Shortly after Bob Boughner was let go as the Florida Panthers coach in 2019, Pete DeBoer put in a phone call to his old friend. Knowing what he meant to the Sharks when he was with the team from 2015 to 2017, DeBoer wanted Boughner to return to San Jose to work with him for a second time.
On May 29, 2019, Boughner was brought back to San Jose as an assistant on DeBoer’s staff.
“At that point, to be honest, I probably knew that eventually, I would have hoped that he would get the chance to replace me if it ever got to that,” DeBoer told reporters Friday.
“You’re not thinking about that the day you hire him, but it’s definitely in the back of my mind.”
It happened sooner than anyone thought.
On Dec. 11, 2019 with the Sharks owners of a 15-16-2 record and a five-game losing streak, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson went to DeBoer’s house to tell him he had been fired. Shortly after that, Boughner received the news that he had been hired in the interim.
Oddly enough, DeBoer, 52, and Boughner, 49, had carpooled together to the airport a week earlier prior to what was a Sharks’ four-game road trip. After the Sharks returned to San Jose from Nashville following an 0-3-1 trip, Boughner drove DeBoer back to his home before they both discovered their lives were about to change.
”It’s such a shock and such a blur because (you’re) feeling terrible for the situation we’re in, and terrible for very close friends,” said Boughner, who went to the same high school as DeBoer. “The other side of it is, now you’ve got to get your act together because you’re going behind the bench the next day and running practice.”
“(Bob) had head coaching experience, Doug knew him, the players knew him, so I can’t say I’m surprised that he replaced me and I’m happy he got the opportunity,” said DeBoer, the only coach to lead the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final.
“I think that was the whole idea of him coming back.”
DeBoer and Steve Spott will return to SAP Center for the first time in over 11 months Saturday when the Vegas Golden Knights face Boughner and the Sharks. Five weeks after he was let go by Wilson, DeBoer was hired by Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon, although Vegas and San Jose did not play again before the NHL suspended its season March 12.
DeBoer, Spott and Boughner were all part of the same staff that led the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. Spott, Dave Barr and Johan Hedberg were also let go by Wilson on Dec. 11, 2019.
“Anytime you get fired, it’s humbling and it’s a little shot to your ego,” DeBoer said. “Because you obviously are told that what you were doing wasn’t good enough. For me, taking this job starting on day one, you’re out to prove that the formula you use and what you do can work.
“I don’t think it’s about the game tomorrow night. That started on day one of my new job. So that’s the only thing that motivates you.”
The two teams have been on different trajectories ever since.
The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division in 2020 and reached the Western Conference Final during the NHL’s Return to Play last year. This season, even though they did not play a game for nine days because of COVID-19 issues within their team, the Golden Knights still entered Friday in first place in the West Division with an 8-2-1 record.
The Sharks, not part of the Return to Play last year, are still finding their way, tied for seventh place in the division at 5-6-1, although they’ve played every game so far on the road.
Boughner is more comfortable with where he’s at right now, as he’s had time to implement his systems and work with his new staff.
“There was so much going in and so much to think about,” Boughner said of the coaching change. “But I knew that Pete would land on his feet. He’s a great coach and is in high demand, and I knew he wouldn’t be out of work very long.
“We had such a special bond, what we went through, going on the Stanley Cup run and our history of knowing each other from the past and the junior days. There’s a lot of connections there. It was really tough. It was bittersweet. I was thankful to get an opportunity, but no one really wants to get an opportunity in that situation.”
DeBoer had been fired twice before as an NHL head coach, by Florida after three years with the Panthers in 2011 and by the New Jersey Devils the day after Christmas in 2014.
With that in mind, DeBoer appreciated how Wilson handled a tough situation.
“He called and came over to my house, sat down in my living room with me and my wife and we had a hug at the end,” DeBoer said. “It was a bittersweet ending, but it was done in a really humane way and, it’s not always done like that. You take that for granted sometimes.
“But I’m proud of my time there. I wouldn’t change the path that I’ve gone on and I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for the people there.”