You can’t paint a more bizarre picture than what transpired Dec. 11, 2019.
The San Jose Sharks just returned from Nashville after a four-game road trip. The Sharks lost 3-1 to the Predators, their fifth consecutive defeat.
Pete DeBoer and assistant coach Bob Boughner carpooled from San Jose International Airport. Boughner dropped DeBoer off at home.
Walking through the door, DeBoer was likely readying himself to get his struggling 15-16-2 club ready for an upcoming seven-game homestand.
Instead, 10 minutes in from entering home for the first time in eight days, DeBoer got a phone call from Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. He wanted to meet DeBoer at his house.
He came in, sat on DeBoer’s couch, and told the man that took his team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 that he was fired.
The two hugged at the end, and it was over.
“It was a bittersweet ending, but it was done in a really humane way,” DeBoer said. “It’s not always done like that.”
That same day, Boughner — DeBoer’s best friend from high school — became the Sharks’ interim coach.
Fast forward two months later, the Vegas Golden Knights lose 4-2 at the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 14. The next morning, it’s DeBoer replacing the fired Gerard Gallant.
The hockey world flipped on its axis that brisk January morning.
DeBoer returns to San Jose, and will face the Sharks for the first time Saturday when the Golden Knights visit SAP Center for the first game of a back-to-back.
“I was just saying to our coaching staff that I hadn’t been to the visiting locker room [at SAP Center] since I was with the [New Jersey] Devils; you’re looking at seven, eight years ago,” DeBoer said.
“I’m looking forward to getting back,” he continued. “I wish it was under normal circumstances but get a chance to see some great friends and some great people that work around that rink and around the team.”
None of what will occur Saturday will seem normal. It’s not just the fact that DeBoer is facing San Jose for the first time.
The Sharks are playing their first home game of the season. Yes, the Sharks are playing as the home team for the first time in this condensed schedule, and are playing at SAP Center for the first time since March 8, 2020.
San Jose played its first 12 games of the season on the road. The Sharks were going to play their first “home games” Jan. 31 and Feb. 2 against the Golden Knights, but in Glendale, Arizona.
Due to COVID-19 protocols in Santa Clara County, the Sharks confining to a temporary holding pattern in Arizona while traveling to games was the setup.
So none of this is normal. Not even when the puck drops at 1 p.m. Saturday will it be normal. DeBoer will be behind the Vegas bench watching Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl as opposition.
“We had a lot of good times together,” said Couture, the Sharks’ captain. “It’s tough to cheer for them with them coaching the Knights, but those are two guys [DeBoer and assistant coach Steve Spott] you pull for and want them to be successful no matter where they go. Not tomorrow night when they play us. We want to beat them, we’d love to beat them, but definitely miss those guys.”
“You know you’re hired to get fired eventually.”
The storyline of players facing former teams for the first time is always the storyline. The Golden Knights are the prime example of that dating back to their inaugural year, rallying behind players facing the teams that cast them aside.
For coaches, it’s different. Their tenure isn’t as enveloped in grandeur as a player’s.
“This business is a tough business, and you know you’re hired to get fired eventually,” DeBoer said.
But deep down, there’s still that want to show that the former team made a mistake for the wrong move.
Much has changed since then, with a global pandemic and all. This is the first time the Golden Knights and Sharks will face each other since Dec. 22, 2019.
DeBoer is the man hoping to lead Vegas to a Stanley Cup, while Boughner is trying to bring San Jose back from rough times.
“Any time you get fired, I think it’s humbling and a little shot to your ego,” DeBoer said. “You’re told that what you were doing wasn’t good enough. I think for me, taking this job, starting from Day 1, 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 [on Saturday]. That started on Day 1 on my new job with Vegas. That’s always something that motivates you.”
But DeBoer made clear that if anyone were to replace him in San Jose, it’d be Boughner.
When you’re the best of friends…
The friendship between DeBoer and Boughner goes back to high school. Their time as rambunctious teenagers was apparently a wild time because the stories are not family-friendly.
Both grew up in Ontario — Boughner from Windsor, DeBoer from Dunnville — and both played junior hockey in the Ontario League. DeBoer played with the Windsor Spitfires, while Boughner with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
DeBoer calling Boughner and asking him to join his staff was one of the first things he did when taking the San Jose job.
“He came with me in the first year in San Jose and really took a leap of faith, left a really good job where he owned the team and ran the whole show in Windsor, moved out to San Jose without his family,” DeBoer said.
Boughner was named the head coach of the Florida Panthers in 2017, ironically enough replacing Gallant. When he was fired in 2019, DeBoer was the first to call him to come back to San Jose.
It’s not certain if DeBoer can actually predict the future, but from the moment the two reunited, the writing was on the wall.
“At that point, and I’ll be honest with you, I thought that eventually I would’ve hoped that he would’ve got the chance to replace me if it ever came to that,” DeBoer said. You’re not thinking that in the day you hire him, but it was definitely in the back of my mind if I was to move on at some point.
“He had head coaching experience. Doug knew him, the players knew him. I can’t say I’m surprised he replaced me, and I’m happy he got the opportunity.”
Boughner said he didn’t anticipate a chance was coming that December morning.
“It’s such a shock and such a blur, because not only you feel terrible for the situation you’re in and feel terrible for close friends,” he said, “but the other side of it is you have to get your act together because you’re going behind the bench the next day, running practice and running a game.
“At the end of the day, I knew Pete would land on his feet. He’s a great coach and he’s in high demand, and I knew he wouldn’t be out of work long. I was thankful to get the opportunity, but no one really wants to get an opportunity in that situation.”
The Golden Knights will try to get back into the win column after losing 1-0 to the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are in need of a bounce-back after losing 6-2 to the Los Angeles Kings.
Don’t expect any surprises. Both coaches understand the other very well. It’s a rivalry that may not be shining in the NHL limelight for now, but tensions are sure to be high with storylines aplenty.
“I’m proud of my time there,” DeBoer said. “I wouldn’t change the path that I’ve gone on and I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for the people there.”
Danny Webster covers the Vegas Golden Knights for Vegas Hockey Now. Follow him on Twitter @DannyWebster21.