This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the Capitals’ first playoff berth in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Capitals opened that year with a 6-14-1 record before Bruce Boudreau took over as interim coach, eventually leading Washington to a 37-17-7 record and an improbable Southeast Division title. Boudreau, who lost that interim tag 10 years ago this week, was the perfect fit for the run-and-gun Capitals. But what if the club had looked elsewhere? An alternative path is revealed in this excerpt from “100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.”
There’s no denying that Bruce Boudreau was the right man for the job when he took over as Capitals head coach in November 2007. Less than six months after he was promoted from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, Boudreau received the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year.
Boudreau would become one of the most successful head coaches in team history, leading the Capitals to four consecutive Southeast Division titles, two Eastern Conference regular season titles and a Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best overall record in 2009-10.
He sold his team on an up-tempo style of play, and brought out the best in some of his former Hershey Bears players, including Mike Green, Brooks Laich and David Steckel.
But what if the Capitals had gone in a different direction? What if, after introducing Boudreau as the interim head coach on Nov. 22, 2007, the Capitals eventually brought in someone else to take over on a full-time basis?
General Manager George McPhee was confident that Boudreau would succeed in the NHL, but the Capitals had a backup plan on standby.
“I did talk to one other person,” McPhee revealed in 2017, “and that was Pat Quinn.”
While Boudreau did not have any prior NHL coaching experience, Quinn had more than most. When discussions first took place that fall, Quinn was the fourth-winningest coach in league history, behind only Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour and Dick Irvin.
“Pat was a great coach and manager,” Capitals team President Dick Patrick said in 2017, “and he’d had a lot of impact on George throughout his career. George really admired him. So, it was something that was under consideration at the time.”
Quinn, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016, was among McPhee’s most important mentors both in hockey and in life. McPhee considered Quinn somewhat of a father figure. So significant was the bond that George and his wife, Leah, gave their eldest son, Graham, the middle name Quinn in tribute.
“Pat had an impact on a lot of people’s lives,” McPhee told The Fan 590 in 2014, “and for me, when he called, it was like your father calling.”
McPhee’s working relationship with Quinn went back to the early 1990s. At the time, Quinn wore many different hats with the Vancouver Canucks, where he served as president, general manager and coach. Soon after McPhee earned his law degree from Rutgers University in 1992, Quinn hired him as the Canucks’ vice president and director of hockey operations.
They worked together for five seasons in Vancouver, highlighted by a trip to the 1994 Stanley Cup finals.
In June 1997, McPhee was hired as Capitals GM, and a year later he was back in the Stanley Cup finals with Washington. Although he typically watched games by himself from the GM’s box for much of the postseason, McPhee invited Quinn to join him for the finals. Quinn had been fired in Vancouver early in the 1997-98 season.
“I was proud to ask Pat and [wife] Sandra to come down,” McPhee said. “They were there for the finals, and I was just trying to pay him back somehow. It actually helped him, I think, because his profile was out there, and then Toronto ended up hiring him and it was a really good move for both Pat and the Maple Leafs.”
Quinn was named Maple Leafs head coach before the 1998-99 season and held the position until he was fired on April 20, 2006.
When the Capitals relieved Glen Hanlon in Nov. 2007, Quinn was still out of work and eyeing a return to the NHL. While a move to Washington wasn’t entirely out of the question for Quinn, it became clear within a few weeks that the “interim” Boudreau wasn’t going anywhere.
“I told Pat that I thought Bruce was a heck of a coach and, if he gets the team going, we’re going to let him keep going,” McPhee said. “So, I called Pat a few weeks later after I saw how the team had responded and told him that Bruce was going to be our permanent head coach.”
After taking over a 6-14-1 club on Thanksgiving, Boudreau led the Capitals to a 7-5-3 record in his first 15 games. By Christmas, Boudreau was told to settle in. On Dec. 26, 2007, the Capitals officially announced that they were removing the interim tag from Boudreau’s job title.
“We just thought it was about time that we let the players know,” McPhee said at the time. “There was something about it that seemed to look and feel right.”
While Boudreau remained in Washington for four years, Quinn would return to the NHL for one more season, guiding the rebuilding Edmonton Oilers to a 27-47-8 record in 2009-10. He died in November 2014.
“Of all the blessings that I’ve had in the game of hockey,” McPhee said, “and all of the good things, he was number one — to be able to work with that man.”
Ben Raby hosts the pregame, postgame and intermission shows on the Capitals Radio Network and is a Capitals correspondent for The Washington Post Express. His book is available at local Barnes & Noble stores, at Arlington’s One More Page Books and on Amazon.