.

Suspicion about the hiring cooled when the Knights hit their stride under DeBoer, going 15-5-2 in 22 games before the pause, climbing to the top of the Pacific Division.

DeBoer, 51, appeared on the “ESPN On Ice With Wyshynski and Kaplan” podcast this week to talk about the shutdown, how his routines as a coach have changed, potential NHL draft lottery and postseason formats, and what it was like to take over a team whose fan base (and some players) practically loathed him as an enemy. Enjoy!

ESPN: Take us through what it was like when you found out the NHL season was going to be suspended.

DeBoer: Yeah, wow … you look for words to describe it. “Surreal” is probably the best one. No one has seen or been through anything like this in our lifetime. We were in Minnesota, on the road. We had gotten up that morning, and the coaches had gone to the rink to prepare for our game-day skate. We were supposed to play that night in Minnesota. We got a message from our general manager basically saying that none of the players were going to come over. No meetings held. There was going to be no games [that night] as a directive from the NHL.

So we went back to the hotel and had a team meeting with everybody, and basically made plans to get back to Las Vegas. At that time, the thinking was it might be three or four days, or it might be a week, and then we’d be able to resume. But that quickly changed to the long-term situation we’re looking at now.

ESPN: When the NHL told players they could go anywhere, how many Golden Knights stayed in Vegas? Did players consult with you about where to go?

DeBoer: It ended so quickly. Really, our team meeting was in Minnesota and as soon as we landed back in Las Vegas, the directive was to go home and stay in the area, because we all thought we might be able to resume fairly quickly. Then, obviously, the three or four days turned into the long term and we never got together as a group again. The communication with players has been really sporadic. It was a strange ending, the way it worked out. And when they closed the practice rinks, there wasn’t an opportunity to run into anybody.

Within a week, there was a directive that players could return to their homes or home countries. To be honest with you, I don’t have a count or a track on exactly where everybody is. It’s just a strange situation.

ESPN: What’s a typical day look like for you? How much interaction are you having with others on the hockey operations side?

DeBoer: We have a weekly conference call with our coaching staff every Thursday. Last week, it was on the phone. This week we’re going to elevate it and have it on Zoom or one of these virtual things so we can see each other. We’re all working on different projects around our own team game and some of the teams we might potentially see in the playoffs. The daily routine is really preparation for that weekly meeting.

I’m fortunate I have two basically college-aged boys at home. One plays at Boston University, the other one is going to go to Holy Cross in the next year. They’ve got me working out. I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in, in 10 years [laughs]. They’re dragging me around with them here, obviously to my benefit.

ESPN: We’ve heard a lot of wild proposals about what should happen during this unprecedented time, and one had to do with the draft lottery. What’s your opinion, as someone who doesn’t have a horse in that race this year, on the tournament that’s been discussed for the No. 1 pick. What do you think of that?

DeBoer: I read [Los Angeles Kings coach] Todd McLellan’s comments and I probably agree with Todd. The one thing I’ve always liked is the idea that you don’t reward teams for just mailing it in down the stretch. I think the lottery has done that. You can’t just tank. The odds have shown that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get the first overall pick. So I think we addressed that with the lottery. Having been a guy who stood behind the bench in those seasons where you are one of those lottery teams, you really don’t want to go back and play in for the first overall pick. You want those seasons to end as quickly as possible and move on to the next year [laughs]. From a fan perspective, I feel like they want to see the best teams in the playoffs and playoff hockey. I’m not sure what the appetite for [a tournament for the top picks] would be from a fan point of view.

ESPN: You mentioned playoff hockey: Vegas was in first place in the Pacific Division when the season was paused. What’s your ideal playoff format for a season restart?

DeBoer: We’ve got a great group at the NHL level and they’re taking all kinds of suggestions. From a coaching perspective, I’ve got a couple of thoughts. One, I don’t want to be the team with the bye, sitting there after being off for a month or two months or three months. Having teams play 2-out-of-3s and play-in games while you’re sitting there. There’s a huge advantage to having actually played games. I know the bye sounds like an advantage. And it is an advantage if you’ve been playing an entire 82-game season and you roll into that and you have 10 days to prepare for the next round. But when you’ve been sitting around for months, it’s a disadvantage. From a fairness point of view, that would be a concern for me.

