Bruce Boudreau was at a Washington Nationals game this summer when he spotted the team’s television analyst, Don Sutton, and decided to shuffle over and introduce himself.
“Hi, I’m Bruce Boudreau. I coach the Washington Capitals,” he said.
At this time last year, maybe the second part of that introduction would have been necessary. But after a wild year, when Boudreau ascended from journeyman minor league coach to the Jack Adams Trophy winner as the NHL‘s top bench boss, surely he knew Sutton would recognize him, right?
“[Sutton] said, ‘Yeah, I know,’” Boudreau said. “But I don’t know. I don’t take anything for granted. I was very fortunate last year, and some good things followed me. I was more in awe of him because he was a great pitcher in my era. I just don’t anticipate anyone knowing who I am.”
Still, Boudreau found out this summer that leading an NHL franchise to an improbable turnaround, which included a division championship and playoff appearance, can go a long way to making someone a more recognizable personality.
Whether it was the attention he received at a golf tournament in St. Catherine’s, Ontario - “People that I’ve known for 25 years - I’m not saying they wouldn’t give me a time of day, but they’re now asking me if I can golf with them the next day. I’m going, ‘Wow, that’s really weird,’” - or the star treatment from his friends - “[They] wanted me to come over to their house when I was in Canada to introduce me to their other friends. I’m like, ‘Listen guys, I am the same guy that I was last summer,’” - Boudreau was a popular personality.
Now the challenge for Boudreau is to replicate his surprising success. The Caps begin training camp Saturday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex with Boudreau at the helm for a full season for the first time.
A year ago, he coached the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears - the guy players fighting for a job with the Caps didn’t want to talk to. Saturday he will have the organization’s undivided attention.
During the offseason, Boudreau dropped 20 pounds in part because of a healthy dose of walking around golf courses and an busy schedule. Between May 1 and Sept. 6 (the day his family moved into their new home in this area), Boudreau said he was at his house in Hershey a total of 28 days.
So it is natural to wonder, with all of the fame and the jet-setting around North America, has his reputation as an honest, everyman changed with his newfound celebrity?
“No, he’s still the same guy - easy going, always chirping guys - he hasn’t changed,” defenseman Mike Green said. “Obviously he has a lot on his plate, but I don’t think that will affect him at all or the way he handles things.”
Added Brooks Laich: “I don’t think he’s changed, but I have seen him walk [into Kettler] a couple times with his golf gear on. You know, a collared shirt and it looks like he just got off the course. I say, ‘You used to be a hockey man, Bruce. Now you look like a golfer.’ No, he’s so excited. I see him pacing around, and he can’t wait to get started.”
Another question, and Boudreau will have to answer it, is have the Caps changed? When Boudreau took over on Thanksgiving day last season, the 6-14-1 Caps had the NHL’s worst record.
It wasn’t easy for Boudreau to come in and work his magic, but the players almost had to listen, or otherwise it would have gotten ugly. Now the Caps will enter the 2008-09 campaign as reigning division champs.
“The card we play is ‘What have we done?’” Boudreau said. “I think we can be better than we were last year, and at the same time we lost in the first round of the playoffs. There is so much room for improvement. The minute we start to think about how good we are, then to me that means our expectations are way too low.
“We seem to be the darlings of the media right now. Everybody wants to say Washington is the team, but to me we’re still the team that has to work really hard to get where we’re at. We’re not the fat cats. We can’t sit back and think we’re holier than thou because we’ve accomplished nothing.”
As Laich put it, “Now [Boudreau] can run the ship how he wants.” Most of his players have been in Arlington for several days now, anticipating the start of camp and rounding into shape with some informal on-ice workouts.
Boudreau didn’t want to watch them on the ice for fear of judging players during what amounted to glorified games of shinny. But he was always around the dressing room, chatting up everyone from stars to players who likely will become grinders in Hershey. It’s part of his philosophy to include everyone, something forged by his experiences as a fringe player at many NHL training camps.
One day last week during rookie camp he noticed a stain on the front of his polo shirt. He dreaded a return home Thursday to change clothes for the rookie game against Philadelphia because the suit waiting for him was missing a button and doesn’t fit his new, sleeker figure.
“At some point I’ve got to go get some new suits, but I’m waiting for some guy to come up [to me] and want to do a suit deal,” Boudreau joked. “C’mon, I’m pretty visible behind the bench.”
Eventually, he might need to harness his schedule a bit - “I don’t think I turned down any requests to do anything. I think I am very fortunate to be in this position to be able to do things for people.”
And while he may be armed with the job security of a long-term NHL contract, the trademark honesty and quick wit that has made him a folk hero to many in the hockey community hasn’t gone anywhere.
“It has been a whirlwind, and honest to God, I still wake up and go, ‘Wow, I am in the NHL.’ It is pretty exciting,” Boudreau said.