Bruce Boudreau is a reason to love hockey.
He was a prolific scorer as a junior and in the minors. He spent most of a 20-year pro playing career as something of a Reggie Dunlop. He was even an extra in “Slap Shot,” and the real Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) used his Johnstown, Pennsylvania, apartment for a scene. How cool is that?
Always a student of the game, Boudreau’s transition to coaching was almost predetermined. And he coached everywhere, from Muskegon, Michigan, to Biloxi, Mississippi, to Manchester, New Hampshire, and so on, and on, before he got his shot in the NHL in 2007.
Since, Boudreau has won more than 600 games and, until he was fired by the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday, had the fourth-highest win percentage among active coaches. His points percentage (.626) is second in league history among coaches with 1,000 games; only Scotty Bowman (.657) looks down on him. He was, and is, a fine NHL coach.
I’ve interviewed Boudreau a handful of times over the past 20-plus years. I’ve talked to him on the phone. The impression I have of the man jibes with the widely held view of him:
Boudreau is an excellent dude who loves the game, treats people with kindness and respect and spreads joy wherever he goes.
If you compressed the man down to his essence, it’d be the twinkle in his eye.
Boudreau had been fired before – by the Washington Capitals (he was 201-88-40 there), Anaheim Ducks (208-104-40) and Minnesota Wild (158-110-35). The knock on him is that his postseason record did not match his regular-season success. It’s a tough business.
Boudreau was 50-40-13 in a season-plus in Vancouver, but the Canucks were on a bad jag. They’d lost 10 of 12 and were sinking out of playoff contention. The wild enthusiasm which came with a wicked late-season run last year had faded. A previous regime had hired him, and the new front office, led by president of hockey operations Jimmy Rutherford, had its own ideas.
All of that is fine, with one caveat: When you decide to fire the coach, then fire the coach. Don’t wait.
Dating back to last summer, Rutherford for months made it clear that he was not happy with Boudreau’s systems and his approach. Instead of a clean break, Rutherford left Boudreau into the public square and submitted him to this persecution.
By November, it seemed a fait accompli that Boudreau would be replaced. Everyone, including Boudreau, knew it. But instead of firing him after a slow start – and hiring Rick Tocchet, who was clearly Rutherford’s choice as successor, or a place holder – Boudreau was left naked in the square.
By the middle of last week, anyone who follows the NHL with even a shred of interest understood that Boudreau was out and Tocchet was in. Boudreau was left to answer questions about his nudity. Meanwhile, Thatcher Demko, the No. 1 goalie who helped carry the team last year, remained sidelined with a hip injury.
The final scenes were both soul-killing and affirming. Rutherford, in all his mealiness (“All I can say is Bruce is our coach right now”). Boudreau choked up when asked what it means for him to coach in the NHL. Canucks fans chanting their 2022 tribute, “Bruce, there it is.” Boudreau, behind the bench, putting his hand over his heart to return the love (“I just wanted to savor looking at the stands, because who knows if I’m ever going to get this chance again?”). Canucks players crying in the locker room with Boudreau.
The deed was finally done Sunday, when Tocchet was introduced. So ended the cruelest coaching inquisition in modern NHL history. Rutherford seemed only slightly bothered.
This is a case study in “How not to do things,” right out of a Monty Python sketch. Coaches get fired all the time, but how an organization treats its people is critical to the general welfare of its market.
Here in Columbus, the Blue Jackets are going through the pain of a rebuild and they’re at the bottom of the league standings. Among fans, the hope is that the project is being done the right way, and that management is doing it the right way.
This is not to suggest there is something analogous with Boudreau’s plight and Brad Larsen’s position. Not at all. All I’m saying is this: When it comes to building a future of any franchise, it’s important to treat people right, because reputation matters.
For some years, the Canucks have been struggling to find their way with a mercurial owner and a revolving door of managers and coaches. Everything just got worse.