I think Gary Bettman said it best: If you’re going to award the Stanley Cup, you want to make sure there’s some integrity to the process. That’s the most important piece. Whatever the answer is, whoever’s team goes on that Cup, there has to be enough integrity to the process and the decision on how we’re going to do it so that team isn’t going to have an asterisk beside it in the history books.

ESPN: The players seem pretty adamant about getting games in before the postseason. Connor McDavid recently said that you’d end up with a bunch of AHL players on the ice by the end of an Edmonton vs. Calgary playoff series if they started it without any ramp-up.

DeBoer: Hockey’s a little different than other sports. If you haven’t been skating, it takes a while to get those skating legs back. And the timing of handling pucks and shooting and things like that. It’s not like other sports where you can jump into it a little bit quicker. Or like basketball, where you can play it in your backyard in preparation for a season. We don’t have access to ice. I doubt there’s anybody skating right now. When that carries into a month or two months or three months, it’s going to take some time to get that back.

ESPN: We’re getting to the point where we’re talking about playing to August. Let’s say the offseason is just September, and you have to play again in October. What would be the challenges there? Would that be the first season where we see load management come into the NHL?

DeBoer: Well, first I can imagine playoff hockey in Vegas in August … it would be 120 degrees outside. It would be awesome [laughs]. You’d have to change the dress code for the players who are coming to the rink. But it would be awesome. People by that point would be starving for hockey. I know, to a man, the players want to have an ending for this season and have it end the right way. With our group, you get this far into the season and you can taste the Stanley Cup playoffs, and you want some closure for that. Whether we play in July, August or September, I think I’m all for figuring out how to get some closure for this season before we roll into the next.

As far as rolling into next season, what a great problem to have if that’s the case. That means we’d have a Stanley Cup playoff, and the Stanley Cup’s been awarded for this year. If it means some load management … I think some coaches in our league are already working with load management. We don’t healthy scratch star players, for the most part. But there’s definitely load management where we drop their minutes or we give them extra days off from practice or keep them off the ice at pregame skates. There’s extra stuff the fans don’t see when they sit in their seat where we’re giving key guys that are loaded up with those minutes the proper rest.

ESPN: That was a thing for you as San Jose’s coach.

DeBoer: Yeah, we had an older team. And they were a group that loved to practice. So that was a little bit like pulling teeth to get Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns and some of those guys to stay off the ice. Which was a great problem to have as a coach, because they’re such great professionals. But the rest is something I think really benefited those guys.

ESPN: We haven’t had a chance to talk to you since you were hired in Vegas and we found that fascinating. Outside of Evander Kane, you were Public Enemy No. 1 for Golden Knights fans and maybe even players.

DeBoer: [Laughs] Evander was definitely Public Enemy No. 1. I was No. 2.

ESPN: Exactly. So you taking over in Vegas is like Lex Luthor suddenly taking over the Justice League. It doesn’t make sense. Did you have any heat coming into that place with the fans or the players?

DeBoer: I’ll be honest with you. It was a little uncomfortable walking in. We had some epic battles with that group over the last three years, having played them in the playoffs twice. All the baggage. Some of the games we had in the regular season. So my first meeting with the group was a little uncomfortable. But they were great. And that showed me why they’ve had the record they’ve had and done the things they’ve done since expansion. As pros, they’ve handled that exceptionally well.

From a fan perspective, I got a lot of, “boy I hated you when you coached in San Jose, but we’re starting to get used to you.” So that’s good. [Laughs] Unfortunately, we had to take a break, but the fans there are so passionate. That’s what you see. Gerard Gallant and his staff did an epic job. It’ll probably go down in the history of the game for what they accomplished in their first three years with an expansion team. To replace someone like that is always tough. The community and those players were emotionally invested in him. So it wasn’t easy. We tiptoed around some things. But every day got a little more comfortable, and they were more receptive. And obviously winning helps.

ESPN: Finally, the NHLPA poll came out this week. Among the worst trash-talkers in the league was [Golden Knights forward] Nick Cousins with 6% of the vote. Can you confirm that he’s a bad trash-talker?

DeBoer: [Laughs] I’ll put it this way. He’s one of those guys you love to have on your team and you hate to play against. He’s in the typical fashion of those types of guys: Quiet, polite, mild-mannered. And then the puck drops and a switch flips. I loved the acquisition when we got him. I love what he brings. It’s what you need come playoff time. It drags other people into the battle in your group. We’re happy to have him. But I’m not surprised he’s on that list.

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