Axemen alumnus turned NHL assistant coach
By John DeCoste ’77
When he arrived at Acadia in the fall of 2006, coaching in the NHL – or anywhere else, for that matter – wasn’t necessarily on Paul McFarland’s radar screen.
Now that he has been a coach for six seasons – most recently with the Florida Panthers during the 2017-2018 season – McFarland has come to realize that coaching “was what I really wanted to do.”
McFarland was back in Wolfville as a special guest for the 20th anniversary of the hockey Axemen celebrity dinner June 13.
He acknowledged that growing up and playing hockey in Richmond Hill, Ontario, he had the same dreams and aspirations as any other Canadian youngster – to hopefully one day play in the NHL.
McFarland played four seasons of major junior hockey – two full seasons with the Kitchener Rangers, one with the Windsor Spitfires, and one season split between the two teams. Never a great scorer, he was (and is) an outstanding leader, which continues to serve him well in his coaching career.
McFarland ended up playing 155 OHL regular-season games with Kitchener and 81 with Windsor. While at Acadia, he played 112 games and didn’t miss a game for four seasons.
In his first season with Kitchener, in 2002-2003, the Rangers won the OHL championship and the Memorial Cup. His final season in Windsor, he served as team captain. His leadership skills caught the attention of Axemen head coach Darren Burns.
“In December of my last year in Windsor, Darren came to see me. The fact that he came all that way to meet me went a long way to building the relationship we still have today.”
McFarland came to Acadia on a recruiting trip, “and after one day I knew it was the place for me. What makes this place special is that you’re able to build special relationships, in the classroom and in the community,” as well as with the hockey program.
His wife Kelly, who he had met in Windsor, “came here with me, finished her degree here, then did an Education degree at Acadia. Every time we’re able to come back here, it’s special for both of us.”
McFarland acknowledges, “my passion for teaching and coaching, for trying to help young players become better players, started here at Acadia, working with players from Acadia Minor Hockey, then serving three years as captain.
“After you’re away from it, you realize how much you love it, and don’t like being away from it.”
While at Acadia, McFarland was an Academic All-Canadian three times, and was Acadia’s Male Citizen Award winner in both 2008 and 2009. The Paul McFarland Award was established in his honour, recognizing the combination of athletics, academics and community involvement.
McFarland’s coaching career started in 2012, two years after he finished at Acadia. He was an assistant coach with the Oshawa Generals for two seasons, then spent three seasons as head coach of the Kingston Frontenacs. His Kingston teams won 111 games, lost 71, and had 22 losses in overtime.
In June of 2017, the Florida Panthers came calling, naming McFarland an assistant to head coach Bob Boughner. “I’m enjoying working with the staff in Florida,” he says. “It’s a great experience for me to coach at that level.”
Asked what he brings to the table as a coach, McFarland says, “a passion and love for the game, and a passion for teaching and helping players develop on the ice. I get a lot of satisfaction seeing people progress and achieve their goals, plus helping them off the ice.
“It all adds up to coaching being one of the best jobs out there. I’m enjoying coming to work every day, and the ‘day-to-day’ of it. It doesn’t feel like work at all.”
Florida has a good young core of players, and moving from major junior to the NHL “hasn’t been much of an adjustment” for McFarland.
“Coaching is the same regardless of the level. The NHL players are better, but the process is the same at all levels. We’re all trying to accomplish the same things. Most of all, you’re there to try and help them get better.”
Now that he has been a coach for six seasons, McFarland can see there have been “lots of small successes along the way. Like any profession, you’re always looking for ways to get better.”
He is “extremely grateful to a number of people” who have helped him, starting with Darren Burns. “I still stay in touch with Burnsie and Kris McDonald,” his teammate for three of his years at Acadia.
“D.J. Smith and Jeff Twohey gave me my first opportunity in Oshawa. Darren Keily and Doug Gilmour gave me a whole new opportunity in Kingston. Dale Tallon hired me in Florida, and Bob Boughner is great to work with. They’ve all helped me become the coach I am today.”
He points out, “It’s a matter of getting your foot in the door and going from there. I’ve been very fortunate in all the experiences I’ve been able to be a part of, and it all started for me here, being part of this community. Working with young players, volunteering at local schools, you develop a passion.”
Though he doesn’t often get back to Wolfville, McFarland does stay in touch with some of his former teammates – “guys I lived with, like Blair Jarrett and David Lomas. We all get busy, but it’s always great to get together and get caught up. You can just pick up where you left off.”
He appreciated being a guest at this year’s hockey dinner, especially where it was the 20th anniversary.
“It’s hard to believe I graduated from here eight years ago. It’s amazing how quickly time flies.”
In his constant quest to improve as a coach, McFarland is enjoying working with Bob Boughner. “Bob does a great job giving everyone different responsibilities. The great thing for me is that we’re all in it together, striving to get to the same place. It’s been a great place to be for the past year.
“Through the whole coaching process,” he says, “it’s important to stay in the moment, focus on the present.” The 2017-2018 Panthers “missed the playoffs by one point,” which gives the whole team, players, and coaches, something to strive for next season.
“We’re an up-and-coming team, with some great young pieces. I enjoy coming to work each day.” He reiterated, “it really doesn’t feel like work at all.”