(I wrote this piece the day Bruce Boudreau was hired to coach the Hershey Bears back in July, 2005. Thought it might be worth dusting off and looking at again in light of recent events. MV)
A month and a day before he was named head coach of the Hershey Bears, Bruce Boudreau made the 12-hour drive from Windsor, Ontario to Manchester, N.H. He was to meet with Kevin Gilmore, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings and general manager of the Kings’ top AHL farm team in Manchester, where Boudreau had coached the previous four seasons. Boudreau expected to sign a contract extension and talk about the just-completed season and the one ahead. In one sentence, Gilmore told Boudreau his extension was ready. In the next sentence, he told him there needed to be a coaching change.
Just like that, Boudreau – who led the Monarchs to a 51-win season in 2004-05 and averaged 40 wins a year over his last six campaigns as an AHL head coach – was out of a job. He is back on his feet now, but admits to a degree of worry.
“Well you are always worried about it,” he admits. “When something negative happens you always doubt yourself. I was really happy that I started getting a couple of calls. I really wanted to be part of the Hershey group. That was my first [preference]. When you sit there and make your wish list, your wish list never comes true. But in this case it did. I was very fortunate and I had a lot of good people say nice things about me. Here I am and I couldn’t be happier.”
The Bears’ and Capitals’ brass couldn’t be happier, either.
“We were very impressed with his hockey knowledge in the interview,” says Capitals general manager George McPhee. “This coach really knows the game and he knows this league as well as anyone can. He is an admitted stats freak and he has won a lot of games at this level. He was a very coveted coach among the teams who were trying to fill that position right now and we were told last night by another [AHL] club [with a head coaching opening] that he was their No. 1 choice. We feel lucky to have him and believe that being able to come to the Hershey Bears and this market was the tipping.”
Boudreau is a hockey lifer who has had an interesting career as a player and coach all over North America.
Born and raised in Toronto, Boudreau played junior hockey for the Toronto Marlboros (twice winning the Memorial Cup) and then realized every local boy’s dream when he donned the blue and white and skated for the Maple Leafs. But before that, he played for the fabled Johnstown Jets, and was a teammate of the notorious Carlson brothers at Johnstown and with the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints. This connection helped earn him a bit part in the greatest hockey movie of all time, Slapshot. Boudreau appears in the first hockey scene of the film, and can be seen wearing No. 7 for the visiting Presidents.
“It was fun,” he recalls, when asked about the movie. “The little part that I played I never would have thought that people would be talking about that 30 years later, and here we are. Everywhere I go it seems like Slapshot is brought up and I was in it for about three seconds. It’s quite a cult movie and a lot of people who don’t even know hockey [associate] Slapshot with the game of hockey.”
After the Fighting Saints folded late in the 1975-76 season, Boudreau signed with Toronto and was assigned to the Dallas Black Hawks of the old Central Hockey League. Among other members of that Dallas club were former Washington coach Ron Wilson and former Caps assistant Randy Carlyle. Boudreau made his NHL debut with the Leafs later in the 1976-77 season.
Although Boudreau spent most of his playing career shuttling between the minors and the NHL – he sported six different uniform numbers in just 134 games with Toronto – he did record respectable totals of 28 goals and 70 points in 141 NHL games.
Boudreau ended his NHL career with the 1985-86 Chicago Blackhawks, a team whose roster was littered with future NHL coaches and general managers. Among them was defenseman and former Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy.
While playing in the AHL, Boudreau led his team in scoring five times, a league record. He also tied a league record by recording three 100-point seasons.
Boudreau served as a player/assistant coach of the AHL’s St. Catharine’s Saints in 1982-83 and ’83-84. It whetted his taste for what would become his second career.
“If you got to know me, this is all I ever wanted to do,” he says. “To me it was a natural progression. When I was a player/assistant coach in St. Catharines it was 1980 and I was only 25. I ended up still playing for another 13 years. So it was something I wanted to do and I wanted to keep at it. It is something I don’t ever want to end. Whatever the situation, I want to be involved in hockey.”
His next foray into coaching came when he served as a player/assistant coach of the fabled 1990-91 Fort Wayne Komets of the now-defunct International Hockey League. The Komets were laden with scorers and tough guys. The team boasted eight 20-goal scorers and five of them (including Boudreau, who had 40) reached 30. Eight players totaled more than 100 PIM (Boudreau had 111) and six of them surpassed the 200-PIM mark. Former Capital Kevin “Killer” Kaminski led the Komets with 455 PIM in just 56 games.
The Komets won 43 games to place third in the IHL’s East Division and then went on a long and improbable playoff run that ended in the finals when they were finally vanquished by the juggernaut Peoria Rivermen, winners of 58 regular season games. Boudreau led the team with 11 goals and 18 points in 19 playoff contests.
“We had a tremendous team that year and they were all rejects,” Boudreau remembers. “We all had really good offensive years and we had Stephane Beauregard [in goal]. It was quite a team and it took a team that had 17 players play in the NHL over the next two years to beat us. As a player, it was probably as much fun as I’ve ever had.”
After one more season strictly as a player with the Komets, Boudreau went into coaching full-time when he took over as head coach of the Muskegon Fury of the Colonial Hockey League in 1992-93. A year later, he was back with the Komets as head coach and he directed the team all the way to the Turner Cup finals. Boudreau won the Commissioner’s Trophy as IHL Coach of the Year that season.
