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  • Bob Boughner doesn't consider himself a big rugby fan, but the New Zealand All Blacks have helped him impart some lessons on his Florida Panthers team.
By Alex Prewitt
October 24, 2017

A few days after the Panthers hired him as their head coach last June, Bob Boughner wandered into a bookstore near his offseason Ontario home—“I’m old school,” the 46-year-old explains, “my kids make fun of me”—and purchased a paperback copy of Legacy, a 224-page tome chronicling the history of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s decorated men's national rugby team. Armed with a highlighter and pen, Boughner devoured the text, jotting notes in the margins and dog-earing passages to remember, which wound up being most of them anyway. He had already been brainstorming messages to send his new players in Florida, elements of the revamped culture he hoped to establish. “When I read the book, it hit me like a pile of bricks,” Boughner says. “It was right in my face. No need to look anywhere else.”

In a fashion befitting a former pugilist with 630 career NHL games and 1,382 penalty minutes, inspiration quickly turned into action. He arranged a conference call with graphic designers in the front office, gushing about the lessons he had learned. When Boughner first arrived in mid-August, he oversaw renovations of the Panthers’ locker rooms at their practice facility and home rink, where words and phrases employed by the All Blacks were painted onto the walls:

PERFORMANCE

AUTHENTICITY

HONESTY

INTEGRITY

RESILIENCE

LEAVE THE JERSEY IN A BETTER PLACE

SWEEP THE SHED

For the first week of training camp, Boughner never mentioned the decorations, too busy implementing X’s and O’s instead, until he called a team meeting to explain. In a 30-minute slideshow presentation, Boughner played video clips featuring the All Blacks—the squad boasts a 77 percent all-time win rate and two Rugby World Cup titles this decade—and outlined how those principles would be integrated into Florida’s upcoming season. “Sweep the shed,” for instance, describes a ritual wherein veteran All Blacks grab actual brooms and clean the locker room after games. “No, we’re not actually sweeping,” Boughner clarifies. “It was more words to live by.”

Performance? Well, that's been a mixed bag. Two years ago, inspired by the disembodied head of a star-dusted Kevin Spacey, the Panthers strung together the best regular season in franchise history, earning 103 points and an Atlantic Division title. Then came turmoil. Twenty-one games into 2016-17, Gerard Gallant was fired and replaced by Tom Rowe, who descended from the press box to double as head coach and general manager. When Florida eventually bottomed out with an 81-point, sixth-place divisional finish, Rowe got canned from both roles and Dale Tallon returned to oversee hockey operations as GM—the role he once occupied before a reshuffling in spring 2016 knocked him upstairs. 

 

This was the environment that Boughner was tasked with changing upon his arrival. “We know what happened last year, the struggles they went through,” he says. “I knew that in my interview going in, right? They were looking for a change and it was going to be different and the structure was different. I wanted to give these guys something to grasp onto, something we could build our whole year around.”

It has worked so far. Eight games into Boughner’s debut NHL head coaching season—he previously served as an assistant for two years in San Jose under Pete DeBoer—Florida was 3-5-0 following Tuesday night’s 5-1 loss against the Canadiens. Each player received a copy of Legacy following that preseason meeting; Boughner regularly spots several of them digging into the pages during road trips. In the grand tradition of their Spacey In Space sweatshirt from ‘15-16—and a barbershop cape last season—the Panthers even began passing around an All Blacks jersey and rugby ball to the player of the game in their post-victory celebrations.

“There are times you come to the room and we have a meeting and we talk about having a bad period, we refer back to some of the things from our culture meeting,” Boughner says. “It’s been a useful tool for us. We talk a lot about authenticity. That’s one of the most important words for me, doing what you say. [The All Blacks] talk about how they’re so relentless, they never change their mantra, how they approach the game. They don’t get too high as a team. They take care of all the little things. They don’t rely on anybody else. They rely on the guys in the room, hold each other accountable, make sure their culture and identity is forced every day.”

After the Panthers’ morning skate in Montreal, Boughner called SI.com and spoke about his double life owning a Canadian junior team, reaching the Stanley Cup Final with the Sharks, striking fear with his fists, and more:


SI: I feel like you would’ve been a pretty good rugby player.

BB: I’ve probably got the legs for it, but I’d fall apart at my age. I watch every once in a while on TV. It’s not like I’m a rugby fanatic at all.

SI: What would you have been doing if not for hockey? This has been your whole life.

BB: I’ve never really known anything other than that. In business I learned a lot from my NHLPA days and owning the [Ontario Hockey League’s] Windsor Spitfires. I love business.

SI: How do you manage owning a team and also coaching another one? What’s your day-to-day like?

BB: It’s not bad. We have a great bunch of guys, from our general manager to the scouting staff to the accountants. I stay in touch by email, conference calls usually once a week, and if anything comes up then a couple phone calls. I don’t really spend much time on it during the hockey season. During the summer, when I go home, I go to the office about 3-4 days a week, put in a few hours to stay on top of everything. But during the season I’m all-in with the Panthers, got so much on my plate as is.

