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Peter DeBoer’s personality on display with Golden Knights

The strands that make up Peter DeBoer’s coaching DNA were formed during two events in his life.

The attention to detail, careful game planning for each opponent and time management that are his hallmarks all come from his law school days.

DeBoer’s personal touch, meanwhile, is rooted in something else entirely.

As a player, DeBoer suffered from Crohn’s disease, which provided the Golden Knights coach with a unique outlook he’s carried throughout his career.

“It’s something that I think has really given me a sympathetic ear to people with all kinds of disabilities,” DeBoer said. “I’ve got a cousin with (multiple sclerosis). You don’t know what people are dealing with out there until you get to know them. There’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t easy.

“Thankfully, it’s come a long way, the treatment of (Crohn’s disease). It’s something I don’t wish I ever got, but I learned a lot from getting it and dealing with it.”

DeBoer was diagnosed with the inflammatory bowel disease as a teenager, he said, and spent close to a week in the hospital before doctors correctly identified the issue.

According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation website, symptoms of the disease include abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition, and it can lead to life-threatening complications.

“It didn’t keep me from the NHL,” DeBoer said with a self-deprecating laugh. “I wasn’t going to play in the NHL no matter what.”

The 51-year-old has long been in remission from the disease but remains affected by it nonetheless.

The Knights have been exposed to DeBoer’s hard-driving, demanding personality throughout his first month on the job. They’ve also seen a softer side that has helped make for a seamless transition since he was hired to replace Gerard Gallant on Jan. 15.

“He’s getting along with the guys right away,” right wing Ryan Reaves said. “You never really know what kind of chemistry you’re going to have with a new coach coming in. Sometimes it takes a little longer than you’d like. But this one was real quick.

“He’s one of those approachable player-coaches, and you can talk to him. You’re not going to have any issues. Any time you get a so-called player’s coach coming in, I think it makes it a little easier.”

Vegas Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer during a team practice at City National Arena in L ...
Vegas Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer during a team practice at City National Arena in Las Vegas, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Erik Verduzco / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

Eye-opening experience

Despite the occasional flare-up associated with Crohn’s disease, DeBoer was a 12th-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1988 and produced solid numbers in the International Hockey League. He had 27 goals and 61 points in 82 games during his second full professional season with the Milwaukee Admirals.

But in the summer of 1991, DeBoer abruptly retired when he was accepted into the joint law school program of the University of Windsor and the University of Detroit Mercy.

After growing up in the farming town of Dunnville, Ontario, about an hour from Buffalo, New York, it turned out to be a life-changing decision.

“The best part about law school is I had grown up and lived only in a hockey world. Athletes. Games,” DeBoer said. “It was such a small piece of what the real world was, and when I went to law school, it really opened my eyes to all kinds of different issues and genres and people. It was a fantastic experience.”

DeBoer initially thought he would use his law degrees working with the NHL Players’ Association or as an agent. He spent a summer interning at software company Compuware in Detroit writing legal disclaimers that went on boxes of floppy disks.

All the while, DeBoer was a volunteer coach with the Detroit Junior Red Wings and was hired as a full-time assistant by the Ontario Hockey League club in 1994.

The following season, he was promoted to head coach when Paul Maurice left to become an assistant for the NHL’s Hartford Whalers.

“I fell in love with it,” DeBoer said. “You’ve got to convince people to go and do things that they’re uncomfortable doing. You use video, and you use analytics and you use statistics. You use personal connections to try to get people to go to those places. That’s all stuff and skills that I learned in law school.”

DeBoer coached 13 seasons in the OHL until he was hired as head coach by the Florida Panthers in 2008.

He guided the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season in 2012 using a grind-it-out style and reached the Final again with San Jose in 2016 by blending a stingy defense with a skilled offensive attack.

DeBoer went 198-129-34 with the Sharks before he was fired Dec. 11 after four-plus seasons and is 419-332-113 overall in 12 seasons with Florida, New Jersey, San Jose and the Knights.

“He knew what he was doing, and guys really liked him,” Sharks forward Tomas Hertl said at the All-Star Game last month. “He always told us what he wants and what he wants back. He just wanted guys to work really hard. He had a great system.”

Vegas Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer during a press conference at City National Arena i ...
Vegas Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer during a press conference at City National Arena in Las Vegas, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Erik Verduzco / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

Outside perspective

Any coach who followed Gallant would have had a difficult job winning over the fan base after the Knights’ sentimental run to the Stanley Cup Final during their inaugural season.

But DeBoer’s hiring came with an added layer of tension.

The Sharks. The rivalry. The five-minute major penalty in Game 7 to Cody Eakin, which DeBoer has since admitted several times wasn’t a major.

“I knew there was going to be some emotion on the fans’ part and on the players’ part with what went on,” DeBoer said. “I knew that would be a piece of it, but nothing that (I) ever considered not taking it. Just too good an opportunity.”

DeBoer signed a two-year contract extension through the 2022-23 season when he was hired, according to a report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

And in true attorney fashion, he hasn’t shied away from being brutally honest about what needs to change with his new club.

After Tuesday’s 4-0 clunker at Minnesota, DeBoer described the Knights as “way too soft” around their own net. That came on the heels of DeBoer pointing out an overall lack of commitment to blocking shots.

DeBoer also has made tough decisions to the lineup, notably scratching defenseman Deryk Engelland in favor of rookie Zach Whitecloud.

“It’s been good to have a little different voice in the room,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He’s very professional. You can see that, and I think guys respect him. Any coach you have, you all want to win. At the end, it’s all very similar, but he’s made a good first impression on our team.”

The Knights are 4-3-2 under DeBoer entering Thursday’s game at T-Mobile Arena against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

The penalty killing remains an issue, as does the goaltending and the Knights’ ability to finish scoring chances.

With 24 games remaining, DeBoer must formulate a convincing closing argument to keep the Knights from missing the postseason.

“In the hockey world, you don’t meet a lot of bad people, but he’s definitely on the good side of it,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He fits well in our organization. He’s been good for us, and he’s a good guy off and on the ice, and he has the best interest in our team and we’re all jumping in the boat here.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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