The former coach of the Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks, and Minnesota Wild has now handled two games as the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks and he’s won both of them. An NHL media darling for his mostly tell-it-like-it-is approach to communicating, Bruce Boudreau always seems to be having a good time. Unless of course his team is suffering through a losing streak, and then he simply becomes entertaining based on his expletive-laced pleadings and admonishments.
His most famous series of frustrations came during a losing streak leading up to the 2011 Winter Classic between Washington and Pittsburgh. The Capitals simply couldn’t figure out a way to win a game, slogging through an eight-game December losing streak, all while being captured behind-the-scenes on an HBO “24/7” series that led up to the New Years Day game.
“Gabby” got in trouble with his mother for one locker room spout-off, in which he reeled off 15 curse words, most of them F-bombs.
He’s very appreciative of the money he’s been able to make coaching, yet still very humbled by it. His recent four-year contract with the Minnesota Wild paid him a little more than $2.6-million per season. He’s making $2.5-million per season for two years now.
Regardless of what he’s earning, his tasks and messaging with the Vancouver Canucks are clear.
“Hope, communication, direction,” Boudreau stated. “The meetings I’ve had with the guys, they’ve talked about communication a lot. They want to win, and when things aren’t going good, they don’t like the crowd booing the heck out of them, I mean who would like that. So they come, they want to win, and sometimes it’s a breath of fresh air when somebody, a new personality comes in. It’s like a do-over … sometimes new coaches come in and put you in new positions, new roles, and it works for you. Again, it’s like a do-over. You’ve had a mulligan.”
Gabby uses golf and football analogies quite a bit. He’s plays the first sport and is a fan of the second.
Ironically, as a player, he wasn’t necessarily “coachable”. He was an offensive-minded, somewhat undersized centre. He still relates how he was treated then, to how he treats players now.
“Coaches hated me as a player,” he said. “because I was a floater. I was good offensively but I didn’t back-check too much.”
He knows what it feels like to be in a scoring slump.
“Sometimes when players aren’t going well, and the coach, it’s OK to sit them once in awhile to send a message, but to get ’em going, I think you play them more,” Boudreau said. “I mean I remember, again with me, one time my coach wouldn’t let me come off in the third period. He said ‘you wanna keep playing like that, then you just keep playing, and playing, and playing until you play yourself out of the slump, get a lucky goal and you continue to go’. So I mean, I think good players want to play a lot, so that’s what I tried to do tonight (against Boston).”
Boudreau has been particularly assertive in positively reinforcing the efforts of Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, two of the Vancouver Canucks star players who have started the season slowly. “Petey’s” woes continue, while Boeser has snapped out of it. He was starting to come around a bit just before Boudreau arrived, but the new coach’s “shoot the damn puck(!)” message seems to have hit home. Boeser ended a 13-game goal-less streak with a tally in each of Boudreau’s first two games and is starting to regain his mojo.
“I’ve talked about how I want to produce and help this team win hockey games,” Boeser said after the Boston game. “To get a couple in a couple of wins means a lot and I think it’s big for my confidence.”
“We’ve see them all (scorers over the years), they can go ten games without scoring a goal and then get ten goals in seven games,” Boudreau said. “That’s what they do. He’s starting to gain his confidence a little bit, and I’d still like him to shoot more. I think it’s a little bit like baby steps. I think if he continues to get a couple, then hopefully Petey can start doing the same thing, getting his confidence a little bit up in the goal scoring department, but it doesn’t happen over night.”
“I always thought of it as a player, I wanted positive reinforcement,” Gabby said. “You can give me all the hell you want, if you’re gonna show me all my negative clips, show me a couple of positive ones to off-set it type thing, because I mean, you don’t want to always feel that all you do is something wrong. So you want to feel that, OK that’s a correctable thing, but look at all the good things I did, I want to keep that up.”
He’s considered a “player’s coach” for the aforementioned open and honest communication and reinforcement. He’s also a mix of old school and modern. He will use analytics when they’re helpful, but more often than not the numbers simply back up what he’s already observed, like for anyone who’s been around the sport for the long run.
“I’ll take all the data, growing up as a kid I was always a stat nerd kind of thing,” Boudreau said. “When they do the analytics, I want to know them because I think there are certain ones that are really important, but there are certain ones that are just numbers to me. Most of the time you can see that, and with Corsi, you can see who they’re playing against and the opportunities.”
Another reason players enjoy his approach; his dedication to moving one’s feet, applying pressure and giving everyone a chance. The Vancouver Canucks penalty killing unit, incredibly ineffective most of this season, has gone from two sets of four to a grand total of 12 participants. Players want the ice time and they take pride in it. His approach is the same at even strength.
“My philosophy in a nutshell is, why do we let teams in our zone, ever,” Boudreau started. “Not just this team, but any team, and let them dump the puck in where we have to play great defence to get it out. Why can’t we stop them in their zone, and if we can’t get ’em there, why don’t we try to stop them in the neutral zone. Third case, then we stop them in our zone.
“A real good coach of mine, Gene Ubriaco, a famous coach and player in his own right, coached the Penguins, he was the one that taught me that,” Boudreau pointed out. “So it was always about being aggressive and going forward rather than backing up. Any football game, I’m a real football fan, they say ‘well, it’s the fourth quarter, we’re up by 21 (points) and it’s the ‘prevent defence, all it does is prevent you from winning’. I didn’t want to get there, so I think the message last night was ‘we have a two-nothing lead, let’s keep pushing forward to make it three, and when we get to three, let’s push it to go four and make it four’. The only difference is, let’s be responsible and do the right things.”
As for climbing out of the hole the Vancouver Canucks dug for themselves with the record of 8-15-and-2 they had before he arrived, Boudreau takes it in small steps rather than viewing a mountain.
“My goals are to win the week,” Boudreau stated. “You get one out of the next two and you’ve won the week, and it’s a positive week and then you start over again. And it’s the same when you lose, so if you lose all three games … I keep using golf, you forget about the front nine and now you play the back nine.
“It gets too daunting if you say ‘oh, you lose three in a row and now we have to win five to get back’. I mean, just let it go and win the next week, and then you win the next week, and it snowballs that way.”
Two-and-oh so far with game three Friday night for the ‘new’ Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena against the Winnipeg Jets.
Bruce, there it is. That’s Gabby.