Monday, December 29, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 4

Number 4. A Story for a Frank Capra Film

Until Hollywood discovered the wonder of computer generated imagery, it had a long history of telling stories of people. Mysteries, dramas, comedies, tragedies – film was a reflection of the mundane and the extraordinary in the lives of people. No one, though, is perhaps more closely identified with stories of individuals overcoming great odds in the face of misfortune or just plain bad luck than Frank Capra. The term, “Capraesque” is often defined as “focusing on courage and its positive effects and the triumph of the underdog.”

Well, 2008 allowed Caps fans to see a story such as that brought to life. It was the story of a hockey lifer – Bruce Boudreau – who as a young man was drafted in 1975 by his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs as a prolific scorer, having amassed 152 goals and 213 assists in 183 games with the Toronto Marlboros. But from there, his career took a disappointing turn of sorts. He would make his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs two seasons later, appearing in 15 games for Toronto. But as it would turn out, he would never appear in more than 40 games with the Maple Leafs in parts of six seasons with the team. He would play a total of 134 games with the Leafs in the NHL and another seven in one season with the Chicago Black Hawks, totaling 28 goals and 42 assists in his 141 game NHL career.

He would, however, become something of the minor leagues’ equivalent of the fictional “Crash Davis” in the movie “Bull Durham” – a player of considerable accomplishment at the next tier level. In ten AHL seasons he would put together a career that would leave him today the 14th leading goal scorer in AHL history, 11th in assists, and 11th in total points. He was a 100-point scorer for five different teams in three different leagues, and is the eighth all-time leading scorer in minor league hockey history.

After finishing his playing career, Boudreau turned to coaching, and his success mirrored that of his playing days. And that wasn’t entirely a good thing. Starting in the 1993-1994 season with the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League, Boudreau would have an almost uninterrupted string of accomplishments. In 12 full seasons of coaching in the International Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League, and the American Hockey League:

- He would have 11 seasons of finishing .500 or better.

- He would lead 11 teams to his league’s playoffs.

- He would win 40 or more games seven times.

- He would lead four teams to his league’s championship finals.

- He would win two championships – with the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL and with the Hershey Bears of the AHL.

- He would lead the Hershey Bears to consecutive trips to the league championship series in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007.

However, that added up to close to 1,000 regular season games behind the benches of teams in three different minor leagues (and almost 500 wins) with no indication that there was an NHL bench to patrol in his future. The opportunity would come when the Capitals, who had endured two difficult years after the lockout, were thought be some to be a potential dark horse playoff contender in 2007-2008. The Caps, however, didn’t just stumble out of the gate, they did a full face plant right in the middle of the track. They were 6-13-1 in their first 20 games going into a Thanksgiving-eve game against the Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers beat and beat up their hosts in as ugly a 5-1 loss as ugly as one would want to see.

A change had to be made to save some dignity for a season that in all likelihood had already been lost. So, the club relieved Glen Hanlon of his coaching responsibilities and gave Bruce Boudreau his long-coming first opportunity behind an NHL bench... a 6-14-1 team made up of youngsters and guys who were underachieving, mixed in with a recent experience of persistent losing. Oh, and your title has the word “interim” attached to it – good luck, Bruce.

It looked like a great move right off the bat as the Caps stormed out to a 3-0 lead against the Flyers in Philadelphia on the day after Thanksgiving. Not so fast… the Flyers did some storming of their own to tie the game late in the third period, but an overtime goal by rookie Nicklas Backstrom won the game for Boudreau. The new “interim” coach would improve on the Caps record in his first month on the job, but a 7-5-3 record from Thanksgiving to Christmas wasn’t dominating.

2008 would be another matter.

From January 1st through the end of the season, Boudreau managed the enterprise to a 28-12-3 finish, including an 11-1-0 record in the last half dozen games to clinch the first playoff spot for the Caps since the 2002-2003 season. Establishing a style that took advantage of the energy, skill, and talent in his young team, rather than stifling it under a defense-first system more reminiscent of the pre-lockout favored style, Boudreau’s team was as entertaining to watch as it was successful.

Boudreau was a favorite in other respects as well among fans for his plain-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is personal style. That he had the look of a somewhat rumpled, sartorially challenged coach who spent more than his share of time at the rink (we can identify with the rumpled part – we shop in that section of the men’s store) only added to his charm. His nickname – “Gabby” – was a product of his gift of gab. This was a hockey guy through and through.

His success in leading the Caps to the fantastic finish earned him a somewhat surprising, although entirely deserved selection as the Jack Adams Award winner for the 2007-2008 season as the league’s top coach. That success would hardly seem to have changed him. He still had the look of a hands-on, teaching sort of coach in running the Caps’ prospects through the summer development camp, and he even took a turn volunteering at the Hockey Resume Free Agent Camp in Canada in July (he would crack that he did it so his son wouldn’t have to pay…we’re not buying it, not entirely, anyway).

Boudreau then picked up more or less where he left off – leading a talented, if precocious team to a successful start to the season. With one game to go in calendar 2008, Boudreau has a 51-23-6 record. From being a high-scoring amateur to a somewhat unfulfilled professional career as a player, to years of toil and travel through the minor leagues of North America as a coach, he found himself – finally – behind an NHL bench when a lot of other coaches in his situation would simply have given up that dream. He made the most of his opportunity with a stern word here, a twinkle in his eye there, a well-place quip and a talent for coaching youngsters that was sorely needed in these parts. His year was truly “Capraesque” in the triumph of the underdog and was one of the top stories for the Caps in 2008.

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