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2016-17 Preview: The Gift of Gabby

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau quickly endearing himself to players, fans

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

In an era of mile-wide egos and information kept under lock and key, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau is a bit of a throwback.

The Spiderman-reading, Dixie Chicks-listening, gummy bear-eating 61-year-old bench boss is an eclectic mix of grandpa and grandson, hockey coach and camp counselor. 

On game day, if he's not watching film, you're likely to find Boudreau wandering the hallways, striking up a conversation with anyone who looks interesting; whether it's a player, an opposing coach or an usher reporting early for work.

It's the way he's always been.

"I think it's important to get to know people you work with so you can at least say 'good morning' to them. I just think it's common courtesy," Boudreau said. "I don't think I've ever been a snob. I think I am the perfect example of what an average person is all about; I just happen to be doing a job where I'm in the limelight a little more than other people."

Boudreau has been in the limelight plenty over the years. 

In nine years as an NHL head coach, things have mostly gone well for Boudreau. The fastest coach in history to 400 career victories, he has the highest winning percentage among active NHL coaches (.659) and is one of just seven coaches in history to lead more than one team to at least 200 victories.

'Until I die'

If there was ever such a person as a hockey lifer, it would have to be Boudreau. 

Since debuting with the Ontario Hockey League's Toronto Marlboros as a player in 1972, not a single season has passed with Boudreau away from the sport. 

He spent nearly 20 years on the ice as a player, skating in just 141 NHL games in that span. He spent another season in Fort Wayne, Indiana as a player/coach. 

It wasn't as though Boudreau didn't try something else.

After playing for 14 different teams in different leagues all over North America -- even playing 29 games in Germany in the mid-1980s -- Boudreau's first wife, Mary, was tired of moving and wanted to settle down.

Having spent the previous two decades in hockey, the Boudreaus moved back to St. Catherines, Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls, to begin the next chapter. 

It didn't last long. One day, to be exact.

"I interviewed for the director of personnel for the City of St. Catherines," Boudreau said. "In the paper, it said, 'Looking for a sports-minded individual.' I had no idea what this job was. My sister-in-law wrote up my resume and I was one of three people they took to interview out of 250 that applied."

A local lacrosse coach, the gentleman in charge of hiring knew who Boudreau was. About 10 minutes into the interview, Boudreau came clean. 

"I told him, 'Jim, you don't want me,'" Boudreau said. "'I have no idea what I'd be doing here. It would have been a great job, good money and everything, but you have to pick someone else who is more qualified than me. I have no clue.' So I went back home, got on the phone and ended up playing again in Phoenix that year."

Boudreau played three more seasons of hockey before transitioning to coaching, taking the head job in Muskegon in 1992. He's been behind a bench every season since. 

And Boudreau has no plans to leave the profession, either. At 61 years old, most people can see the retirement light at the end of the tunnel. But a life of shuffleboard and RV travel don't excite Boudreau nearly as much as Xs and Os.

"[I want to coach] until I die," Boudreau said. "When and if this job ever gets finished and I don't stay here for the rest of my life, I'll look for another one. Like I said, if it was an East Coast league job, as long as my wife is willing to move with me, we'll go. But I don't plan on leaving Minnesota for a long time."

Taking shape

Boudreau's future as a coach was clear early in his career. Beginning in 1980, he was in some sort of leadership role on nearly every team he played on.

"I was either the player-assistant, or the player liaison for the National League team or the captain, one of those three things," Boudreau said. "I knew that was the step I wanted to take."

Finally, approaching age 38 and sick of working on one-year contracts, Boudreau was offered a three-year deal to be the head coach of the Muskegon Fury of the Colonial Hockey League. 

Boudreau had officially become a coach. After almost 20 years as a player, playing for nearly as many coaches during that stretch, Boudreau said he took a little bit from each one and tried to make it his own. 

"Everybody from Roger Neilsen, Doug Carpenter, George Armstrong, Andy Murray, Joe Crozier, those were all great influences," Boudreau said. "From the hard-[nosed] style in the middle 70s to the more relaxed style as my career went on. I took stuff from Al Sims, who I had in Fort Wayne. Gene Ubriaco, who I had in Baltimore. There are a lot of influences on me when it came to coaching."

A point-scoring machine over his playing career, Boudreau said it was the style of the coaching more than his style of playing that influenced the kind of leader he would become.

"I took the best out of all the coaches I had and tried to delete the worst out of all their habits," Boudreau said. "Hopefully, you add your own personality to that and things go well. But I think I took something from everybody. But it was something I knew I wanted to do. I had to stay in hockey my whole life.

"That was just me."