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SI: Your mind never wanders to what’s going on back home?

BB: I follow the box scores, I get the updates on how they’re doing. [Coach] Trevor Letowski will call once a while to talk hockey. Other than that, it’s fully controlled there. Which is nice. It gives me a peace of mind that we have the right people to run it. It takes the stress away from me.

SI: What’s your earliest memory of [fellow Windsor, Ontario native and Panthers defenseman] Aaron Ekblad?

BB: Oh god. Probably watching him play when he was about 12, 13 years old. He was playing Triple A for the Sun County Panthers back in Windsor. He towered over all the kids. He was huge for his age, controlled the whole game, had the puck the entire time. Just the poise he had at that age, you could tell there was something special there. Then I got to know him better as he got into 13s, 14s. My son and him became friends, started hanging out. I’ve seen Aaron quite a bit hanging around the house as a kid.

SI: How is he as a sleepover guest?

BB: Just like all the rest of my kids. A mess. Sloppy. [laughs]

SI: He’s referred to you as an uncle figure. What kind of dynamic does that create? Is it weird now?

BB: He’s like any other kid, regardless of how much money he makes, how much fanfare there’s been around him being a first overall pick. He’s like anyone else. Look at Brent Burns in San Jose. They need a shoulder to lean on sometimes, they need confidence and structure. It’s no different with me and Aaron. He knows it’s business around the rink and it’s been like that since day one. I told him I’d be completely honest and transparent with him, and treat him no different than anyone else on the team. Obviously he respects that as well.

SI: Since you mentioned Brent, do you have any good Burns or Joe Thornton stories?

BB: Too many. Burnsie was great. He made every day going to the rink a lot of fun. He’s high on life. That’s him. High on life. Completely the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Pavelski, Thornton, they’re like a bunch of kids still. They love the game. They love hanging out at the rink. That’s why they’re so good. That’s what makes that group so special. They love hanging out with each other, love coming to the rink. It’s not really a job for them, to be honest. It was a pleasure being around a group like that.

SI: That was your first time reaching the Stanley Cup Final, with San Jose two seasons ago. What did you learn from a run like that?

BB: A lot of things have to go right. Health is number one. Two is travel. We were talking about that the other day. Our series with L.A. was a heavy series. Then we’re flying across the country to St. Louis, flying to Nashville across the country, then our last series against Pittsburgh. I think we got a little worn down. Not to take anything away from Pittsburgh. They were the better team. They deserved to win. But we were worn down.

From a coaching standpoint, you learn to try to conserve some energy during the season for that long run, try not to overplay guys and give them the proper rest, because if you’re fortunate enough to be in that situation, May and June are so draining. You’ve got to have some gas in the tank.

SI: Do you remember your first NHL fight?

BB: It was in Boston. It was Dean Chynoweth. I was the third man in and got tossed in my first NHL game. I thought Brian Holzinger was going to have to fight, so I stepped in. First fight, first game.

SI: How did the nickname Boogeyman strike you? Did you like it?

BB: It was more of a fun thing. I think it was two games later I got into a fight with Reid Simpson and it was a long fight. Rick Jeanneret, when he was still in Buffalo doing play-by-play, said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, put your kids to bed, the Boogeyman is out.’ In a joking way, but it stuck. I thought it was fun. It was cool. I’ve been called Boogeyman my whole life.

SI: What do you remember about the inaugural season in Nashville in ‘98-99? What are the players in Las Vegas experiencing now? What will stick with them from year one?

BB: It’s one of my most fun times in hockey. To be an original Predator, that’s something that’s still true to my heart. We got to be the pioneers down there when it wasn’t a hockey market. I remember doing a ton of things away from the rink to promote the game in the South, and those are some of the best times I’ve had. Meeting the country stars, bringing it all together, educating the fans, those are the things I remember. I remember the milestones—the first win, the first of everything. When I go back there, I still get a pretty good feeling that we were the guys who brought hockey to town and started it.

Same thing in Vegas. I think a lot of these guys, 20 years from now, when that’s a thriving hockey market, they’re going to look back and feel pretty cool that they were the original guys who got the business of hockey started. That’s what I took away from my experience anyway.

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SI: Lately I feel like I’m hearing the phrase “future Selke winner Aleksander Barkov” more and more often. What say you?

BB: In my mind, from what I’ve seen so far, he’s one of the better 200-foot player I’ve ever seen play. He’s gifted offensively, but he cares so much about his own end. He cares about winning face-offs, a lot of the little things.

SI: Last one. Have you checked out Roberto Luongo’s Twitter feed?

BB: Once in awhile. I don’t have social media, but some people have told me and showed me some things. I think it’s hilarious. He’s definitely one of the most unique guys when it comes to that. It’s great that he has fun with it. He’s got a great personality.

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