macro polo How humble hockey mastermind Bruce Boudreau transformed the Minnesota Wild
Those suits you see him wearing in TV broadcasts? Not the real Bruce Boudreau. Merely a costume to comply with NHL protocol. In truth, he’s much more Oscar Madison than Felix Unger. The kind of guy you expect to have jelly stains on his shirt.
He would rather be at home in his kitchen, eating, than in in front of the media hounds. Short, balding, mostly soft spoken with a gut like a front porch, he seems more like a small town Zamboni driver than one of the most accomplished coaches in the NHL.
He collects comic books, watches movies obsessively, likes Jerry Springer, and quotes professional wrestlers. He fit into the cast of extras in Slap Shot as himself. They even used his Johnstown apartment as the slovenly pad for Paul Newman’s character.
When Boudreau played a season in Germany, his idea of cultural immersion was learning how to order at McDonald’s. His best friend, Wild assistant coach and former teammate John Anderson, talks about the time he took Boudreau fishing at his Ontario cabin. The novice fisherman cast his line and hooked himself in the rear.
“He’s looking all around, ‘Where’s my lure?’ then he sat down and said, ‘I found it.'”Boudreau’s office is as unpretentious as he is. Office Max furniture. National Hockey League record books on the shelf. A small refrigerator. And on his desk, an open bottle of Tums.
There’s a quote from old time Hall of Famer Hap Day printed on the wall: “I don’t know the key to success. But the key to failure is to try to please everybody.”
Boudreau’s patron saint of coaching is George Armstrong, his coach for three years with the Toronto Marlboros.
“He treated people the way I want to treat people. He cared about the person. He cared about me. We were afraid to lose because we didn’t want George to be upset, because we knew he cared so much about us.”
Boudreau shepherds the Wild in much the same way. In one brief season, he’s mutated the team from confounding disappointment to budding NHL power, winning at a franchise record pace. Under Boudreau, players simply seem to get better.
“You know what he demands of you,” says goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who’s having the best season of his career. “That’s what you want in a boss. “I firmly believe I should have been in the NHL for many years. I ruined it by goofing off, taking everything too easily, and focusing too much on having a good time and too little on my job. It was dreadful.”
As a teenager, he played for Armstrong’s Marlboros, the Junior A team in his hometown of Toronto. He was so good a playmaker with a deft scoring touch that Wayne Gretzky, three years younger, wanted to be him.
Boudreau seemed destined for NHL stardom, which is all he had ever wanted as a kid skating on the backyard rink his dad flooded. But destiny can be fickle.
He missed his chance to turn pro in 1974 at age 19, when the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association tried to offer him a $250,000 contract good for three years. He would have jumped at that, but the team couldn’t reach him. He was on a 17 day trip in the Boundary Waters. By the time he got back, the Saints had signed three other centers.
Boudreau returned to the Marlies, where he set a Canadian junior record with 165 points, including 68 goals. The season launched him into Top 10 lists for the 1975 NHL draft. Unfortunately, Boudreau couldn’t keep his clothes on.
He’d captained the Marlies to a championship. After a dozen hours of celebratory drinking, it suddenly seemed like a good idea to streak through the pub. Some off duty cops spotted them. The young players’ arrests hit the papers.
All these years later Boudreau still wishes he hadn’t squandered his destiny with bad decisions and lack of discipline.
He figured he had a better chance of making the Fighting Saints’ roster than the Maple Leafs’. The Saints were also offering double the money, so Boudreau moved to St. Paul. But he reported to camp 25 pounds overweight and was sent to the minor league Johnstown Jets in Pennsylvania.
So began a career sprinkled with accomplishments yet peppered with disappointment.
Boudreau had more than a cup of coffee in the NHL call it a mocha grande with a few raspberry scones playing just short of 150 games with the Leafs and Blackhawks, tallying 70 points.
His stardom was confined to 17 minor league seasons in the indeterminate hockey towns of Johnstown, Dallas, New Brunswick, Cincinnati, St. Catherines, Baltimore, Iserlohn, Halifax, Springfield, New Market, Phoenix, Fort Wayne, and Glens Falls.
Indeed, his roommate in Johnstown his rookie year, Paul Holmgren of St. Paul Harding and Gopher fame, told him after Boudreau stumbled home very late one night, “Your priorities are screwed up.”
All these years later Boudreau still wishes he hadn’t squandered his destiny with bad decisions and lack of discipline. Yet coaching has given him a second chance, his past the spur to new success.
“Give me to Christmas to get things in place.” This was Boudreau’s initial assessment of the Wild. It wouldn’t take that long.
By the time the holidays rolled around, he had magically transformed a dull, maddeningly cautious team into a high flying, high scoring Western Conference power. Though he’s often tagged as an offensive coach, the Wild simultaneously improved their defense to among the best in the league.
“Our game is applying pressure in every zone,” he explains in his book. “Because we attack and don’t sit back, critics think we’re ignoring defense. Not true. It’s really about taking time and space away from everybody anywhere on the ice so they can’t make a play and creating a turnover. Pressure defense is what I call it. We apply pressure to create turnovers and then attack when we get the puck.”
Indeed, an overlooked statistic tells the story of Boudreau’s teams. With each coaching stop in Washington, Anaheim, and now St. Paul, he has taught his teams to reduce the number of shots opponents take from in front of the net (specifically the slot and crease), where most goals are yielded. This year, the Wild brought its high danger shot rate per game down from 5.7 to 5.0, best in the league.