The Washington Capitals weren’t due to report to Kettler Capitals Iceplex for more than a month, but Coach Bruce Boudreau was already in midseason form: wearing his familiar red track suit, a whistle pursed between his lips.
It was Day 5 of Boudreau’s 29th annual Golden Horseshoe Hockey School earlier this month, and he was on the ice refereeing a game composed of players roughly half the age of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin.
Calling penalties, though, wasn’t Boudreau’s purpose. He was there to teach, and after a defensive miscue led to a odd-man rush and a goal, teach he did.
“Who were the forwards just out there?” Boudreau barked. “Come here.”
He explained where the breakdown began, gesturing toward the neutral zone. The players listened, nodding. A few minutes later, Boudreau smiled as he retrieved a puck from the back of the net.
“Pass the puck, score goals,” he told the players. “Simple as that.”
Boudreau started the school in 1982, when he was playing for the American Hockey League’s St. Catharines Saints, the farm club of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In its early days, profits from the school supplemented Boudreau’s minor league salary. Since stepping behind the bench of the Capitals in 2007, though, Boudreau, 56, said he isn’t doing it for the money anymore.
“I’ll bet you we make $10,000 doing all this,” Boudreau said. “So it’s not worth doing it. But it’s worth doing it. Because it’s been part of my life for 29 years.”
Should Boudreau ever be part of a Stanley Cup champion, he said, his day with hockey’s holy grail will be spent right here, in St. Catharines.
Each morning during camp week, Boudreau and his wife, Crystal, arrive at the front doors of the Seymour-Hannah Sports and Entertainment Center around 5:45 a.m. to begin setting up for nine hours of organized chaos.
“Sometimes I say I’m sleeping in, so I’ll get a wake-up call at 5:12,” Boudreau cracked.
The school admits 300 children, from 5 years old to 16. There are eight head instructors — including Capitals assistant coach Bob Woods and Hershey Bears assistant Troy Mann — and about 50 counselors and volunteers.
After four days, 420 gallons of Gatorade had been consumed. Lunch on Friday consisted of 140 pizzas delivered from a local restaurant. The stack of assorted Snapple drinks that stood more than six feet high at the start on Monday had dwindled to a few cases.
“A lot of people start hockey schools,” Crystal Boudreau said. “The reason they don’t go long-term, is they find out it’s not just, ‘Okay, come here, sign up, go on the ice.’ You have to make sure the insurance is done. You have to make sure five lunches are arranged. You have to make sure you have enough counselors and instructors and make sure the buses are going to be on time.”
The highlight of the week — for campers, parents and the Boudreaus — is the camp-ending banquet on Sunday afternoon. Boudreau spends all season amassing a haul of sports memorabilia, with each item raffled off to camp participants. Many of the items could probably be sold for more than the school’s $500 tuition.
There’s a football autographed by Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, a helmet signed by Chris Cooley and a jersey from the Wizards’ Nick Young, too. There were also more than 100 autographed sticks from NHL players, a 32-inch Samsung panel television and a Specialized mountain bike.
After giving away a Shea Weber autographed stick, Boudreau told the room, “We don’t give away stuff from fourth-liners at this hockey school.”
In the winter of 1996, the school was more than the Boudreaus’ summer diversion. Following a disagreement with management, Bruce had been fired as an assistant coach with the San Francisco Spiders of the International Hockey League after three games. His contract called for him to earn $60,000, but the paychecks stopped after his sudden dismissal.
“We had no place to live,” Boudreau said.
With no savings to speak of, the Boudreaus returned to St. Catharines, where they made ends meet by borrowing money from his parents, charging expenses on credit cards, and spending the down payments for the next summer’s school.
“We lived off of that money and prayed to God that the hockey school filled up and that those people would pay the rest of the tuition so we’d have enough to pay for the ice and enough money until I got another job,” Boudreau said.
“We were spending money that wasn’t ours to spend.”
A difficult year for the Boudreaus turned out to be a positive development for the school. They spent the winter lining up sponsors, recruiting counselors and volunteers and advertising.
The Golden Horseshoe Hockey School, as a result, doubled in size.
Boudreau said he is planning a “special” celebration for the school’s 30th anniversary, but he also would not make any guarantees beyond a 32nd year. That will be the final summer at the school for Brady, his 13-year-old son.
The Golden Horseshoe Hockey School always has drawn the majority of its campers from local towns.
“Bill Berg, Cal Clutterbuck, Andew Peters, Geoff Peters,” Boudreau says, rattling off the names of the NHL players who attended. “Pretty much everyone from this area who’s made it has, at some point or another, come to this hockey school.”
In recent years, though, Bruce Boudreau’s success in Hershey and Washington has made it a popular destination for fans of the Bears and Capitals, too — as evidenced by the number of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia license plates in the parking lot.
Jack Ryan of Ashburn discovered the school while reading Boudreau’s autobiography, “Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer,” and promptly signed up his 6-year-old son, Johnny, and 13-year-old stepson, Austin Lindgren.
“Where else could you go and have the coach of the Caps talking to you — for 500 bucks?” Jack Ryan said.
“It’s really cool being out there with a coach in the NHL,” Austin said. “It’s really hard to describe how great a feeling that is.”
At the same time, Boudreau has maintained his accessibility, though his profile has changed.
“It’s almost like you’re not talking to someone important,” said 11-year-old Ryan Bellaire, who is from neighboring Grimsby, Ontario. “It’s like you’re talking to someone normal.”
Said Alex Repar, 10: “Bruce is a really nice person. He’s someone you want to be around.”
Boudreau remains a draw for the players and parents in Southern Ontario as well. He played for the Toronto Marlboros as a junior, the Saints in the minors and parts of seven seasons for the Maple Leafs.
Throughout that time, he maintained a home in St. Catharines, and his children from a previous marriage, Kasey, Ben and Andy, were raised here, attended the school and have worked it, too.
Everyone in town, it seems, knows Boudreau and his roundabout route to the top.
When he’s not on the ice, he can be found in the lobby, schmoozing with parents, posing for photos, autographing jerseys and helping to ensure the operation is going smoothly.
“Dave,” he said to one instructor, “everything okay?”
“Doug,” he said as another walked past, “everything good?”
Many coaches lend their names to summer camps, but most are operated by people other than the name on the brochures. That’s not the case at Golden Horseshoe.
One hectic morning, a frantic counselor approached Boudreau, telling him how two boys had gotten “chippy” during a scrimmage. Boudreau rolled his eyes, hopped to his feet and charged toward the dressing room to tackle the latest challenge at the camp he’s operated for nearly three decades.
“If I want to screw up my name,” he said, “let me screw it up myself.”