How humble hockey mastermind Bruce Boudreau transformed the Wild

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Minnesota Wild/Bruce Kluckhohn

Bruce Boudreau, dressed in a striped polo shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, walks into the media room, then does a quick about-face to tug up his zipper. “Senior moment,” he quips to the dozen reporters assembled.

Those suits you see him wearing in TV broadcasts? Not the real Bruce Boudreau. Merely a costume to comply with NHL protocol. In truth, he’s much more Oscar Madison than Felix Unger. The kind of guy you expect to have jelly stains on his shirt.

He would rather be at home in his kitchen, eating, than in in front of the media hounds. Short, balding, mostly soft-spoken with a gut like a front porch, he seems more like a small-town Zamboni driver than one of the most accomplished coaches in the NHL.

He collects comic books, watches movies obsessively, likes Jerry Springer, and quotes professional wrestlers. He fit into the cast of extras in Slap Shot as himself. They even used his Johnstown apartment as the slovenly pad for Paul Newman’s character.

When Boudreau played a season in Germany, his idea of cultural immersion was learning how to order at McDonald’s. His best friend, Wild assistant coach and former teammate John Anderson, talks about the time he took Boudreau fishing at his Ontario cabin. The novice fisherman cast his line and hooked himself in the rear.

“He’s looking all around, ‘Where’s my lure?’ then he sat down and said, ‘I found it.’”

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Minnesota Wild/Bruce Kluckhohn

It’s endearing. Boudreau is a regular guy, easy to like. He jokes with the media but looks them in the eye when answering a question. He’s honest. The kind of guy who walks back to hang with the broadcast guys on team flights.

“Bruce doesn’t change for anybody,” Anderson says. “That’s one of his great qualities. You know what you’re getting with him.”

Boudreau’s office is as unpretentious as he is. Office Max furniture. National Hockey League record books on the shelf. A small refrigerator. And on his desk, an open bottle of Tums.

There’s a quote from old-time Hall of Famer Hap Day printed on the wall: “I don’t know the key to success. But the key to failure is to try to please everybody.”

Boudreau’s patron saint of coaching is George Armstrong, his coach for three years with the Toronto Marlboros.

“He treated people the way I want to treat people. He cared about the person. He cared about me. We were afraid to lose because we didn’t want George to be upset, because we knew he cared so much about us.”

Boudreau shepherds the Wild in much the same way. In one brief season, he’s mutated the team from confounding disappointment to budding NHL power, winning at a franchise-record pace. Under Boudreau, players simply seem to get better.

“You know what he demands of you,” says goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who’s having the best season of his career. “That’s what you want in a boss. He has gotten the best out of us without being a scary person.”

Boudreau is 62, an age when one looks back on life with an acute awareness of what might have been. The regrets haunt him.

“It kills me that I basically wrecked my whole playing career my first year in pro hockey,” he writes in his memoir, Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer. “I firmly believe I should have been in the NHL for many years. I ruined it by goofing off, taking everything too easily, and focusing too much on having a good time and too little on my job. It was dreadful.”

As a teenager, he played for Armstrong’s Marlboros, the Junior A team in his hometown of Toronto. He was so good — a playmaker with a deft scoring touch — that Wayne Gretzky, three years younger, wanted to be him.

Boudreau seemed destined for NHL stardom, which is all he had ever wanted as a kid skating on the backyard rink his dad flooded. But destiny can be fickle.

He missed his chance to turn pro in 1974 at age 19, when the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association tried to offer him a $250,000 contract good for three years. He would have jumped at that, but the team couldn’t reach him. He was on a 17-day trip in the Boundary Waters. By the time he got back, the Saints had signed three other centers.

Boudreau returned to the Marlies, where he set a Canadian junior record with 165 points, including 68 goals. The season launched him into Top 10 lists for the 1975 NHL draft. Unfortunately, Boudreau couldn’t keep his clothes on.

He’d captained the Marlies to a championship. After a dozen hours of celebratory drinking, it suddenly seemed like a good idea to streak through the pub. Some off-duty cops spotted them. The young players’ arrests hit the papers.

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All these years later Boudreau still wishes he hadn’t squandered his destiny with bad decisions and lack of discipline.

Two weeks later, on draft day, Boudreau paced in his home, waiting for the phone to ring. He would keep pacing, and the phone would keep not ringing, until the Maple Leafs selected him in the third round. “That was the most devastating thing in my life up to that point,” he writes in his memoir. “I bawled my eyes out.”

He figured he had a better chance of making the Fighting Saints’ roster than the Maple Leafs’. The Saints were also offering double the money, so Boudreau moved to St. Paul. But he reported to camp 25 pounds overweight and was sent to the minor league Johnstown Jets in Pennsylvania.

So began a career sprinkled with accomplishments yet peppered with disappointment.

Boudreau had more than a cup of coffee in the NHL — call it a mocha grande with a few raspberry scones — playing just short of 150 games with the Leafs and Blackhawks, tallying 70 points.

