Skip to main content

Boudreau learned through osmosis

by John McGourty

Bruce Boudreau used the term osmosis to explain his transformation from one of the most offensively oriented hockey players of his era to a championship-winning coach that focuses on strong defensive play.
Without getting too deep into hydrogeology, osmosis, in one of its forms, is a process in which water filters through semi permeable matter and in some cases gets purified. Even in some of the most industrialized areas, water seeps through deep soils and collects in underground aquifers.

Bruce Boudreau, 52, the new coach of the Washington Capitals, used the term osmosis to explain his transformation from one of the most offensively oriented hockey players of his era to a championship-winning coach that focuses on strong defensive play.

Younger readers won't remember Boudreau's heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, when he led the Toronto Marlboros to two Memorial Cups and topped the American Hockey League scoring charts.

Playing alongside Mark Napier and John Tonelli, Boudreau scored 68 goals and added 97 assists, setting a Canadian major junior record, which was broken by Wayne Gretzky. He scored five goals in the semifinal game of the 1975 Memorial Cup, one of seven elimination games the champions faced that year.

But Boudreau had only 28 goals and 70 points in 141 NHL games during eight seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. His NHL career was stifled by a lack of speed, inappropriate usage and contractual situations that dictated which player cracks the lineup.

One year with the Maple Leafs, Boudreau had 29 points in 40 games, but was soon back in the minors.

"I actually had 25 points in the first 24 games and they called up a player and put him on the second line and moved me back to the fourth line, a checking line," Boudreau recalled. "Even though I had better numbers, he had a one-way contract."

One of the hallmarks of Boudreau's coaching career has been honesty.

Boudreau led the Hershey Bears to an AHL Calder Cup championship two years ago and coached the Mississippi Sea Wolves to the 1999 ECHL Kelly Cup championship. He also led the Fort Wayne Komets to an appearance in the IHL's Turner Cup championship.

Boudreau admits his emphasis on offensive play shortened his NHL career. He tries to get that message across to every player he coaches.

"The way I played, I wasn't a complete player and I'm hitting myself in the head for not being one because I could have played 15 years instead of parts of seven or eight seasons," Boudreau said. "When you become a coach, it's amazing how important it is for everyone to play both ends. Whether that's osmosis or not, I got it. I'm sure the Calgary (Flames) and Tampa Bay (Lightning) coaches weren't happy with (Thurday’s) 9-6 game. They'd much rather see a 3-1 game. Coaches feel their teams have to be able to defend."

Boudreau coached many of the Capitals in Hershey, which has helped him step in and implement his system. Since being named Capitals head coach Nov. 22, Boudreau is 6-5-2, which follows a four-game winning streak he left behind in Hershey.

There was a feeling some of the ex-Bears weren’t fulfilling their expectations in Washington, but they're producing now.

"I think they understand that everything I talk about is about championships and winning," Boudreau said. "If we want to win the Stanley Cup this year this is what we have to do. My expectations may be too high for some people and they might guffaw, but I believe if you don't shoot for the top, you allow room for failure. A guys says; 'Hey, I wasn't supposed to be that good.'

"The guys that I've coached know what I expect. I told (Washington forward) Dave Steckel it's time he started scoring here. He scored 30 goals in Hershey. I know he can score. I told him don't be satisfied with doing a good checking job. You have to do both. I want them to expect more from themselves."

Boudreau believes that the Capitals have the talent to be a much better team. They have a lot of young players they've been grooming and Boudreau expects them to start producing.

While chemistry is important, Boudreau believes each player has to rely on himself to lift his game and his team.

"They all have to get themselves going and not rely on someone else," Boudreau said. "Nicklas Backstrom is a really talented player. All this talk about (Chicago’s) Jonathan Toews and Pat Kane is nice, but I think Nick will be a heck of a player too. “

“Alexander Ovechkin? You could play him with me and he'd get 50 goals. He's the real deal and you don't get to see the real deal too often. Alex is making Nick more comfortable. It's Nick's first year in the NHL and he has a lot of things to learn. Most Europeans do.

Alexander Semin is getting into shape after struggling with ankle problems. He's getting going. Tomas Fleischmann was my 'Ovechkin' in Hershey, the most-skilled player in the league. He will find his way around here and how to make the same moves that he did in the AHL as his timing gets quicker.

