An AHL/NHL success story in "From The Perch"

Hey Monsters fans, we have a great week on tap with the upcoming edition of our new radio show “Between the Pipes,” as Monsters Head Coach Joe Sacco will be joining us in the studio. Coach Sacco will discuss the inaugural season, and we’ll look ahead to another exciting year of Monsters hockey. “Between the Pipes” airs every week right here at LakeErieMonsters.com.

And don’t forget, if you have any questions that you’d like to have answered on the show – including questions for Coach Sacco – just send them in to the
Monsters Mailbag.

With Coach Sacco’s radio appearance later this week, we’ll kick off a slew of Monsters talk for the weeks to come. But as you probably know by now, here in this column, we discuss all things hockey, including the NHL and the rest of the AHL. So as the NHL closes up shop on a tremendous season, there have been a few current items that have warranted discussion. For example, last week, as the NHL Playoffs came to a conclusion, we broke down the Stanley Cup Finals. More recently, only a few days ago, the NHL passed out its end of the season awards: among other notables, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur claimed his fourth Vezina Trophy in the last five seasons as the league’s top goaltender and Chicago’s Patrick Kane claimed the Calder Memorial Trophy as the rookie of the year.

It is one of this year’s NHL awards and its connection to an AHL great that struck our fancy, and that is from where this week’s column is derived.

Woody Hayes once said, “Paralyze resistance with persistence.” Well maybe never has this axiom been more apropos than in the case of Bruce Boudreau, who started the season as the head coach of the AHL’s Hershey Bears, and ended the season as the NHL Coach of the Year. Boudreau’s long overdue rise to prominence is one of the feel good AHL/NHL stories of the season. 

On June 13, 2005, Bruce Boudreau was fired.

On that date, Boudreau was relieved of his head coaching duties by the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. Boudreau had coached the Monarchs for four seasons, and in those four years his team never missed the playoffs. In fact, during Boudreau’s tenure, Manchester finished in second place twice and won the division title in the other two seasons, racking up standings points of 90, 97, 92 and 110. Immediately following the 110-point season, however, Boudreau was told that his services were no longer required. It was a move that had a number of people in the hockey industry scratching their heads, with some suggesting that Boudreau was made a scapegoat for early-round playoff exits.

But suddenly, 50-year old Bruce Boudreau was out of a job.

Thirty years earlier in 1975, Boudreau began his professional playing career with the Johnstown Jets in the North American Hockey League (yes, the same Johnstown Jets upon which the cinematic masterpiece “Slap Shot” was based). Seventeen seasons later, he completed a successful, primarily minor league, playing career with the Adirondack Red Wings in the AHL. In between, Boudreau played with 14 other teams in seven different leagues, and today he remains as the 11th leading scorer in American Hockey League history. While Boudreau was during his career often a dominant scoring threat in the minors, he never was a regular at the NHL level. When all was said and done, Boudreau ended his career having played in 1,370 professional games, with less than 11% of those games coming in the NHL.

Upon retirement, Boudreau launched immediately into coaching. At the time of his firing in 2005, he had slogged through 12 full seasons of coaching, grinding it out behind benches in the American Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League, International Hockey League, and the Colonial League. In 1999, he coached the Mississippi Sea Wolves to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Title, and followed that up with six consecutive AHL seasons during which his team (Lowell for two seasons, then Manchester for four) never missed the playoffs.

Never during his long successful tenure, however, had Boudreau ever been given an opportunity to coach as an NHL assistant, let alone as an NHL head coach. Now he found himself axed by an organization that never finished worse than second in its division since his arrival. Under those circumstances, nobody would have questioned Boudreau for saying enough is enough. Nobody would have said a word had Boudreau hung up his dry erase board for good.

But Bruce Boudreau didn’t quit. In fact, he was willing to start all over again with a new minor league organization and roll the dice once again.

That offseason, the Hershey Bears decided to take a “chance” on Boudreau, snapping him up before the start of the following season. Not surprisingly, he did not disappoint.

As a thanks for the hiring, all Boudreau did was keep on winning. He immediately delivered an AHL Calder Cup title to Chocolatetown in 2006, his first year behind the Bears bench. For an encore, he took the Bears back to the Finals in 2007. As an aside, two summers ago, I was shooting the breeze with Bruce Landon, the well-respected President and General Manager of the Springfield Falcons, one of the most quality individuals and top hockey minds in the hockey industry. As we discussed NHL coaching vacancies, Landon insisted to me that there was one guy who had been overlooked at the NHL level for years, and that person was Bruce Boudreau. In my short-sightedness, I at the time thought that was a curious comment from Landon.  I mean, here was a guy in Boudreau who certainly had a marvelous track-record in the AHL as a head coach, but he had no coaching experience – head coach or otherwise – at the National Hockey League level. Could he step right in and handle the rigors of the NHL? Apparently, both Bruces – Landon and Boudreau – knew the answer to that question.
 
This season, the Washington Capitals, the parent club of the Hershey Bears, got off to their worst start in the franchise’s 26-season history, going 6-14-1 out of the gate. On November 22, 2007, the Capitals fired then-head coach Glen Hanlon. Capital management needed a fill-in, an interim head coach, and they looked to their AHL affiliate to find him.

And 52-year old Bruce Boudreau finally got his chance.

Now, let’s step back for a second. How often do you hear tales like this, only to have the Cinderella story end? The protagonist finally gets a shot at the big leagues, but doesn’t quite pan out. Or after mild success, reality hits home and the fairy tale ending fizzles.

Well this isn’t one of those stories.

The Capitals, which were dead last in the entire 15-team Eastern Conference, responded by going an eye-popping 37-17-7 after Boudreau was hired. Realizing that they had selected wisely, the Capitals removed Boudreau’s interim title on December 26th making him the full-time coach. The end result was that the Caps not only made the playoffs for the first time since 2003, but they won the Southeast Division in dramatic fashion, bouncing the Carolina Hurricanes from the playoff picture in the final week of the regular season.
 
The turnaround engineered by Boudreau truly was something to behold. The Caps, an apparently uninspired bunch prior to late November, were transformed into one of the NHL’s media darlings by April. Led by gregarious league MVP Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals became not only one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league, but also – and more importantly to Boudreau and Caps’ management – one of the most successful teams over the last few months of the season.

Last Thursday, on June 12, 2008, one day before the three-year anniversary of his firing, Bruce Boudreau was given the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year. Not bad for a guy with no NHL coaching experience. Not bad for a guy who had been passed over again and again for 12 coaching seasons in the minors. Not bad for a guy whose services were deemed no longer necessary a mere three years ago.

Hats off to an AHL great that, in the words of Bad Company, has “made the big time at last.” Congrats Bruce. You earned it.

Make sure you check out LakeErieMonsters.com later this week for our weekly radio show “Between the Pipes with John Michael” and next week for our upcoming edition of “From the Perch.”

*As to the title of this column, my thanks to the incomparable Joe Tait of the Cleveland Cavaliers for allowing me to “rent” his perch for the Monsters 40 home games this season. Joe has been the “Voice of the Cavs” for 36 seasons, and he called his 3,000th game on March 26, 2008. On that night, Joe’s permanent broadcast location in section C126 of Quicken Loans Arena was officially dedicated as the “Joe Tait Perch.” It is from this section that the Monsters games are broadcast, so thanks again to Joe for leasing out the space.

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