His stardom was confined to 17 minor league seasons in the indeterminate hockey towns of Johnstown, Dallas, New Brunswick, Cincinnati, St. Catherines, Baltimore, Iserlohn, Halifax, Springfield, New Market, Phoenix, Fort Wayne, and Glens Falls.

His 316 goals and 799 points in the American Hockey League earned him a spot in the minor league’s Hall of Fame.

Yet those accomplishments merely raised the specter of what might have been. If he had played in the days of free agency — and not been indentured to the Maple Leafs all those years — he could have found his place with an NHL team. Or if he had played today, with 30 NHL teams instead of the 18-22 that existed in his day, there would have been more opportunities.

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Boudreau’s teams have finished first in their division eight out of nine seasons. Still, his success carries an asterisk.

“Today, Bruce would have had a long career in the NHL,” Anderson says.

Boudreau figures if he had been a little bigger or a little quicker, he could have stuck in the NHL. Or if he had been more dedicated and worked harder.

Indeed, his roommate in Johnstown his rookie year, Paul Holmgren of St. Paul Harding and Gopher fame, told him after Boudreau stumbled home very late one night, “Your priorities are screwed up.”

All these years later Boudreau still wishes he hadn’t squandered his destiny with bad decisions and lack of discipline. Yet coaching has given him a second chance, his past the spur to new success.

Give me to Christmas to get things in place.” This was Boudreau’s initial assessment of the Wild. It wouldn’t take that long.

By the time the holidays rolled around, he had magically transformed a dull, maddeningly cautious team into a high-flying, high-scoring Western Conference power. Though he’s often tagged as an offensive coach, the Wild simultaneously improved their defense to among the best in the league.

“Our game is applying pressure in every zone,” he explains in his book. “Because we attack and don’t sit back, critics think we’re ignoring defense. Not true. It’s really about taking time and space away from everybody anywhere on the ice so they can’t make a play and creating a turnover. Pressure defense is what I call it. We apply pressure to create turnovers and then attack when we get the puck.”

Indeed, an overlooked statistic tells the story of Boudreau’s teams. With each coaching stop in Washington, Anaheim, and now St. Paul, he has taught his teams to reduce the number of shots opponents take from in front of the net (specifically the slot and crease), where most goals are yielded. This year, the Wild brought its high-danger shot rate per game down from 5.7 to 5.0, best in the league.

The Marlies’ trainer dubbed Boudreau “Gabby” because the kid was constantly talking, a trait that endured. It’s one of his critical strengths. “His communication has been great,” says center Erik Haula. “If there’s something he wants you to do better, he lets you know. Nothing you take as a negative, just something to think about to help you get better.”

Winger Jason Pominville concurs. While other coaches make players guess or play mind games, Boudreau presents the rationale behind his moves. “He’ll come up and explain to you why.” 

In February, Boudreau summoned Zach Parise for an office chat. The coach reminded Parise, then in a slump, that he scored most of his goals from in front of the net. He needed to get back there. Parise did and started scoring again.

“He’s good at reminding you of what makes you effective and what makes you a good player,” Parise says.

While driving, showering, eating, Boudreau comes up with little — though not inconsequential — things to tell his players. “I’m constantly thinking of things I want to say to the guys, then I forget them,” he says. “Until I see the guy, then I remember.”

He’s a natural teacher. Some guys — cough, cough, Gretzky — were so good they never had to break down the game and could never explain how they did what they did, so they failed as coaches.

Boudreau, who likes to say there’s no situation he hasn’t seen, is able to transmit his experience. “At this level, for whatever reason, there’s not as much teaching,” Parise says. “With Boudreau, there has been a lot of good teaching.”

Boudreau also draws upon his experience as a player to motivate his charges. His most famous pep talk, though certainly not his most effective, went viral.

Google “Boudreau meltdown.” You’ll see him on December 12, 2010, in the Capitals dressing room after Washington gave up a goal with one second remaining in the second period to fall behind Florida 1-0. The Caps had lost three in a row to that point.

“What are you guys, like prima donna perfect so you can’t handle adversity?” he asks, not yelling but in an imploring tone that grips their attention. “So shit’s not going right. It’s not fucking working the last 10 days. Fucking get your heads out of your ass and fucking make it work by outworking the opposition.... If you want it, don’t just think you want it. Go out and fucking want it.”

(The talk didn’t quite achieve the desired effect. Washington lost that game 3-0 and dropped its next four before snapping an eight-game losing streak. Boudreau did manage eventually to right the ship and win the division.)

Such outbursts are not common for Boudreau. He’s normally posed in a studied nonchalance behind the bench, hands in his pockets. But his passion to win occasionally erupts.

Against Dallas in February, he disagreed with a penalty call and said things to the referee that he couldn’t repeat at the post-game press conference.

Against Columbus earlier this month, officials overturned a goal a goal by Haula, ruling that he’d illegally kicked the puck in. You could read Boudreau’s lips: “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Once, while coaching the Ducks, he was so upset by a disallowed goal that he opened the bench door and nearly ran onto the ice to argue the call.

These moments encapsulate his intensity, a drive to excel that doesn’t rest.

