Minor Leaguer Makes a Major Impact

The Capitals have gone 36-17-7 since Bruce Boudreau became coach.
The Capitals have gone 36-17-7 since Bruce Boudreau became coach. (John Mcdonnell - The Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise and Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 5, 2008

Before a critical game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night, the owner of the Washington Capitals decreed via e-mail that all team employees and fans wear red, to convey the effect of a "red-out" at the 18,000-seat Verizon Center. Ted Leonsis was more than pleased to find that his coach had received the memo.

"How cool are you?" he said to Bruce Boudreau, who had buttoned his loud dress shirt. "You're wearing a red shirt. You got the message."

Said Boudreau: "I'm embarrassed to tell you I didn't know it was a red-out. I just wore a red shirt."

Leonsis chuckled relating the story. "Who wears a red shirt with a suit?" he said. "Bruce has a red shirt -- that he thinks looks good. Our coach? He's out of central casting."

The studio pitch goes as follows: Rumpled, bald and rotund Canadian toils in minor league outposts as a coach and player for 33 years. Finally gets his big chance. Takes over sad-sack losers in the nation's capital, where he guides the National Hockey League's most electrifying young player and a bus-load of his former minor league kids from the brink of oblivion to the cusp of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The plot continues tonight at Verizon Center, with the Capitals having stunningly won 10 of their past 11 games and ignited their dormant fan base. They are poised to become the first team in NHL history to rebound from 14th or 15th place at the midpoint of the season to qualify for the playoffs, a feat they will achieve if they beat the Florida Panthers tonight. They also will win the Southeast Division, and earn the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, with a win or an overtime loss (teams are awarded one point for such losses).

Since the Capitals summoned him from their minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., on Thanksgiving day, Boudreau has transformed a tense, methodical team under former coach Glen Hanlon -- the Capitals began the season a dismal 6-14-1, the franchise's worst start in 26 years -- into a bunch of free skaters who shoot, score and play a pulsating, attacking brand of hockey.

Alex Ovechkin, the team's Russian-born, 22-year-old star, has been the biggest beneficiary, having scored 51 goals in the past 60 games under Boudreau. Ovechkin has 65 goals for the season, the most an NHL player has scored since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96. He should be a lock to win the Hart Trophy, the league's most valuable player award, especially if Washington makes the postseason.

"I'm always in awe," Boudreau, 53, said as he stood a few feet from the team's practice rink in Arlington on Thursday. "Not too many coaches get a chance to coach Alex Ovechkin. . . . There are days when my wife and I pinch ourselves."

Said Crystal Boudreau, whom Bruce began dating 18 years ago: "We used to watch the NHL all the time together. Now, it's like, 'Wow.'

"He never got bitter," Crystal added. "Once in a blue moon there was a, 'I can't believe that guy got a job,' but in every situation he's ever been in, Bruce has always taken the high road. I'm the one who always dreamed up revenge."

Washington never has been regarded as a hockey town. The Capitals had the worst reported attendance in the NHL for the first three months of this season, but attendance spiked after Ovechkin signed a record 13-year, $124 million contract extension and the team began its climb in January. The Capitals have attracted crowds of 17,000 or more to Verizon Center since the start of February, including six sellouts in that time.

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