The Washington Capitals’ Bruce Boudreau was the National Hockey League’s coach of the year in 2008. A week ago, he reached 200 victories faster than any coach in league history. But Monday, he lost his job, a casualty of his team’s lackluster performance and his strained relationship with his star player.
Boudreau was fired by General Manager George McPhee shortly after 6 a.m. Later in the day, former Capitals player Dale Hunter was named his replacement.
A career minor league coach before taking over the Capitals on Thanksgiving 2007, Boudreau rose in prominence and prestige over the past four seasons, an affable over-achiever who coached the team to the best record in the league’s Eastern Conference twice in four seasons. But after the team’s third straight playoff disappointment last May and recent slide over the past month that included eight losses in its past 11 games, it became apparent the man once known as a “players’ coach” was no longer connecting with many of his players, most notably Alex Ovechkin.
“Sometimes [a coach’s message] just wears out,” McPhee said. Coaches “do everything they can to get a team going and they coach well for a while but — and I’ve said this before — it’s like having the same teacher for five years. How would you like to do that in high school? It would be hard.”
Following another early playoff exit by the Capitals this past spring, many, including former players, criticized the team for being too accommodating to its stars. But Boudreau’s attempts to bring accountability to the team served only to single out players such as Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and further the locker room divide.
Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Boudreau said, “I’ve had better days.” He then asked to be given a day or two before commenting on his dismissal.
Though Ovechkin claimed as recently as Monday “I have good relationship with him,” the most public indication of a rift between the star and Boudreau came Nov. 1 during a game against Anaheim. With the Capitals trailing 4-3 with 62 seconds left, Boudreau benched Ovechkin, considered the game’s most talented player as recently as a year ago, while the team made a last-ditch effort to tie the score.
The move worked in the short term — Nicklas Backstrom tied the score in regulation and won the game in overtime (with an assist from Ovechkin) — and the next day, both Boudreau and Ovechkin played down its significance, and what appeared to be Ovechkin’s profane reaction at the time. But the episode offered a glimpse at an unhappy player struggling to recapture his form and a coach failing to reach him effectively.
With the coach and the star player at odds, the rest of the team was in effect forced to choose sides. And with that divide increasingly manifesting itself on the ice, culminating with unsightly losses to the New York Rangers this past Friday and the undermanned Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, McPhee was confronted with a quandary not uncommon in today’s high-priced sports culture: sticking with his coach or trying to find another way to get the most out of a two-time MVP in which the franchise has millions of dollars invested.
News of Boudreau’s ouster rippled through the roster via text message as the players prepared to head to Kettler Capitals Iceplex for practice.
“He’s somebody I personally owe a lot to,” said Laich, a former sixth-round draft pick who Boudreau coached in the minor leagues and this past June signed a six-year, $27 million contract extension. “It’s tough to see him take the fall for . . .”
Laich paused as he searched for the right words. “Things that should be blamed on the players. But that’s the way sports goes, you probably can’t trade all 23 guys or move them out.”
Asked whether he sensed that players had stopped playing for Boudreau, Laich folded his arms and seemed offended by the question.
“You would have to ask a guy who you think wasn’t responding to him,” Laich shot back, his eyes moistening. “I still believed in him. I still worked as hard as I could. Even the last game, we were still talking strategy, what we can try to do. There was no throwing in the towel. He hadn’t lost me.”
Across the lobby at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, former Capital and current St. Louis center Jason Arnott was not surprised by the news. Arnott played 11 regular season and nine playoff games in Washington after being acquired last February.
“It’s very hard,” said Arnott, whose Blues practiced on an adjacent rink. “When you let guys do what they please, what they want, then you come in and get hard on them, it’s pretty tough. The guys should have responded for him. . . .
“It was probably time for a change. I don’t know much about [Dale] Hunter. But from what I hear he’s a pretty good coach who will come in and put some structure into their lineup.”
Hunter is the fourth coach McPhee has hired, but unlike the previous three, he takes over a team with the highest of expectations. That, at least in some part, has a lot to do with the man he is replacing.
“As a player, there’s always a tinge of guilt that goes through you that you didn’t do enough,” Knuble said of Boudreau, “that you could have done more to help the team and not put the coach in this situation.
“His four years here were a good thing for the Capitals. The team achieved a lot while he was here. You could say, ‘They didn’t win the big game.’ They still made a lot of forward progress. He left it a different organization, for the better.”
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