His high school buddies used to call him “Hockey Paul.”
Years later, as Paul McFarland was speeding his way up the rungs of the hockey world those same buddies would feverishly text one another after each development: “Hey, did you hear about ‘Hockey Paul’?”
Hockey Paul kept rising, all the way to his hometown Maple Leafs, one of two new assistants joining Mike Babcock’s staff this fall.
My family lived around the corner from the McFarlands in Richmond Hill, Ont. We attended school together. I was a year younger, but my sister was the same age. She remembers that all Paul McFarland — Hockey Paul — ever talked about back then was, well, hockey. Maybe it was a school project. Maybe it was his dream of playing in the OHL. It was always hockey.
“It exceeds expectations,” Chris Chreston, a childhood friend and classmate, said of McFarland joining the Leafs, “but it also sort of meets expectations because no one’s surprised by it. Like, ‘Oh my God, can you believe Paul?’ It’s like, yeah, of course Paul! He’s Hockey Paul. Of course he’s an assistant coach of the Leafs. It only makes sense.”
I lost track of Paul after high school at Alexander MacKenzie only to see his name keep popping up again and again in hockey: Captain of the Windsor Spitfires; youngest head coach in Kingston Frontenacs history; Florida Panthers assistant coach; and now, at age 33, assistant coach of the Leafs.
If you didn’t know better you would assume that Hockey Paul was just destined for this life in hockey. But that’s not entirely true. Paul McFarland, as I learned while digging into the past of an old schoolmate, had to chase this dream.
It all happened really fast though, that’s for certain.
Before he joined D.J. Smith’s Oshawa Generals coaching staff in 2012, McFarland was crunching numbers for PWC as an accountant and coaching atom hockey in his spare time.
Only five years later, he was standing next to Bob Boughner on the bench of an NHL team.
“At that time, when D.J. hired him in Oshawa, he was barely putting gas in his car with the money that Oshawa was paying him,” Boughner said. “And he had a lot of security (before that) – he was working in a big firm in downtown Toronto. And he decided hockey was his love. That was his passion and he was going to pursue it.”
(The Leafs don’t allow assistant coaches to speak to the media so McFarland’s exact thoughts on the matter couldn’t be ascertained.)
Boughner had already bounced through five or six potential candidates for his staff in Florida when he sat down with McFarland at the 2017 NHL draft in Chicago. New to the gig as head coach of the Panthers, Boughner was looking for a youthful assistant to pair with Jack Capuano, the experienced former head coach of the New York Islanders. He knew McFarland a bit; Smith raved about him for one, and McFarland had also married a girl, Kelly, from Boughner’s hometown of Windsor. Quickly impressed by McFarland’s smarts, honesty and knack for detail, Boughner pulled out his phone halfway through the interview. He called up his boss, Dale Tallon, the Panthers general manager, and urged him to duck out from scouting meetings to meet McFarland.
It took only 15 minutes before Tallon was kicking Boughner under the table. “Offer him a contract. Let’s hire him,” Tallon said.
Over two seasons in Florida, McFarland won rave reviews for his innovative work with the Panthers power play, and rightly so as a once-mediocre unit rocketed up to second-best in hockey last season.
Less known was how doggedly he urged along the skills of players, particularly in the faceoff dot, and most strikingly with franchise cornerstone Aleksander Barkov. Barkov was among the league’s =worst in the circle pre-McFarland, winning only 46.5 percent of 1000-plus faceoffs in his fourth NHL season. A year later, with McFarland’s help, he shot up to 53.5 percent — topping the likes of Sidney Crosby, Matt Duchene and John Tavares — followed by 53.7 percent last season.
Barkov credits McFarland for the spike, particularly pre-game study sessions on the iPad.
Similar diligence paid dividends for the Panther power play.
What made McFarland such an ace there in his direction of the unit, Boughner said, was his careful scrutiny of opposing penalty kills. McFarland would hunt their weakness and then tailor the power play each night to exploit it. “He’s very good at studying how they’re standing in the neutral zone and studying how they’re killing in-zone,” Boughner explained of a unit that finished second overall at 26.8 percent last year and third in power play goals per 60 minutes. “And that’s why we had success on our power play because it wasn’t the same thing every night.”
