Sue DeBoer 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, will 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 were together in the two-story house that has been their home for six years.
DeBoer 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, Canada, 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.
DeBoer acknowledges that things come up almost weekly when he feels he should be with his family. The most difficult moment occurred last season when his daughter had a health issue.
“Yet we still managed to work that out,” Sue DeBoer said. “The five of us, we still stayed connected, and we were able to still maintain that core even with that little bump. We were still strong.”
Peter DeBoer said the situation was probably tougher on him than on his family.
“It’s funny, their lives really don’t change,” he said. “They’re living in the same house, with the same friends. The only difference is I’m not there. For me, it’s been a dramatic change. You come home from work and you’re used to your wife and three kids and that daily busyness and connection. And you don’t have that anymore.”
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.”
They have managed it even as her husband spends the winter in Northern California’s temperate climate while the rest of the family is 2,920 miles away and dealing with cold and snow.
“He’s calling us with the sun shining in the background and we have 3 feet of snow down here in the East,” Sue said. “But, again, it’s just a little sacrifice that you have to make to be sure everybody is doing what they need to be doing.”
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.
While McLellan is living alone in Edmonton, DeBoer is sharing a house in San Jose with two of his assistants, Steve Spott and Johan Hedberg. Both men also left their families behind — Spott’s in Toronto, where he previously was an assistant with the Maple Leafs, and Hedberg’s in New Jersey, where he had played two seasons as a backup goalie for DeBoer.
DeBoer’s motive in renting a large home went beyond having friends around. Housing costs in San Jose are among the highest in the nation and can be an obstacle to hiring assistants, who earn less than the boss.
“My motivation was more to try and get these guys out here and make it affordable for them,” DeBoer said. “The nice byproduct is that we’ve kept each other company.”
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, and whether he will graduate in Madison, New Jersey, is still up in the air.
“We’re just going to kind of play it by ear and watch it unfold,” Sue DeBoer said. “There’s no script to it.”