Goal Oriented

NHL coach handled rigors of law school

If young Peter DeBoer was asked by a law school admissions officer what his most important goal was, he might have been forgiven if he said, Well, there was that one late in the third period in Winnipeg . . .

I had a passion for both hockey and the law but, because of where and the way I grew up, I lived and breathed hockey, DeBoer says. For me, its about coming to work every day and enjoying what I do.

Coaching must have been the right decision because last season DeBoer led the sixth seeded New Jersey Devils to the very brink of a Stanley Cup championship as the teams head coach.

DeBoer graduated from a joint law school program of the University of Windsor Law School and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. Those two degrees give a student unique credentials and an insight into the legal worlds in both jurisdictions and trans-border law.

DeBoer grew up in a small Ontario town, far from any bright lights. He believes that environment played a major role in shaping his views, philosophy, and work ethic.

I think anybody who grows up in a small town knows its special because theres a value system in those places that gets instilled in you very early, he says. Theres a real sense of community and everybody knows everybody. It was a great place to grow up. One of the tough parts of choosing this profession is having to move around so much. Im having some great adventures now, but I wouldnt have changed my youth for anything.

A center iceman, DeBoer was selected by Toronto in the 12th round, 237th overall, of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft and played professionally for two seasons with the Milwaukee Admirals of the International Hockey League.

DeBoer began his coaching career in 1994 as an assistant with the Ontario Hockey Leagues Detroit Junior Red Wings. He also has experience coaching in the international arena, serving as an assistant for Team Canada at the 2010 World Championships in Germany. He helped coach Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2005 World Junior Championships.

Retired University of Windsor Law School Professor Brian Mazer knew DeBoer well when he was a student.

Hes a really nice, friendly guy, Mazer says. I remember in class that he was always prepared and had good questions, but every once in a while hed have a little smile on his face and hed answer a question with a bit of a joke on the end.

But that easy-going persona masked a very serious law student, according to Mazer, who was chairman of the Admissions Committee when DeBoer and several other hockey players expressed interest in attending law school.

When we talked about law school, it was quite clear that he had done his homework and knew what was involved in the commitment. What the workload would be, Mazer says. His questions were directed at the kinds of things that you would hope a mature individual would care about. Things like, how can I balance my major commitment to

hockey and study law at the same time? Thats more complicated in Peters case in the sense that he did the combined degree with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. For students in that joint program, its a bigger course load, but it also requires a big commitment and an ability to be pretty disciplined.

UDM School of Law Professor Howard Abrams remembers DeBoer in his classes and hopes the material was useful . . . even to a hockey coach.

The subject I was teaching copyright is one of the pillars of the entertainment industry, Abrams says. That certainly tied into Peters future career. Lets face it . . . professional sports is entertainment. Theres no question he was into the subject intellectually.

As he rose through the coaching ranks, DeBoer never forgot the lessons he learned while studying the law. And, as he arrived in the NHL, those lessons became more valuable than ever.

I use my law degree every day in my job as an NHL coach, DeBoer says. Youre dealing with employees who, in some cases, are making $10 million a year. You have to make a case on a daily basis of why you want them to do something that they may be uncomfortable doing. I wouldnt be here without that degree and Ive used it on a daily basis since the day I graduated.

When it came time to make the decision between the rink and the courtroom benches, DeBoer wavered. He had his law degree in hand and was prepared to take the bar exam.

I had the books, but got the head coach job with the Junior Red Wings that summer, he says. That put the bar exam on hold and I havent looked back.

DeBoer swears that a summer internship in Compuwares in-house legal department, with perhaps one of the most boring legal jobs ever devised, didnt sway his decision.

I wrote that tiny legal language on software boxes and it was painful, he says. I appreciated the job and it was a great learning experience, but I ran back to the coaching profession at the first opportunity after doing that.

After a long (by sports standards) 15-year career of coaching junior hockey, DeBoer made the transition to coaching in the NHL with the Florida Panthers. That job lasted three years, but despite leading the team to its second best finish ever, the Panthers never made it to the playoffs.

New Jersey Devils President and GM Lou Lamoriello then called and DeBoer inherited a team with a lot of promise.

One of his first steps was to ask the players, especially then-captain Zach Parise, how the team might be improved. It was the beginning of melding his philosophy with the tools available.

In the 2011-12 season, the Devils finished the regular season as the sixth seed in the east. They knocked the Florida Panthers out of the playoffs in seven games, winning game six in overtime.

Next up in the conference semifinals were the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Devils were heavy underdogs. They eventually defeated the Flyers and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would face the rival New York Rangers, for the first time since 2003.

The New York media went ape over the series, especially when it developed into a back-and-forth tug of war for the first four games, leaving the series tied at 2-2. The Devils finally eliminated the Rangers on May 25, 2012, again in overtime, to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings.

Losing the first three games to the Kings, the Devils then won the next two to become only the third team in NHL history to force a Game 6 in the Finals after facing a 3-0 deficit. Los Angeles eventually eliminated the Devils in Game 6 to win its first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

DeBoer had shown that, given the right players with the right franchise, he could produce impressive results. The Devils had long enjoyed a reputation for tenacious defense, but DeBoers system featured an aggressive style with a surprising offensive punch.

It was magical. Everything came together at the right time, he says. Every year theres a team thats that team. We happened to be the one that put it together. It doesnt happen very often. I kept reminding myself during the playoffs to enjoy every minute of it. You can get totally engrossed and forget to enjoy it.

In the crowded market for professional sports, DeBoer is proud of his leagues commitment to both the quality of play and reducing the risks of contact sports to the health of players.

I think the NHL has been the most proactive league in professional sports in regard to changing rules to make the game better, he says. Theres not another league not the NFL, not Major League Baseball, not the NBA that has made as many rule changes in the last five to 10 years as the NHL, both to improve the game and to protect the players.

Somewhat paradoxically, DeBoer also is a traditionalist who opposes cosmetic changes to the game to increase scoring, for example.

I also think you can go too far on changes and jeopardize the continuity and integrity of the game, he says. For example: Making nets bigger. Im totally opposed to that. Im old school that way. This is a game with 100 years of tradition.

DeBoer has an eye to the past, but also to the future. He has a reputation of working well with young players. That may be helped by his own real life role as a father. He and his wife, Susan, have one daughter, Abigail, and two sons, Jack and Matthew.

Would he encourage his kids to be lawyers, hockey players, or both?

You cant make those decisions for someone else, he says. Follow your passion. If you do, I believe, life will work out.

After a long and bitter labor dispute, the NHL has put the puck on the ice and is playing

a shortened, hurry up regular season.

Its going to be very tough. Were going through it right now, DeBoer says. Youve got five days to prepare a team to play, where you would usually have a month. Its like cramming for all your law exams in five days. Fortunately, its not my first year here and the returning players know the system.

DeBoer has considered hanging up his shingle as an attorney after retiring from coaching but, as of now, he doubts that will happen.

Ive thought about it, he says. But I also have enough respect for the profession that I know that, like coaching hockey, its not something that you get good at in a year or two. People spend 20 years becoming good attorneys. I dont know if thats in the cards for me, but its something Ive always wanted to do.

It would be tough to start at the bottom of the totem pole.

Just as DeBoers legal training had one foot in one country and the other foot in another country, hockey has a long tradition of blurring the border between Canada and the United States. There are many Red Wings fans across the bridge and tunnel in Windsor and many of the small towns in Ontario. The sport is a true international ambassador.

So, is DeBoer aware of any Canadian fans who cheer for the New Jersey Devils?

My parents! They live in Windsor.

 

By Steve Thorpe

 

 

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