Friday, January 23, 2009

When you love the game, it's never a hardship

As a former minor league coach, I read with interest the story in USA Today about 54-year-old Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who spent more than 30 years "playing and coaching in minor-league outposts across North America."

One of Coach Boudreau's strengths, according to his players, is simple: He talks to his players.

"He talks to all of us," Caps left wing Dave Steckel says. "Every day he walks around the room and asks what you did last night or what movie you saw."

Making it a point to communicate with his guys is something that's grounded in his experience. Says Coach Boudreau, "When I was in the NHL, if you weren't playing you might never talk to the coach. And just because you're not playing doesn't mean you're not a good person. I don't want anyone to feel ostracized."

As a minor league coach, Coach Boudreau spent time in Manchester, N.H.; Lowell, Mass.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Biloxi, Miss.; Muskegon, Mich.; and Hershey, Pa., where he coached the Bears to an AHL title in 2006.

In November 2007, the Caps called on Coach Boudreau, who was coaching their AHL team in Hershey, to take over the team on interim basis after the team fired Glen Hanlon. A month later, he was hired as the team's full-time coach.

At his first practice with the Caps as interim coach, Coach Boudreau was eager to establish some credibility with his new team.

So he waited until the team's best player -- Alex Ovechkin -- made a mistake.

"I thought, 'I've got to get the respect of these guys right off the bat or they're going to think I'm just a minor-league, interim guy.' It would have been really easy for me to yell at David Steckel because I coached him (before). That wouldn't have garnered anything. But to do it to Alex?

I waited for him to make a mistake and about 20 minutes into practice he did and I said, 'Alex, you can't do that. You have to do this.' And he stayed behind me and said, 'Well, show me on the board.' I was in trouble if he balked. But Alex is very coachable. He always wants to learn."

As the article describes, "Caps center Brooks Laich remembers that first practice well."

"All he kept screaming was, 'Move your feet, move the puck.' Before we were a skilled team, but I don't think we utilized it. He came here and brought a certain offensive attitude."

Caps GM George McPhee was at that first practice, too.

"We liked what we saw in the first practice," McPhee says. "Bruce was in charge. He was the same guy who coached the Hershey Bears. Some people try to be something they're not. That happens sometimes when you come up to the NHL. Bruce is who he is. He believes in this game, he knows this game and he is happy to have spent his whole life in this game. He will never be jaded."

As Caps owner Ted Leonsis puts it: "Bruce is unfiltered and authentic. There is no chess playing. What he says is what he means. Players trust him because they know he's not pressing buttons."

As for Coach Boudreau, he has no regrets about coaching in the minor leagues:

"People want to make my life this feel-good story by making it seem like it was really rotten in the minors and now this is really good. They don't understand. When you love the game, it's never a hardship. If people underestimate me — good."