"It is my job to find the chemistry of who fits with whom. I know if I played with a guy that I liked and was close to, we usually had a lot of success because we wanted each other to succeed. If we can get relationships like that, everyone will succeed."

Boudreau said playing for Roger Neilson with AHL Dallas Black Hawks, a Maple Leafs farm team, and later with the Leafs and the Blackhawks, helped him understand how to be a more productive hockey player and now he's passing on those lessons.

"When Roger talked, he made so much sense," Boudreau said. "He was ahead of his time in the way he did things, his organization and attention to detail. If you want to be a coach, he was a great prototype as a person and a knowledgeable hockey guy. Then, you add your personality. It's a good way to go to be successful.

”It's funny, in the beginning he wouldn't talk to me because I played against him for three years with the Marlies when he was coaching the Peterborough Petes. We beat them to go to the Memorial Cup one year. That was a complete rivalry. He had a group of former Petes and I was frustrated because I wanted to get into the conversations. I finally wore him down because I out-talked him."

Boudreau was told he is unusual because most NHL coaches were good defensive players or mediocre players who paid a lot of attention to coaching systems. It's rare to find a one-way offensive player transform into a coach who teaches sophisticated two-way play.

Boudreau was told he is unusual because most NHL coaches were good defensive players or mediocre players who paid a lot of attention to coaching systems.

"I always knew all systems of hockey, but I knew I was an offensive player and wanted to be an offensive player," Boudreau said. "I could check. Every time I got brought up, it was to play on a checking line. I learned the checking role. I knew how to play but when I was in the minors my role was to score. I wish I had been more of a two-way player. Roger said unless I learned to play in both ends I'd never play in the NHL. I didn't understand at that point. I'd say; 'What? I'm leading the league in scoring, they always call up high scorers.' He'd say; 'Nope, to get to the NHL, you have to play both ends.' I knew both ends, I just didn't want to play both ends!"

"Bruce was always a student of the game," said Mike Palmateer, the goalie on Boudreau's 1973 Memorial Cup team, as well as an NHL veteran with the Maple Leafs and Capitals. "The knock was his size and speed. He was a good skater, but if he had an extra gear, he would have been a star. He was very smart and gifted offensively. We all used to talk about being coaches when we were done. I'm not surprised he went on and had the success he's had. He's been in the minors so long and has such a great hockey mind, it's nice to see him finally getting a chance."

"I also played against him in juniors when I was with Kingston. He was a very crafty offensive player,” said Mike O'Connell, director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings and a teammate of Boudreau's in Dallas. “If he can coach to his instincts, then he'll be special. He didn't carry the puck, except on power plays. He'd dart in and make the right play. He was very smart. He wasn't the fastest player, but he had the sense to pass to the right spot or be in the right spot. If he can teach that at this level, it will explain why he's lasted in coaching this long. One thing's for sure, he's proven where he stands in regard to that line about are you in it for a good time or a long time."

ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose played with Boudreau and later coached him on Melrose's 1992 Calder Cup-winning Adirondack Red Wings. Boudreau played only four playoff games that year for Adirondack after Melrose saw a need for a reliable veteran and tabbed his old friend, Boudreau.

"Detroit brought up Keith Primeau and Mike Sillinger so I got 'Gabby' (Boudreau) from Fort Wayne," Melrose recalled. "This was a guy who was the best junior player in Canada and the best player in the American League for years. He wasn't a great skater and he fought weight, but he had a lot of courage and he saw the ice so well. He was a very talented offensive player without a doubt. He's an awesome guy, a funny guy with a great personality. He's a guy you want to cheer for. Bruce has won wherever he's been, he's paid his dues and deserves a chance. He's an example of a coach who's been overlooked until now."

The Melrose-Boudreau connection goes back a long way.

"I played with Barry in Toronto and St. Catherines and he later coached me," Boudreau said. "Funny how things work. He got traded to Toronto the same day I got called up and we didn't know each other. We almost had a fight the first day and I was very happy it didn't happen. When I bought my first house in St. Catherines, I had no furniture. Barry said no biggie and got a couple of bottles of wine and we christened the house that night. He's a good friend and I still call him when I need someone to talk to. He's very insightful and gives good advice."

But he calls you "Gabby."

"I know," Boudreau sighed.

"Bruce has got a million nicknames but 'Gabby' is one you can print," laughed Melrose.

View More

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.