WASHINGTON, D.C. – After he was fired by the Washington Capitals, the consensus around the hockey world was that Bruce Boudreau wouldn’t be out of work for long.
Three days after being let go after five seasons in Washington despite a 201-88-40 regular season record and four division titles, Boudreau agreed to become the new head coach of the Ducks just hours after the team dismissed Randy Carlyle. He’ll take over a talented club that got off to a 7-13-4 start, one that has them second from the bottom in a deep Western Conference.
For many casual fans of the game, Boudreau burst onto the scene during his star turn on HBO’s 24/7 documentary series, which featured both his colorful language and personality leading into last season’s Winter Classic. But for those who’d followed "Gabby" long enough, they know he wasn’t an overnight success.
A prolific minor league scorer who also appeared in 141 games with the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs, Boudreau enjoyed a lengthy playing career. But it was a career that was starting to wind down in the early 90’s, and he was looking to make what he felt was a logical transition into coaching.
"It seemed like a great extension of playing," Boudreau told ECHL.com in February. "I played 17 years and didn’t know what else to do, so I got lucky enough that the year I retired to also get a coaching job.
After one season as a player/coach with the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets, Boudreau played one more season before moving into coaching full-time with the Colonial League’s Muskegon Fury. He returned to Fort Wayne for the next two seasons, leading the Komets to the IHL Finals in 1993-94, before joining the staff of the expansion San Francisco Spiders as an assistant the following year. His time as a player/coach, however, proved key in his first few years as bench boss.
"It benefited me, because you still know what the players are thinking and you’re still young enough to understand everything," he said. "You still have all the enthusiasm of being a player. I thought it was an easy extension."
After his season with the Spiders, Boudreau wanted to return to the head coaching ranks, and accepted a job with the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves.
"I got the call to meet John Gagnon in Roanoke, Virginia. He owned the team at the time. He said he was putting a team in Mississippi, and I went, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Do they know hockey at all down there?
I went down there, and we were a big hit right off the bat. I think we averaged over 6,000 people a night, and created a great rivalry with Louisiana and ended up winning the Kelly Cup, which still holds up as one of my greatest memories. The people in Mississippi? Second to none. Nicest people you’ll ever want to meet."
Boudreau led the Sea Wolves to the Kelly Cup in his final season with the club in 1998-99, and feels that was what finally started to get the ball rolling on progressing towards a head coaching job in the National Hockey League.
"I hope it put me on the map, because it was the next year that I got a job with L.A.’s farm club," Boudreau recalled.
"Quite frankly, I didn’t know the people from L.A. We were an affiliate of theirs in the ECHL, but I think a lot had to do with my friends in the American League pulling for me; Bruce Landon was the most noticeable one. Getting that job in Lowell, they liked what I did, I think, for six years. I’ve been really fortunate."
After six seasons with the Kings organization, Boudreau was hired by the Washington Capitals to take over their AHL affiliate in Hershey, and he promptly won the Calder Cup in his first season with the team and advanced all the way to the finals in his second. He’d last 15 games into this third before finally getting opportunity at the game’s highest level.
On Nov. 22, 2007, Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon as Capitals head coach, and was permanently named to the position approximately a month later. Similar to what he’s inheriting with Anaheim, the Capitals were 6-14-1 when he took them over. By the time the regular season was over, they finished 43-31-8 and had won their first of four consecutive Southeast Division titles. It was Washington’s first time making the playoffs in five seasons and first division crown in seven, and Boudreau was handsomely rewarded by winning the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach.
"I dreamt about it all the time when I was down at the other levels," Boudreau said. "But that’s what it was, it was a dream. You never thought reality would hit home. It was a really nice icing on the cake for that year, but now, once you’ve won it, it’s not as big of a thing unless you win it again. The most important thing is the other Cup."
But despite talented teams, Boudreau could never get his team past the second round of the playoffs, losing to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2009 and again to the Lightning last season.
But the 2010-11 campaign also brought about the Winter Classic, and although some were critical of the personable 56-year-old for his salty language, he doesn’t have any regrets.
"Those were fabulous experiences," he said. "Those are memories that are going to last forever. Being on HBO as much as I guess I was featured was quite an eye opener. It was all good. I’ve been really blessed."
Boudreau worked with countless ECHL alums while with the Capitals, and will inherit several with the Ducks as well; Dan Ellis, George Parros, Maxime Macenauer and Andrew Gordon among them. His experience behind an ECHL bench gave him more confidence to use those players in key situations with the Capitals, and that’s sure to remain the same with Anaheim.
"It tells me that the ECHL is a very viable league, and you shouldn’t let it go unnoticed," Boudreau said.
"There’s guys there that don’t get a chance early, but at the same time are good players and eventually, over time, some of them take four or five years to develop and some take one year."