Boudreau has quite a story

By Mike Wise
Sunday, November 1, 2009

The day of his first signing, Bruce Boudreau is already learning today's unfortunate truth about pushing books -- and newspapers, for that matter: Our crawl-line culture is so averse to spending time with the printed word that we end up glomming onto the most titillating item while sailing straight past the journey.

Even before 400 copies of "Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer," sold quickly at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Saturday afternoon, as the long autograph line for the Capitals coach and his co-author, Tim Leone, snaked inside the team's practice facility, the buzz wasn't about the incredible tale of how a career minor leaguer ended up coaching the game's most breathtaking player in Washington.

No, the buzz was about Sean Avery, that annoying, classless gnat from the New York Rangers who, during a break in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series against the Caps last season, casually dropped by the visiting bench to speak with Boudreau.

"He told me I was the biggest, fattest bleeping pig he had ever seen," Boudreau writes. "He told me I was fatter than bleeping Ken Hitchcock. He told me I was going to die because I was such a fat bleep. Avery just leaned near our bench and said this stuff casually, like he was a neighbor chatting over a picket fence or a doctor giving me a medical diagnosis."

It's a rich anecdote, bound to sell some hard copies. But it comes on pages 194-195, long after the heart and humor and wrenching regret of a guy destined to stay below the NHL radar -- until Glen Hanlon faltered two years ago and the parent team finally beckoned the coach of the Hershey Bears, Gabby, the stumpy "Slap Shot" extra, who got his nickname because he could talk.

Through Leone's careful attention to making Boudreau sound like his plain, old authentic self -- his co-author covers the American Hockey League's Bears for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. -- Gabby talks and talks for a strong 200 or so pages.

Readers learn early of his battle of the bulge, how the diabetes medicine he takes sometimes makes Boudreau put on pounds. It's why he won't ever ridicule heavy people. "I truly believe it's the most difficult thing in the world to continue to diet, eat properly, and stay thin," he writes. "I say that because I haven't been able to do it."

"Embarking on the story that's mine has made me so much better of a communicator and a coach," Boudreau said on Saturday after practice before the signing. "I've been through everything, I feel like."

Boudreau's peak-and-valley minor league existence comes through. Further, he is proof that great players rarely make good coaches. "Because they don't know what it's like to fail," Boudreau said Saturday. "Or be yelled at. Or be put down. Or be disappointed. Sometimes they can't handle it because they've never experienced it."

In his book, Boudreau not only chronicles his repeated firings and demotions. But he is vulnerable enough to detail his brother's death while hitchhiking; the breakup of his first marriage to a woman tired of the peripatetic life of a hockey player and coach; his family's meager Toronto beginnings that forced them to assemble baby-teething soothers for extra money; his original booking on Flight 175 that struck the World Trade Center; and how he got to Los Angeles a day ahead of two men he knew who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Boudreau is also courageous enough to talk about one of the most disturbing rookie-initiation episodes imaginable.

"They put me in the hospital during rookie hazing," he writes of the treatment he received from his Minnesota Fighting Saints' teammates. "They pinned me down on a gurney and tied my legs and arms. They shaved my head and pubic area. Then they put turpentine on the cuts and smeared black tar on my groin and chest. They finished by gluing my armpits and left me lying there bawling like a baby until the trainer came and took me to the hospital. If I didn't love the game so much, I would have quit after that day. It's one of the reasons I've never liked initiations. I've never cut another guy's hair."

After 200 or so pages, the book essentially becomes Six Degrees of Gabby. We learn he played with Wayne Gretzky's younger brother, two members of the Miracle on Ice 1980 Olympic team; got in a fight with and later was coached by Barry Melrose; let Paul Newman use his dirty room for the filming of 1977's hockey cult flick; watched former Edmonton Oilers great Esa Tikkanen use a syringe to shoot muddy tobacco in his top cheek and, yes, got the miracle call-up to Washington one day from George McPhee, which made his wife, Crystal, and youngest son, Brady, jump on their beds with glee.

It's hard to believe that happened just two years ago, and that Boudreau has little time to look back and marvel at his Horatio Alger story. Especially after his so young and so incredibly talented Caps still need to learn not to take their ability and skill for granted, to put bad teams away, to handle prosperity more effectively than the adversity.

And yet, what comes across most of all in "Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer," is how Boudreau's experiences -- from hoisting a Calder Cup to all the hurt and heartache of losing jobs and people close to him -- explain why he is here.

He is settling scores each night, getting his vindication against everyone who never realized what they were missing. And he takes aim at the biggest culprit: himself, the player who did not take the game seriously enough when he could still skate and score with anyone.

"Here's a personal message for young players: Use Bruce Boudreau as an example of what not to do so you don't have to live with the regrets that have haunted me," he writes. "My priorities were wrong, and I wasn't serious enough about the game. That's strange in light of how serious I am about the game now; my whole life is the game."

He writes about his current players with great affection, almost as if he wants every one of them to know he would have given anything to be them in his heyday -- NHL regulars with secure spots on the roster and a genuine shot at the Stanley Cup.

And there are those moments in the book, too, when he still pinches himself and realizes, "Wow, I made it," moments where you feel like you're right there with him.

"I went around and talked to everybody individually to say hello," Boudreau wrote of his first day as coach. "At one point, I forgot what I was saying because I glanced over to superstar winger Alexander Ovechkin and said to myself, 'Oh, my God, I'm coaching Alex Ovechkin.' "

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