By his own admission, Boudreau is a one-dimensional guy. For him, hockey is life. “The game is my oxygen.”

When it became clear that he was destined to be a minor league lifer as a player, he thought about what would follow. “I didn’t know anything else I wanted to do outside hockey,” he says. “It just seemed the next step would be to coach.”

He did stints as a player/assistant coach for eight years with Cincinnati, St. Catharines, Fort Wayne, and Nova Scotia. After the 1991-92 season, the Muskegon Fury offered him a head coaching job. The obscure Colonial Hockey League would launch him on a 15-year odyssey through Muskegon, Fort Wayne, Biloxi, Lowell, Manchester, and Hershey.

He demonstrated a knack for success, notching championships in Mississippi (ECHL’s Kelly Cup in 1999) and Pennsylvania (AHL’s Calder Cup in 2006). He was named the International Hockey League Coach of the Year with Fort Wayne.

But these were small-stage triumphs. He seemed a guy doomed to thrive in obscurity, until he finally got his break with the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals’ AHL affiliate.

In 2007, with the parent club off to a slow start, general manager George McPhee fired the Capitals coach and offered Boudreau the job.

It was an unusual move at the time. The NHL tended to recycle coaches from the pool at the top level, rather than promoting from the minors. Boudreau revolutionized that thinking.

He proved that his methods worked in the NHL, taking the Capitals from fifth place to first in his rookie season, when he was named the NHL’s best coach.

It would create what became known as “The Boudreau Effect.” Four NHL teams hired AHL coaches over the next year.

Boudreau reached 200 victories in the NHL faster than any coach in the modern era. But early in the 2011-12 season, the Caps won only four times in 13 games. He was fired on November 28, 2011.

He was out of work just two days before the Anaheim Ducks came calling. In his first full season, Boudreau transformed the team from last to first. He quickly won another 200 games, becoming the fastest coach to reach 400 wins.

But after the Ducks were upset in the first round of the playoffs last year, Anaheim fired him. Three days later, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher was in California to offer him a job.

Boudreau demurred. He had an interview scheduled with Ottawa, and he’d always wanted to coach in his home country. Besides, his only daughter lived there with his granddaughter.

He pegged the prospects for success with both franchises as equal. But in the end, money talked. Fletcher upped his offer to a four-year deal reportedly worth nearly $3 million.

“I found Chuck to be something special,” Boudreau says. “We had the same ideals. He treated me with so much respect.”

Boudreau’s teams have finished first in their division eight out of nine seasons. Still, his success carries an asterisk. He has never taken a team to the Stanley Cup Finals. What’s worse, he is the only coach in NHL history whose teams have lost Game 7s at home in three straight postseasons. First the Capitals did it, then the Ducks. The sting remains.

“The goal isn’t just making the playoffs,” he writes in his book. “That’s not a satisfactory measure of success. The goal is winning the Stanley Cup.”

The Wild hired a coach possessed. Some people hear voices. Others see the Virgin Mary in grilled cheese sandwiches. Boudreau can’t escape visions of the Stanley Cup — literally and figuratively.

Every time he opens the door to the coaches’ offices at the Xcel Center, the Stanley Cup confronts him in the form of a poster on the opposite wall. He told Fletcher he wakes every morning dreaming about the Stanley Cup. It’s been his lifelong pursuit, first as a player and now as a coach.

“If I didn’t have that dream, I would probably still be coaching in the East Coast League somewhere,” he says. “When I watch them take the Cup out [to present it to the winners], I tear up. Every single time.”

Winning the Stanley Cup. That’s every player’s and coach’s Holy Grail. For Boudreau, it’s a little more. It would erase the asterisk. Rewrite his legacy. Vindicate him. Confirm him unequivocally in the elite ranks of great NHL coaches. Restore a good measure of what he missed in his career as a player.

This year could be his chance. Or not.

And he knows it.

The coach sets the tone for the team. See for yourself at a Wild practice.

It’s early March, the morning after a 3-1 win over San Jose. The players are loose. They cheer a dazzling shot by newcomer Martin Hanzal, a hit by Nate Prosser, a dangle between the skates by Mikko Koivu. When Dubnyk makes a nifty save, Koivu intones, “Duuuuuub!”

This was before the Wild took their annual dive, plunging from the top of the Western Conference to playoff question mark. For the first three-quarters of the season, Boudreau seemed to have broken the curse. But what had been the most promising team in franchise history would soon be playing like St. Paul’s version of the Vikings, destined to leave a trail of broken hearts.

Even on this morning, when the mood is light and the coach ends the short practice with a shootout drill for fun, he does not let them lose focus. They do a three-on-three drill working in the corners to sharpen their skills in the defensive zone.

“When you’re scoring a lot, you tend to cheat offensively,” he explains later. “To get back to winning hockey, it’s not allowing the other teams to score a lot of goals.”

Prosser, an often healthy scratch who scores in the shootout drill on a crafty deke, suggests Boudreau use him in real shootouts.

“The key is to win it in regulation,” Boudreau responds.

It seems an offhand remark, but it also reveals the heart of Boudreau: It’s all about winning.


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