'The beauty of Gabby'

Along his journey, Boudreau has managed to cultivate friendships at nearly every stop. His nomadic existence as a player has earned him the respect of nearly everyone who crosses his path. 

Perhaps his best friend, Wild assistant coach John Anderson has known Boudreau for more than 40 years, beginning when both were young players with the Marlboros.

Since then, Boudreau and Anderson have played together, coached against one another and even lived together for a stretch. But they've never shared a bench until now. 

"It's hard, when you think about it," Anderson said. "You go on different paths, different areas and the opportunity [never came up]. He's such a good person. I know he likes to win, and that's the type of people I want to be around."

Anderson still remembers the immense pride he felt when Boudreau was promoted to his first NHL head coaching gig with the Washington Capitals mid-season in 2007. Boudreau was coach of the Capitals' AHL team in Hershey, having led them to a championship just two years earlier. A few weeks into the season, Washington was struggling mightily.

"I was in the shower, 6:30 in the morning, and I saw that somebody had phoned; it was Gabby," Anderson said, calling the effusive coach by his popular nickname. "So I picked up the phone and said, 'Is this the new head coach of the Washington Capitals?' and he said, 'Yes, it is.' I knew someday he would get that opportunity. I was really happy for him. It was a long time coming, and he's done a great job since then."

After starting the season 6-14-1, Boudreau came aboard and led the Capitals to a 37-17-7 record down the stretch, rallying them to a division title and a playoff berth.

Boudreau has won seven division championships in eight years since, but no amount of success has altered the guy Anderson remembers as a teenager first getting started in pro hockey.

"That's the beauty of Gabby: you see what you get," Anderson said. "He's as honest as the day is long. He hasn't changed."

Steady progress

That consistency has quickly endeared him to his new roster of players in Minnesota. With the resume Boudreau possesses, it's hard not to respect what he says and follow his orders. 

"Those kind of coaches don't come available that often, and we were able to get him and we were able to get him pretty quick," said Wild forward Jason Pominville. "He's been around, won a lot of games and usually has a good offensive team. As a player, he was an offensive guy, so he should bring some good ideas to our group."

Those habits have started in practice, where forward Zach Parise said he's noticed some big changes. 

No longer is it 2-on-0s and 3-on-0s, but rather situational work that mimics what players will see in a game. 

"It's a lot of 3-on-2s with a guy backchecking, so you have to make plays at full speed or plays under stress and under pressure," Parise said. "You try to replicate what we're doing in games. You can tell, the way we're practicing in the D-zone, in the neutral zone, it's all game-speed, full pace, full pressure. That's how we're learning, and hopefully, ultimately, that's how we're going to be able to do it better and really fast in the game."

And while it has been an adjustment learning another roster of players, Boudreau said he's pleased with the steady progress the Wild has made during training camp. 

For a man not known to change, he said he won't be afraid to tweak things early if necessary.

"I'm not averse to change, but what I've done is pretty successful, so I want to try it that way first," Boudreau said. "But if that doesn't work, then we definitely have to change."

Anderson said the recipe for success Boudreau has followed in other stops should lead to results here.

"He's fair. Again, it's the beauty of Bruce: he is what he is," Anderson said. "It's not hard to play for him.

"Just work hard, do what he asks and you'll love him. He doesn't pretend to be anyone special. He knows what he wants."

'Still pretty happy'

Boudreau's focus now is on winning a Stanley Cup. He's had a handful of contenders through the years but hasn't been able to break through past the conference finals.

A 1-7 career record in Game 7s has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, but no one feels the sting more than Boudreau. After going toe-to-toe with eventual Cup winners on more than one occasion, only to see a bounce of the puck go the opposite direction, the coach feels he could be due for some luck of his own.

"Of course I'm due," Boudreau said. "I say it tongue-in-cheek all the time, 'It's Game 7, what, do we all of the sudden go in a shell and change?' No. Things haven't worked out. But that doesn't mean they aren't going to. I'm not going to change the way I coach."

But before another shot at the postseason, Boudreau and the Wild must reach the playoffs. With the regular season beginning against the Blues on Thursday in St. Louis, it's another new beginning for a man who has made a life out of them, both as a player and a coach. 

After starting his pro career in St. Paul with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Boudreau has come full circle. More importantly, he continues to excel at the only thing he ever wants to do.

"I just cannot picture me doing anything other than what I'm doing, at any level," Boudreau said. "If I was in the East Coast [Hockey] League still, I wouldn't have a problem with it. It's still hockey. I mean, I'm happy I'm in the NHL, but there's 33 years there where I wasn't and I was still pretty happy."

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