After two seasons in Fort Wayne, Boudreau spent a season as an assistant with the IHL’s San Francisco Spiders. Among the defenseman on the Spiders’ roster that season was one Rod Langway, then winding down his own pro career in the minors.
Boudreau spent the next three seasons as the head coach of the Mississippi Sea Wolves, winning the Kelly Cup Championship in 1998-99, his final season on the job. During his stay in Mississippi, he also served as the team’s vice president and director of hockey operations.
In July 1999, the Los Angeles Kings hired Boudreau to take over as head coach of their AHL farm team, the Lowell Lock Monsters. Boudreau’s Lowell team won 33 games in his first season and increased its point total in each of his next five seasons on the job. The Kings moved their AHL team from Lowell to Manchester at the beginning of the 2001-02 season.
Boudreau’s 2004-05 Manchester Monarchs established a club record with 51 wins, but failed to reach the second round of the playoffs for a fifth straight season. His team’s postseason woes was cited as the reason for his dismissal from the Manchester job last month, Boudreau’s teams were 169-100-33-18 during his four seasons in Manchester; he has a 237-171-45-27 record in his six seasons as an AHL bench boss.
Having coached the Monarchs, Boudreau has seen a lot of Washington’s current bunch of young prospects over the last two years. Boudreau’s Monarchs won nine of the 10 games between Manchester and Washington’s Portland affiliate in 2004-05.
“That came out in the interview,” declares McPhee. “He knows our players well. He believes he can accomplish a lot with this group and these individuals. That was one of the many points that sold us on him.”
Boudreau likes what he sees in the Capitals’ cupboard.
“They were so good defensively that you were not going to wipe them out,” he says of recent vintage Caps farm clubs. “In the end, I think our team had a little more offensive jump than they did. They played us tough and I hated playing them every game whether Glen Hanlon coached them three and four years ago or Tim Army. I hated playing against them because you knew you were in for a battle. I really believe they have some very skilled players and I’m looking forward to working with them.”
Capitals center Jared Aulin played his first professional season under Boudreau in Manchester in 2002-03.
“He is a guy who likes the creative style but he only wants you to play that way if you are disciplined in your defensive zone,” says Aulin. “He usually likes to spend the first half of the season working on systems and continuing the conditioning side of things. The second half is more just keeping you out there on the ice; you should know the systems by then. Just work hard, be creative and have fun.”
In the AHL, player development is supposed to be the top priority, but that hasn’t stopped coaches from losing their jobs after disappointing playoff performances. The bottom line is supposed to be making players better and getting them ready to play in the NHL. So has Boudreau succeeded at this aspect of the job?
“I think so,” says Aulin without hesitation. “Look at the numbers [Mike] Cammalleri put up [46 goals, 109 points] and other guys in the organization last year, too. I think they had five guys who were in the top 10 in scoring and on the defensive side of things they had a few guys who were top plus/minus players.
“It just goes to show that he is a guy who has trust in his players. As long as he finds them accountable, he is going to be accountable for what he is doing as well. I think that’s what he does best; get the best out of the players. They didn’t do well in the playoffs and they didn’t do well in the playoffs when I was there. Every year is a learning year. In the AHL, you never know what can happen. Not always the best team is going to make a run for it. Hartford was a tough team to play against this year and they didn’t make it past the second round, either. It’s a tough game. It’s a league where everybody competes and sometimes you don’t get the bounces and sometimes it just happens to work for you.”
Boudreau’s background as both a player and a coach tends toward offense, and that was another point that helped convince McPhee.
“He had some real interesting insights on that part of the game. Things like, ‘Listen, if you want to come down and you’re inside the zone and at the top of the circles and try something between your legs, then go ahead. But if you’re trying to do it at the blueline where people get caught in transitions, that’s not going to happen.’
“He has a great understanding of the game. He has been in the game a long time. When we completed his interview on Sunday night, it was unanimous amongst the four-man committee that was interviewing him that he was the guy who has the ability to lead this team.”
As for Boudreau’s own influences as a coach, he names two. One is a legend from his early days as a player and the other is much more recent.
“I think Roger Neilson was my biggest influence and I still do so much of his stuff,” says Boudreau. “He was just so smart. I think if there was anything I had to do that was intelligent it was being smart enough to know that Roger didn’t like me as a player. But I really liked everything he did. I’m really into statistics and Roger was really into statistics, too. He was so organized and motivated. When I went to start my own hockey school I went down and watched him and had a meeting with him at his hockey school and he helped me get it going. It is still going for 23 years now. He was a great hockey guy.
“The other guy is Andy Murray for the last six years with the Los Angeles Kings. Andy Murray to me is a mentor and an intelligent man. If I could emulate what he does and his work ethic and everything, I would be a better man for it.”
Talking to Boudreau for just a few minutes, you are left with the sense that he is a guy who truly lives and breathes the game. It should be fairly easy for him to pass along that passion to his players. He enjoys coaching as much as they enjoy playing.
“Just the thrill of being out there behind the bench or on the bench when you’re a hockey guy is pretty tremendous,” he says.