- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

First the destination: In recognition of his job performance last season, Bruce Boudreau earned the Jack Adams Award as the NHL coach of the year.

Now the journey: To honor his prior body of work, which took a bit longer to compile, the Washington Capitals’ head coach will be inducted into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame in Worcester, Mass., on Jan. 26.

“I’m really proud they thought that highly of me,” he said.

Mostly as a player and exclusively as a coach, Boudreau spent the first 35-plus years of his pro hockey life in the minor leagues until he was summoned from Hershey, Pa., the Caps’ AHL farm club, on Thanksgiving Day 2007 to replace Glen Hanlon and take over a last-place team.

The Capitals were 6-14-1 the morning Boudreau drove to Arlington to run his first NHL practice (as an interim coach). He led the club to a 37-17-1 record during the rest of the regular season as the Caps won their first Southeast Division title in seven years before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime in Game 7 of the playoffs.

“It seems he came out of nowhere,” said general manager George McPhee, who brought Boudreau up and removed the interim tag a month later. “But he’s a very experienced coach at the pro level.”

Boudreau, who turned 54 on Friday, coached for more than 15 years in the minors before getting his shot and making the most of it. What took so long?

“I don’t know the answer to it,” McPhee said. “My first experience with Bruce was when we interviewed him for the Hershey job. There was lots to like about him. He’s been terrific for the organization.”

With the second-best record in their conference and fourth-best in the league, the Capitals appear to be even better this season. It is a talented, entertaining team led by superstar Alex Ovechkin and a once-obscure coach who now does Mercedes commercials, dresses better - “It’s about time,” defenseman Mike Green said - and is feeling the love of an adoring public.

None of which seems to have gone to his head. “He’s exactly the same way. He hasn’t changed one bit,” said Green, who, like many of his teammates, played for Boudreau in the minors.

“I really like people, so I don’t say no to too many things,” Boudreau said last week after a practice session attended by a big crowd. “Quite frankly, we all grow up dreaming about signing autographs and being popular. To all of a sudden act snobby would never be me.”

Appropriately, his nickname is “Gabby.”

“We’re lucky people as coaches,” he said. “You come out here and there’s a thousand people watching our practice today. And I’m coming in here, and I’m talking and laughing with Alex Ovechkin. That’s pretty amazing stuff.”

Yet Boudreau still seems happiest in his office, a spartan little room furnished mainly with computers and video equipment. “I’m here at 6:30 every morning,” he said. “And you know what? You love going home to your family, but this is the place you can’t wait to get to.”

Said center Brooks Laich, “He’s a hockey guy through and through. … No coach is more prepared. No coach knows what’s gonna happen in the game more than Bruce. He’s just got that sense. And he works harder than anybody.”

Boudreau played professionally for 20 years. Except for 141 games in the NHL and another handful in the late World Hockey League, he spent his entire career in the minors with 16 different teams. He even played a year in Germany.

Like others, Boudreau simply hit his ceiling. But he was an outstanding minor leaguer. He is the No. 14 goal-scorer in AHL history, eighth in points. He had a distinguished coaching career. Yet when he arrived in D.C. he was known mainly for his cameo role in the classic hockey movie “Slapshot,” filmed while he played in Johnstown, Pa., during the mid-1970s.

Maybe Boudreau — who has two sons playing pro hockey, a 10-year-old son who is a budding goalie and a daughter who works in sports marketing — played longer than what was practical. But he couldn’t help it.

“It was almost stubbornness,” he said. “When you get in your 30s and you’re still playing, it’s because you love the game and don’t want to give it up. I never wanted to quit.

“Still, there are times you’re sitting there and you’re going, ‘You know what? You’re 38 years old, you’re making $27,000 a year and you’ve got three kids.’ Maybe you should think of something to do. Are you gonna go like this for the rest of your life? But it’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Coaching was the logical next step. “I still thought I could contribute as a minor league player,” he said, “but when they offer you a three-year deal [to coach] … I’d gone eight or nine years with one-year deals. And the first time you’re over 30 and you have a bad year, you don’t play again.”

In six head coaching jobs, he had just one full losing season. In between, he was fired as an assistant in San Francisco and pondered returning to Canada to tend to his hockey school. Then the phone rang again. He was let go in Manchester in 2005 and in three weeks was coaching in Hershey. “A dream job,” he said. The Bears won the AHL championship in 2006, got to the finals in ‘07. That September, McPhee told him, “You can coach in this league,” meaning the NHL.

During all that time, Boudreau had exactly one NHL interview, for an assistant’s job. “I always dreamed it would come,” he said. “But I was very happy doing what I was doing. If it didn’t come, I wasn’t gonna go to my grave thinking, ‘Oh, crap.’ The American League was always good to me and Hershey was such a great town.”

Boudreau’s life in the minors shaped his outlook and his coaching philosophy. He learned how to make players better, “making them believe they’re good,” he said. “That’s half the battle. You’ve got to have goals that are reachable, but you have to believe they’re reachable.”

After it took forever to realize his own goals, Boudreau not only appreciates where he is, he knows how hard it is to get there. “He knows what we go through and what we’re thinking out there,” Green said. “He comes into the dressing room and gets to know his players. You play really hard for him. There’s a respect there. He’s been the difference why we’re so successful.”

Boudreau “realizes how much of a privilege it is to play this game, and he always wants us to have fun out there,” said Laich, who has fun doing impersonations of his head coach. “But we’re also gonna work. Those two things go hand in hand. He wants us to enjoy it as much as possible and enjoy each other’s company.

“You can see how that translates onto the ice. You see how we play, you see the guys’ faces and how it doesn’t look like a job. It looks like we’re a bunch of kids having fun.”

That is, until Boudreau gets ticked off. Then recess abruptly ends.

“Bruce has found that fine line between being a friend and being a coach,” said Laich. “I’ve never seen somebody control that like Bruce does, because coaches are usually one way. They’re either buddy-buddy with the guys and not much of an authority figure, or they’re the complete opposite. They’re just hard disciplinarians. But Bruce walks that line perfectly and the guys have so much respect for him.”

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