Man on Fire

Expectations are high for Bob Boughner, the Florida Panthers’ newest head coach. Good thing he’s ready to meet them.

BACK TO BUSINESS: First-year head coach Bob Boughner looks to get the Florida Panthers back to the postseason.

By Jameson Olive
Portraits By Eduardo Schneider
Styling By Anthony Bermudez

At the end of last season, the NHL’s Florida Panthers once again found themselves with a head coaching vacancy. Hoping to bring stability to what has traditionally been an unsteady position throughout the franchise’s history, the club targeted not necessarily the perfect résumé but rather the perfect fit.

In what team general manager Dale Tallon described as an “exhaustive search” spanning nearly two months, more than 15 candidates were interviewed for the position, many of whom had years of NHL experience and even a few Stanley Cup championships to their names. In the end, it was rookie head coach Bob Boughner who won the job.

“The one thing Dale talked about a lot was how the organization sort of lost its way last year,” says Boughner, the 15th head coach in the franchise’s 24-year history. “I had my X’s and O’s planned, and I had what I wanted to talk about hockey-wise ready to go. But I spent a lot of time talking about meeting the players and being able to get the best out of the guys personally—about being a player’s coach and a communicator.

“I had a vision about team identity and how to turn things around. I think that might have struck a chord. When it comes to X’s and O’s and system play, everybody’s strong now as a team and as a coaching staff. But I think the relationship you have with your players is also very important. I think 90 percent of coaching is getting the best out of your guys.”

A 10-year NHL veteran, Boughner—who earned the nickname “The Boogeyman” for the fear he struck into opposing teams—was known for his rugged and hard-nosed play on the blue line, racking up 72 points (15 goals, 57 assists) and 1,382 penalty minutes in 630 games for the Buffalo Sabres (1995-98), Nashville Predators (1998-00), Pittsburgh Penguins (2000-01), Calgary Flames (2001-03), Carolina Hurricanes (2003-04) and Colorado Avalanche (2004-06).

Now, he’s known for his skills behind the bench. After hanging up his skates, Boughner transitioned into the world of coaching and was named the Ontario Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League’s Coach of the Year for the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. He eventually led the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires to a pair of Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010.

“I really didn’t take an interest in coaching until the end of my career,” says Boughner, who served as a co-captain in Calgary during the 2001-02 season. “I wasn’t playing as much so it allowed me to sit back and analyze things. I also spent extra time on the ice with the coaches. In the back of my mind, it was something I was definitely thinking about.”

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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Boughner made his NHL coaching debut as an assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010-11 before heading back to the junior ranks for another stint with the Spitfires. For the past two seasons, he served under former Panthers head coach Peter DeBoer as an assistant for the San Jose Sharks, which Boughner helped advance to the postseason twice and to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016.

With that much experience in the minors and an NHL assistant position already under his belt, Boughner, eagerly awaiting the challenge ahead, chuckles at the notion that he’s still considered a rookie in his new job with the Panthers.

“It’s my 11th year of coaching,” says Boughner, his eyes opening wider while adding up the seasons in his head. “I don’t feel any nervousness behind the bench. I’m used to the NHL lifestyle. It’s just a matter of getting going. I’m excited to see this team take a step forward.”

With a few weeks remaining until his first season as the Florida Panthers’ bench boss begins in October, Boughner has spent the past few weeks acclimating himself to his new coaching staff, players and surroundings. He believes in an open-door policy between him and the players, and when he’s not on the ice or in his office he can most often be found chatting with the team in the weight room. And although there has certainly been a bit of what he describes as “hockey talk,” the majority of the conversations have been far more personal in nature.

“I think it lifts a little off their shoulders if we can just sit at a table, have a cup of coffee and be casual about things,” Boughner says. “We know there’s going to be a lot of hard work ahead and a lot of intensity, but for now it’s a real casual atmosphere.”

It’s a desire to create that laid-back culture that has earned Boughner the title of a “player’s coach,” someone who can relate to modern-day athletes but also crack the whip when it’s time to get down to business. When it comes to his coaching style, from drawing up plays to running practices, he proudly admits to borrowing from some of the NHL’s best, including multiple Stanley Cup-winning coaches Darryl Sutter and Joel Quenneville.

“I’ve had some great coaches,” says Boughner, who played under Sutter and Quenneville toward the end of his career. “I’ve definitely molded my philosophy out of the things I’ve liked and disliked about certain guys. That experience is definitely something I’ve got in my bag.”

After winning their division two seasons ago, the Panthers fell short of expectations in their 2016-17 campaign. Looking ahead to October 6 and the start of a fresh season at the BB&T Center, newly appointed Coach Boughner and the rest of the Panthers’ front office see nothing but untapped potential.

Boughner, 46, believes this Panthers team is far better than last season’s record (35-36-11) would indicate, boasting some of the league’s top up-and-coming stars: Calder Memorial Trophy winners Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad; offensive gem Aleksander Barkov; developing talents Mike Matheson, Owen Tippett and Ian McCoshen; and veteran leaders Derek MacKenzie and Keith Yandle.

“I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about last year,” Boughner says. “We’re going to talk about team identity. You can sit and whine and feel sorry for yourselves about last year or you can take a step forward.”

Wise words for a first-year head coach.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 Issue.