WHEN HOME ISN’T HOME
Dunnville’s Peter DeBoer and his family cope with long-distance life.
Sue DeBoer had circled Sunday on the kitchen calendar inside her Madison, New Jersey, home months ago.
It is the day her husband, Peter DeBoer, coach of the San Jose Sharks, would be facing the New Jersey Devils in Newark, 17 miles from the DeBoers’ home.
Sunday’s matinee was the only meeting this season between the two teams at the Prudential Center — and the first time since November that Sue and Peter DeBoer had beeen together in the two-story house that has been their home for six years.
The Dunnville native was fired as head coach of the Devils in December 2014, and took the same position with the Sharks in May 2015.
DeBoer and his wife decided that she and their three teenage children would stay back East.
Any career in the trenches of pro sports comes with the advisory that major change can come in an instant. Players are traded. Coaches, as the adage goes, are hired to be fired.
“There’s only 30 of these jobs in the world, and if you get an opportunity to get one, you have to take it,” DeBoer said. “And when we talked about moving everybody out here, the kids were at certain points in their lives where we just decided we didn’t want to disrupt them to do that. So this is what we’ve chosen to do. It’s not perfect, but it’s tolerable.”
DeBoer, 48, is not the only NHL coach spending a second season away from his family. Todd McLellan, 49, the man DeBoer replaced behind the Sharks’ bench, now coaches the Edmonton Oilers and is renting a downtown condo in Alberta, while his wife, Debbie, and their son, Cale, remain in San Jose, California.
“I think it only works if you have a real strong family unit and you’re able to communicate daily and keep up to date on things,” said McLellan, who left the Sharks by mutual agreement one year before his contract expired. “We’ve been able to do that.”
DeBoer and McLellan had uprooted their families several times before their latest moves.
“We had moved as a family from Ontario to Florida when I took my first coaching job in the NHL,” said DeBoer, who made the jump from the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League to the Florida Panthers in 2008. “We moved again from Florida to New Jersey when the kids were still in grade school.”
Today, DeBoer’s daughter, Abby, 17, is a high school senior active in sports who hopes to stay on the East Coast for college. His son, Matt, is 13 and plays Triple A Bantam hockey with friends he has grown up with.
“It’s a matter of him being in a situation that will provide him with opportunities,” Sue DeBoer said.
McLellan’s son, Cale, is a promising golfer who drew national attention in 2014 when he shot two consecutive holes-in-one in tournament play at age 14. In San Jose, he can be on the links year-round.
Both families made the decision to split even though the teenagers showed a willingness to move.
“Cale was sitting there saying, ‘No, let’s all go,’” McLellan said. “But he was doing that because he could see the family stress as well.”
The DeBoer and McLellan families also have sons away from home pursuing their own hockey dreams. Jack DeBoer, 16, is enrolled in the U.S. hockey development program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tyson McLellan, 20, is a freshman playing at the University of Denver after three seasons in the U.S. Hockey League, where he lived in Iowa and Wisconsin.
Technology helps bridge distances. Texts fly back and forth. FaceTime or Skype provides visual contact, though with everyone on different schedules, sessions are not at fixed times.
But it’s not as if his wife lacked experience being the lone parent at home.
DeBoer is in his ninth season as an NHL coach, with long road trips over the course of 82-game seasons that stretch from October to April.
“It’s harder because it’s longer stretches of time,” Sue DeBoer said, “but it’s always been what he does. He’s been gone, and I’ve been here with the kids. We’ve managed that.”
Holiday breaks and the vagaries of the NHL schedule allow DeBoer and McLellan to see their families an average of about once a month.
When the Sharks were in New York in November for games against the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders, DeBoer spent two nights in Madison, riding an NJ Transit commuter train into Manhattan for the games. In March, his daughter and a few friends flew out to San Jose and toured the nearby Stanford campus.
Sue and the children spent the NHL Christmas break in San Jose, and Sue traveled to Los Angeles for All-Star weekend, for which Peter was a coach.
The NHL schedule-maker has been kind to McLellan this season. The Oilers’ final game before the Christmas break was in San Jose, enabling him to make a 15-minute drive from the arena to his home there. Edmonton’s final game before the All-Star break was also in San Jose.
McLellan knows it will be one more season before things return to normal. Cale will graduate from high school in 2018, and at that point Debbie will move to Edmonton.
The DeBoers are less certain when they will be living year-round under one roof. Matt is only a freshman in high school.
“We’re just going to kind of play it by ear and watch it unfold,” Sue DeBoer said. “There’s no script to it.”
San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, standing right, instructs his players during the first period against New Jersey Sunday.
Matt DeBoer laughs with his mother, Sue, right, and his sister, Abby, third from left, as they watch a hockey game at home in Madison, N.J.