“He said, ‘Call me when you wake up,’ ” Boudreau said. “I said, ‘Uh oh, that’s not good.’ ”
McPhee fired Boudreau, the Capitals’ coach the previous four seasons, in a meeting at McPhee’s house and replaced him with former Capitals captain Dale Hunter in an effort to jumpstart his slumping star-laden team.
Boudreau declined most interview requests on Monday and Tuesday because the former coach didn’t want his comments to overshadow Hunter’s debut against St. Louis. On Wednesday morning, though, sitting in the living room of his Potomac home, he opened up about the most difficult day of his professional career and the events that led up to it.
“I told George this on Monday: I tried every trick that I knew in 18 years and nothing was working,” he said. “I told him, ‘You’re doing what you have to do.’ I’m sure it was tough for George and [owner] Ted [Leonsis] and [team President Dick Patrick] and the whole organization because we had done something for four years that was really special.
“I thought I was going to be here forever, but this was something I thought that had to be done.”
Boudreau captured the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year in 2008, directed the Capitals to a pair of regular season Eastern Conference titles, reached 200 victories faster than any coach in league history and, in the process, turned the Capitals into one of the hottest brands in professional sports.
“There was the game in Winnipeg,” he said, shaking his head. “With this team, I always would say something profound in between periods. We may not win, but we would give it the old college try. But we had five shots on net in the third period and we were down 4-1.
“In the Rangers game, we were really good in the first period. But in the second period, when we got down, it seemed like we didn’t have any fight left. . . . In the Buffalo game, we didn’t have a scoring chance in the third period.
“We were losing by these scores I was so unaccustomed to,” he continued. “We were getting 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 scored on us. I knew something had to be done. I just didn’t know what. I thought George did what he had to do.”
Asked if he felt a sense of relief after meeting with McPhee, Boudreau paused for a moment to consider the question.
“I wouldn’t say relief, because I always feel like I could fix it,” he said. “But at the time, Saturday night, I didn’t have a pulse on what I could do to fix it.”
The end of Boudreau’s four-year tenure arrived with the Capitals mired in a 3-7-1 slump and star winger Alex Ovechkin struggling to rediscover his game after producing a career-low 32 goals in 2010-11.
“He called me [Monday] and I didn’t feel like talking,” Boudreau said. “I answered the phone [Tuesday] and he said he really enjoyed working with me. I said, ‘You, Alex, I loved every minute of it.’ ”
Asked why Ovechkin seemed unwilling to change his game despite the coaching staff’s pleas and whether that had any bearing on his dismissal, Boudreau said: “He might have been doing his own thing, but the good was outweighing the bad by a long shot. Now there’s more scrutiny because he’s not scoring at the rate he was and are more willing criticize. . . . We play different than we did three years ago.”
Pressed on the matter, he added: “I don’t think it was him rebelling against me. I’ll never want to believe that.”
The buzzword around the Capitals since training camp has been “accountability,” and in recent weeks, Boudreau did things he hadn’t before. He benched a sluggish Ovechkin at a crucial moment against Anaheim, banished penalty-prone Alexander Semin to the press box against Phoenix and scratched Joel Ward against Winnipeg for oversleeping and missing a meeting.
Although Boudreau hadn’t doled out discipline in this manner before, he scoffed when asked if his tougher stance backfired in the end.
“I think ‘accountability’ was an overused word,” he said. “Some players used it, but didn’t look at themselves because they were basing it on one or two people. We used the word a lot. But I don’t think a lot changed.”
Although Ovechkin’s struggles were the most visible, he was far from the only player slogging through the season’s first two months. The Capitals had been limited to a single goal in four of the previous seven games while the team yielded 31 goals in the same span. By the end of Saturday’s listless, 5-1 defeat in Buffalo, it seemed as though most of the team had stopped responding to Boudreau’s message – even if Boudreau was the last to notice.
“I’m so naive,” he said. “I never thought that could happen until people started bringing it up to me in the last day or two. I have to go back and look at the games because I can’t imagine that. When I played, I would always play for the guy next to me, not the coach.
“I think their confidence was shattered,” he said. “What they need is a little bit of success.”
Boudreau said he’ll remember the run from last place to the Southeast Division championship in his first season as his favorite moment (with honorable mentions to pushing Pittsburgh to seven games in 2009 and claiming the Presidents’ Trophy a season after that).
The biggest disappointment, he said, was getting swept by Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals last May, a defeat that dropped his postseason record to 17-20.
“That was the low point,” he said.
As for what’s next, Boudreau said it’s possible he’ll be offered another role within the organization – he has the rest of this season and next on his contract – just to “keep me busy.” He’s already received offers to do Canadian sports television, he added.
But, ultimately, Boudreau said wants to get back to where he feels he belongs: behind an NHL bench.