SUNRISE, Fla. — Bob Boughner's favourite dinner spot used to be a sports pub in the minor-league hockey hotbed of Glens Falls, New York called Dango's, a place where the chicken wings were huge and most of the televisions were usually tuned to hockey.
These days, it's an upscale steakhouse called Mastro's.
If there's one constant of Boughner's life in hockey, it's that just about everything — from refining a palate, to reaching the NHL, to transforming a hockey team — takes time. And Boughner got a very tough reminder of that last season when the Florida Panthers missed the post-season by a single point in his inaugural year as their coach.
So here the Panthers go again, trying to become a playoff club. But with Boughner leading the charge, there's real belief that good things are coming.
"He's even more than advertised," Panthers president Matthew Caldwell said. "His diligence, he's a player's coach but also very, very technical. He gets into the weeds and I think the players trust him, but he'll hold them accountable too. His ability to be there for the players but also correct them, not be too friendly with them, have strong standards, that's been excellent."
Boughner won the job in Florida by selling Caldwell and the rest of the Panthers' leadership on a vision.
His message: Be patient.
Boughner played 297 games in three different minor leagues, needing seven years to make the jump from NHL draftee to NHL player. Once he got to the top level, he never left, spending parts of 10 seasons with six franchises and being part of five deep runs in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He was a hard-nosed defenceman, someone whose pro-career-best of eight goals came during those Dango's-fueled days with the AHL's Adirondack Red Wings in 1993-94.
His coaching climb took time as well, going from an owner-coach-president of OHL team in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario to some NHL assistant stints and finally getting the head job in Florida in 2017.
"It wasn't an easy road. It was a hard road," Boughner said. "I earned it as a player and I had to work every day to stay there. And it was not like I had a secure spot every year, too. But I always worked hard to be a team guy and that's what has sort of turned into some of my coaching philosophy. I had to build it from the ground up. I miss playing every day, but coaching, there's something gratifying when it all comes together."
He feels that gratification coming in Florida.
The Panthers, who open their home schedule on Thursday against Columbus, won three playoff series in their third season of existence — 1995-96. They've won zero series since, missing the playoffs entirely in 17 of the 21 seasons that followed their lone run to the Stanley Cup final. Boughner spent two seasons as part of the Panthers organization as a player, though he never made the NHL club.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon knew it would take time for Boughner's system to take root. Florida was 25-8-2 in its last 35 games last season, going from near the bottom of the Eastern Conference to just missing the post-season.
"I just like his whole attitude about everything," Tallon said. "He's a straightforward, no-nonsense guy. His technical aspect is terrific. And he gets the player. He has good relationships with all the players."
Boughner looks back at last season with the obvious tinge of disappointment.
But he also knows the growing pains were vital.
Much of the core from last season remains the core now, and those players know what makes Boughner tick — and what makes his system work. There's a culture in place now, a level of expectation, a level of accountability.
It's what Boughner demanded from himself as a player, and it's his blueprint for what he wants as a coach.
"There's no more excuses," Boughner said. "There's a point last year, maybe 10 or 15 games in, when we were on a trip and I couldn't wait to get off our plane and get to the hotel and tell the guys get into the meeting room. I sort of blew up, got a lot of things off my chest, and the guys sort started taking inventory of themselves. I think we've turned a corner now. I think we're ready now."
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