Boughner remembered the night McFarland pulled the unit aside between periods of a close game.
“This is what we’re doing here the first time we break out and I think we can spring someone on a breakaway,” McFarland said, as Boughner remembered it.
“And sure as shit,” Boughner recalled, “it happens and we get a big goal.”
That kind of persistent innovation should help spark a Toronto power play that grew stale last season.
“And that’s the one good thing about Paul,” Boughner said. “He’s got young kids or whatever, but he’s the first guy at the rink and one of the last guys to leave. He pours his heart and soul in. When he’s at home at night he’s doing work, and he’s watching other games. He’s one of those guys that lives it, eats it, breathes it. That’s him.”
Boughner plucked McFarland from the Kingston Frontenacs to join his first NHL coaching staff in Florida. (Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)
Boughner told Babcock as much when the Leafs coach called him for intel on an assistant who would ultimately replace Jim Hiller.
“You’re never going to have an issue with challenging Paul, trying to make him better, pushing him harder,” Boughner remembered telling Babcock, “because no one pushes himself harder and demands more of himself than Paul.”
“I think Babs is going to appreciate how all-in he is and how intense he is,” added Boughner, who rejoined Pete DeBoer’s staff in San Jose after being dismissed, along with McFarland, by the Panthers in April. “And I think that Paul is going to appreciate Babs because there’s a lot of similarities there between the two personalities, I think.”
That intensity manifested itself when he was still just a kid.
Chreston remembered the time he showed up at the McFarland home with a couple buddies, hoping to hit a movie or party.
McFarland’s mom answered the door. Paul was out jogging, she said. When they found him in the nearby park, McFarland said he had a couple laps still to do before he could hang out.
Paul and I ended up on some of the same teams at O.M. MacKillop Public School in Richmond Hill — about 45 minutes north of Toronto. Basketball. Volleyball. Track. He was the furthest thing from a flashy athlete, quiet rather, but still intensely competitive, and determined.
“Paul would go out there and work his ass off, and do whatever he had to do for the team, but never complained, never whined, never trash-talked, just went out there and worked hard,” recalled Brian Blaser, a teacher and coach at MacKillop.
Darren Burns was watching from afar in Nova Scotia while Paul McFarland ground out a name for himself as a player in the OHL, first as a 10th round pick of the Kitchener Rangers and then with the Windsor Spitfires.
The coach of the men’s hockey team at Acadia University grew convinced that McFarland was the guy to lead his young team. So in the winter of 2005, he flew to Ontario and over lunch in Windsor, tried to sell McFarland on a future with the Axemen.
“It was the best $12.95 I think I ever spent on a clubhouse and fries, that’s for sure,” Burns said. “Even at the age of 20, he was so impressive.”
McFarland was culture-building in no time at Acadia. At one practice, he threw himself in front of a slapshot. Everyone stopped in shock. Another time, in a close playoff game, he spilled blood from a hard hit and had his jaw knocked out of whack. McFarland wowed the crowd at Andrew H. McCain Arena when he returned to the ice, stitched up and ready to go again.
McFarland was captain of the Axemen for three seasons. (Acadia University)
Burns was almost mad the time he showed up one September morning and found McFarland’s car already in the parking lot. He liked to get there long before the players. With McFarland around, that meant programming his alarm even earlier to get a head start on the captain of the Axemen.
McFarland set no school records for scoring and Acadia was no AUS juggernaut. But McFarland made such an impression in Wolfville, N.S. over four seasons, showing up at 6:30 some mornings to volunteer with minor hockey while leading the Axemen on the ice and scoring academic all-Canadian honours three times off it, that the university created, from scratch, the Paul McFarland Award, which sought to recognize students for the successful combination of academics, athletics and involvement with the community.
“We felt it was the right thing to do,” Burns explained. “To this day, I’m so happy that we decided to do it because it’s something that each year the recipient should be proud of and it’s certainly in honour of a great human being.”
