I will miss Bruce Boudreau, and not just in the plethora of commercials he starred in while coaching the Washington Capitals. Boudreau had a dry wit and did not suffer fools, at least among the media contingent at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and Verizon Center. He was never dull, and for a columnist, that’s great.
But coaches don’t have to please columnists; they have to please general managers, and owners, and fans. Increasingly, Boudreau was failing to do that. And he certainly wasn’t pleasing his players, at least some of them. It’s no great secret in sports that coaches are hired to be fired. It’s no great secret that when a coach clashes with a player making $9 million a year, a player who used to be regarded as the best in hockey — and a player who probably still regards himself as the best in hockey — that coach is the one who’s going to be hitting the bricks, not the player.
And so it came to pass Monday morning. Here comes Dale Hunter, who played in an era when players didn’t make $9 million a season and didn’t get days off from practice. Won’t this be interesting?
“Dale was an intelligent player, he had talent, he was tough, he was downright mean sometimes,” General Manager George McPhee said Monday.
Downright mean might be what the Capitals were looking for after yet another early playoff exit last spring. They wanted to implement more discipline this year. No longer would there be separate sets of rules for stars and non-stars. The locker room atmosphere would change. That decision was not just Boudreau’s; that was front-office policy, from owner Ted Leonsis to McPhee on down. Boudreau would be the lucky one to make this work.
Such a plan was long overdue, but the problem is that it’s very difficult for an authority figure to do a 180-degree turn and expect his charges to fall in line. Boudreau compares coaching to parenting, so let’s go with that as an example. Parents the world over have learned this lesson the hard way: Let your kids get away with jumping on the sofa for four or five years, then tell them to stop and see how that works for you.
The Caps opened the season with seven straight wins, and it looked like the new system might just work for them. Then came the benching of Alex Ovechkin late in a crucial game against Anaheim. Ovechkin was clearly unhappy, and has been a shadow of his former self since then. Alexander Semin has been benched. The goaltending has been weak. Then Saturday against an undermanned Buffalo team, the Caps just didn’t show up.
Afterward, Boudreau may have sealed his fate when he said, “. . . if I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”
Of course, Boudreau shouldn’t have to teach grown men who play hockey for a living to be more mentally tough, but to his bosses, that may have sounded too much like he was waving a white flag.
And so Hunter takes over a team with a tremendous amount of talent and a significant number of problems. Given his style as a player, he likely won’t have much patience for players who stand around and watch opponents score goals. He’s going to want players who will mix it up, and he won’t be shy about expressing his desires, either to his players or, if they aren’t receptive, to his GM.
Hunter has the advantage over Boudreau in that every message he sends will be new — and won’t be contradicting the message he sent last season, or last month, or last week. He’ll lay down his own set of rules, and there’s not doubt he’ll be able to enforce them — he’s Dale Hunter. Whether those rules will work remains to be seen.
Hunter also has one disadvantage, in that he already has been hamstrung by McPhee, who said Monday in answer to a question that there would not be a change at captain. The “C” on Ovechkin’s sweater has been hotly debated among Caps fans for quite some time, but apparently as a topic of discussion, it’s a nonstarter in the front office.
Still, when Hunter’s number was retired by the Capitals in 2000, the team gave him a penalty box from the old Capital Centre. It won’t take much for Hunter to turn that into his own personal doghouse.
More on Boudreau firing/Hunter hiring:
Box Seats: Why Bruce had to go