By Tracee Hamilton
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The dean of Washington's Big Four coaches isn't the oldest. (That's Jim Riggleman.) He doesn't have the most professional coaching experience. (Welcome to town, Flip Saunders.) He doesn't even have the coolest hair. (Although in fairness, Jim Zorn has set that bar really high.)
Bruce Boudreau leads the Big Four in two categories: 1) time served as a head coach in Washington and 2) expectations. His Capitals fell just a game short of the Eastern Conference finals last season, and they have something the Wizards, Nationals and Redskins can only dream of -- a legitimate chance, this season, to bring a championship to Washington.
The Nationals, with the worst record in baseball, hope to improve next season. The Wizards hope to keep their point guard healthy enough to get them back to the playoffs. The postseason is also a good goal for the Redskins, whose reach may once again exceed their grasp.
The Capitals won their division this past spring and lost in their conference semifinal to hated rival Pittsburgh. They have the best player in the game in Alex Ovechkin. And they have the pressure to go further this season, not just from their fans, but from their 54-year-old coach, who would be rejected by the Optimists Club as "too upbeat."
"Whether my expectations are realistic or non-realistic is really unimportant to me," Boudreau said after a recent practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "They are what they are. I go to bed every night dreaming that we're going to win everything, and that's what my expectations are."
The Capitals lost three key players in the offseason -- Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Donald Brashear -- and toughened up the roster by adding center Brendan Morrison and right wing Mike Knuble.
"I don't know if it's better or worse," Boudreau said of the subtractions and additions. "So the same group together, with some young guys trying to get into that group, with the knowledge of them knowing the way I coach and my system, my expectations should be very high.
"The last thing I ever want to do is have an expectation where the bar is too low. If anything, you want to make it so high that you can hardly ever achieve it. That's where we're at right now."
Boudreau said on the day he was hired on an interim basis, Nov. 22, 2007, that his goal was to win the Stanley Cup -- that season. No one paid particular attention to that crazy proclamation; coaches always promise the moon, and everyone was still reeling from the combination of tryptophan and the notion that the Caps had actually fired Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving (although for Canadians like Hanlon and Boudreau, I guess it was just Thursday). The team was 30th in the league at the time, and Boudreau had never coached in the NHL. Was this guy for real?
Turned out he was. The Capitals scrapped their way up the standings, winning their division and making it to the playoffs, and the longtime minor league coach with the Ontario accent won the job and the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year. Talk about a high bar.
And then Boudreau and the Caps went out and raised it again last season. Now they have no one to blame but themselves if their fans expect no less than to see various Capitals lugging the Stanley Cup around town next summer, visiting national monuments by day and exclusive nightclubs by night. Boudreau loves the excitement his team has created in the Washington area, and he refuses to consider it pressure.
"As a guy who wants hockey to be the most popular sport in the world, I think it's fabulous for the growth of hockey and kids playing hockey," he said. "So with them having a buzz in the air, I think that's great for this area and now that we have that momentum, we want to keep that momentum."
Brooks Laich has known Boudreau since he played for him with the Hershey Bears in 2005-06. Boudreau led that team to the American Hockey League championship. Laich said that success hasn't changed Boudreau personally -- he's "as humble as when he was first hired" -- but that it has changed him as a coach.
"I think he is a lot more demanding now," Laich said. "When he was first here we had to learn success. Now we have to learn how to handle success. We have to learn when we do have success, there are other teams that are fighting to knock you off. If you win a game the night before, you have to come in the next day and practice hard.
"Bruce really pushes our players because he sees the potential in this locker room, and the potential for greatness is just around the corner, I think."
Laich doesn't hesitate to give credit for the Caps' amazing turnaround to Boudreau.
"He'll be the first guy to deflect the praise," Laich said. "He'll say, 'Oh, the players have just gotten better,' or, 'We've made some good moves by management,' but it's been his coaching that has made us grow as players and makes us better. And he'll deflect the praise and accept the blame even when it's not his, and I think that's a true sign of a leader."
Boudreau has proved he's a good coach, an inspiration, a leader of men. But it takes one skill set to take a bunch of players who don't believe in themselves, their coach or their system and get them to win. It's another to take a bunch of players who believe in all of that and get them to win it all. Can he take that next step? Can he raise that bar one more time?
Owner Ted Leonsis has no doubt Boudreau is the coach who will lead the Caps to their first Cup.
"Absolutely," he said, quickly and firmly. "First, he's already won a championship in the AHL. The AHL is the second-best league in the world.
"I liken Bruce to Ringo Starr. The Beatles were a terrific band and they added Ringo and they became a world phenomenon. . . . He added something that made the band go from good to great."
So now we know: Bruce Boudreau is dean of the Big Four, and the Fab Four as well.