McFarland, with his sons, Kooper and Keaton, and the Paul McFarland Award. (Acadia University)
Burns knew life in the business world wouldn’t last for Hockey Paul. It had to be hockey.
Those good ‘ol stars still had to align, though, and they did when Smith got the Generals job. Smith, who declined to be interviewed through the Senators, wanted to use his only open assistant slot on McFarland, the captain of the Spitfires when Smith began his coaching career in Windsor. His new boss with the Generals, Jeff Twohey, however, had other ideas. He wanted a more experienced assistant to join Smith in his first head coaching gig.
“I remember D.J. saying to me, ‘I coached this guy and he’s the hardest working player I’ve ever had,’” Twohey recalled. “He said, ‘Would you just talk to him?’”
Twohey agreed, but still had no plans to consent the hire. McFarland was too young, he thought. Then they spoke, “and at the end of the two hours I was like, Wow, I can see why D.J.’s passionate about having him. I went back to D.J. and said, ‘I’m good. I didn’t think I’d say that, but I’m good.”
It was the passion that struck him most. There was no ego. This guy just wanted to coach.
That became clear the more McFarland’s plans began to take shape. Initially, after leaving his accounting job behind that year, McFarland intended to teach part-time in Bowmanville while also coaching with the Generals on the side. Twohey advised him to hold onto the teaching gig just in case things didn’t work out. Unbeknownst to him, McFarland walked away from it. Hockey Paul was all-in on hockey.
McFarland dug deep into the grind of coaching, from firing 50,000 pucks one year with Calgary Flames second-rounder Hunter Smith, in the estimation of Roger Hunt, a fellow assistant coach in Oshawa, to joining the coaches, and sometimes Twohey, on scouting trips. “As long as I can work,” he would tell Hunt and others when the going got tough.
It was being back in hockey that mattered.
Smith and the Generals won the Memorial Cup the year after McFarland left for Kingston. Hunt believes that “a lot of what Paul brought rubbed off on our players.” (Oshawa Generals)
Hunt, who has since become Generals GM, wasn’t surprised when he picked up his phone in 2014 and heard Doug Gilmour’s voice on the line. The Frontenacs, at the urging of Twohey, wanted to talk to McFarland about their open head coaching job. Though initially turned off by his age and lack of experience, Kingston would eventually choose McFarland, at 28, to become the youngest coach in team history.
He was only a couple years removed from his past life as an accountant.
Smith would joke that he was, “coaching 4-year-olds last week (and) now you’re coaching in the OHL,” Hunt said with a laugh. “Did I think he’d be a head coach in the OHL? Without a doubt. I just didn’t think it would come that quick.”
As a first-time head coach, McFarland led the Frontenacs to the playoffs in each of his three seasons there. Kingston even managed a franchise-record 46 wins in year two.
McFarland may just have leadership in his blood. His father, Bill, was once CEO of PWC. (His brother, Mark, is a doctor. John McFarland, his youngest brother was a once highly-touted Panthers prospect who has since retired from hockey.) Or perhaps, as DeBoer, who won a Memorial Cup with McFarland in Kitchener and was part of the ownership team that hired him in Oshawa, suggested, it’s those players that have to master the details to “survive” that end up thriving as coaches.
A 12th round pick of the Leafs who never made the NHL as a player but has coached two teams to the Stanley Cup final, he sees a lot of himself in McFarland that way. He called McFarland, who topped out at 37 points in the OHL, “a very progressive hire.”
His youth should make him a useful bridge between players and a staff led by Babcock, 56, and now including Dave Hakstol, the 51-year-old who joined the Leafs bench later in the summer.
“There’s a lot of phonies in this business, let’s be blunt about it, whether it’s coaching, whether it’s management, whether it’s scouting, whatever, but Paul McFarland is a genuine guy,” Twohey said. “He’s a hockey guy. He does what he does for the right reasons and because he does it for the right reasons he’s good at it.
“I always say, if you get good at it then the NHL is going to find you.”