Q&A: Bruce Boudreau on how his up-and-down hockey career taught him to be a good coach

Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has seen it all during his time in hockey. From his time going up and down the pro ranks to becoming one of the league's most successful coaches, he learned that it's never easy.
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ST. PAUL, Minn.—Bruce Boudreau could use some chocolate. A Snickers or Mr. Goodbar, maybe, to fix the midday munchies. Under ordinary circumstances he would just hit up “the connection of all connections,” an old friend from Hershey, Pa., who oversees North American distribution for the candy conglomerate and ships the occasional box to Xcel Energy Center. But the friend hasn’t bothered calling lately. Boudreau thinks he knows why. As he tells the small crowd outside the Minnesota Wild dressing room after practice last week, the head coach figures the radio silence has something to do with how his team has been playing.

A few minutes later, after team operations manager Andrew Heydt returns with a delectable-looking Swiss bar apparently plucked from some secret arena sugar stash, Boudreau retreats into his office, sits down and digs in. At the beginning of March, the Wild held a three-point lead on the Western Conference and were just three points behind Washington for the league league. Now, three days before the end of a miserable month, they trailed Chicago by nine points in the Central Division, a Minnesota mile away from the Capitals.

On a counter near the door, Boudreau had stacked photocopies of Pat Riley’s book, The Wnner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players, specifically a chapter about selfishness that Riley calls, “The Disease of Me.” He loves plucking wisdom from famous sports figures; when Wild players returned downtown for training camp, they found quotes from Muhammad Ali, John Wooden, Vince Lombardi and others above their locker stalls. And since Boudreau periodically holds individual meetings with Wild players throughout the season anyway, and since Minnesota just lost for the ninth time in 10 games, the group scheduled for today will get some homework.

“Very similar to what we’re going through right now,” Boudreau says. “I told them to read it. We’ll see how it works out. If they understand that we didn’t get anywhere until we started not caring who got the credit...we were really successful the first 60 games. Then all of a sudden everybody starts looking at their numbers and going, man, I could do this, I could do that. Then we don’t do as well and it’s the Disease of Me. It’s a tough thing not to get into. It is what it is.”

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He understands. Boudreau felt infected during his playing career, when he hopscotched between minor-league cities and never quite worked hard enough to realize his full potential. The guy called “Gabby” blossomed into a wonderful bench boss, of course—the 2008 Jack Adams winner, after his debut NHL season; fastest in league history to 400 wins; owner of seven straight 100-point seasons; and, as any nearby reporter will attest, an endless treasure trove of wit, wisdom, and unfiltered...well, gab.


Alex Prewitt: Big question. How did you learn how to teach?

Bruce Boudreau: How did I learn how to teach? [long pause and, briefly, the sound of crinkling chocolate foil] I think the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’ve told a lot of people this, and it’s in hindsight the best thing is not to have made it as a full-time player in the NHL.When you have to work hard, just to stay in the game. If I’d played regularly in the NHL, I probably would’ve taken a lot of things for granted and not learned as much as I had to do when you were in the minors. 

When you’re getting called up, getting sent down, seeing the effects of different players all over the place in different situations, whether it’s getting released, getting called up, getting sent down, that’s how you become a leader and a communicator. I played 17 years and saw pretty well everything that can happen, I think, in hockey, from guys going into rehab to guys partying too much to guys being first-round picks that were duds. I can’t retain too much outside hockey. But I pretty well retain that I’ve seen. I don’t know how that works.

As a coach, my job is to find everybody’s Achilles’ heel and use that against them. Sometimes you can fine guys. For other guys, money doesn’t mean anything to them. For some guys, embarrassing them in public is the worst thing you can do. Other guys couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Some guys, they come to the bench and they’re playing terrible, you can yell at some guys. Some guys you can’t and you’ve got to take by the hand and say, I need you tonight, I need you tonight, you’ve got to play better.

AP: What worked on you?

BB: If a coach came to me and said, ‘I need you tonight, you’re my best player,’ I would want to play for him so badly. The other thing that always worked with me is if you said I couldn’t do something. It doesn’t happen in today’s world where you’d say, ‘Yeah, f--- you, I’ll show you.’ I either felt like I was such an important cog that I’m going to let the team down or, ‘To hell with you, you don’t think I can do it,’  just to prove you’re wrong. 

The one thing you didn’t want that was bad for me was when I got too much praise, then I took things lightly. That’s why I didn’t play in the NHL for long enough. I was a good player, but I got there and thought I made it. I didn’t realize you’ve got to work twice as hard to stay there. But I didn’t. I was like, I made the NHL. If I had known what I know now, I would have still been there.

AP: Did you get the Disease of Me?

BB: A lot of it. I thought I was great, then you stop working, and when you stop working nothing good happens. I remember, we’re talking in the ‘70s, we had a great player in Toronto named Darryl Sittler. He caught me coming off the ice early one day. He came chasing after me and grabbed me and he said, ‘Who the f--- do you think you are?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I’m the best player on the team, and I’m the first man out there in practice and I’m still on the ice, I’m the last guy off the ice. You’re a guy who just got called up and you leave now? You’ve got work to do. Get out there and learn your craft.’ That really struck a chord with me. I still remember it. It took me a couple years to realize that. And by the time I realized that, I wasn’t classified as a prospect anymore. But it stayed with me to my coaching.

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My wife gives me s--- that I couldn’t remember to bring home groceries on any single day. But she says, ‘You can remember every stinking golf shot you’ve ever had, every goal you ever scored.’ I go, ‘I don’t know why that happens. Those are the things that interest me.’

AP: That’s just how you’re wired?

BB: It is. Unfortunately, and I think it’s sometimes unfortunately, I don’t allow myself to have another part of life. Tonight, we’ll watch every game that’s on TV, and we’ll think about the game tomorrow, do the game. At night, we’ll come home and watch all the highlights and go to bed. And this is repeated and repeated and repeated, and it’s repeated every day.

AP: When you’re watching with home, is it with a coaching eye, or just as a fan?

BB: It’s with a coaching eye. I don’t watch it as the entertainment of the game. I watch it for systems and stuff. For the most part, most teams do most of the things the same. Every now and again, there’s something different. But a lot of it is just skill. I think we’ve got a good team, but I watched Washington last night [a 5-4 Wild overtime loss] and we don’t have anybody on our team that can take a one-time pass like Ovechkin and put it in the net. [The Capitals' captain had a hat trick, all on the power play.]

The funny thing about that is, I appreciate it so much more watching him now than in Washington. Because he did it all the time. You just thought that’s what happens. You get numb. Everybody’s calling it a great play? It was just Alex shooting the puck. But watching when you don’t see him all the time, you go, ‘Are you friggin kidding me? He can do that?’ I went up to one of our defensemen on the power play today and I said, ‘Why don’t you, instead of stopping the puck and trying to make a fancy play when it comes to you, why don’t you just one-time it like Ovi did last night?’ He said, ‘I can’t!’ Pretty simple answer, but it’s pretty smart. This guy’s a special human.

AP: Do you ever have to dial it back because you care too much?

BB: Yeah, yeah I do. We’ve had a couple games here I’ve had to just, really, I so get involved with it I have to pull myself back. After the Winnipeg game [a 5-4 loss on March 19, Minnesota’s fifth straight defeat in regulation], I couldn’t talk to the press. I just knew I was going to say something that I didn’t want to say. Unfortunately I’m not a politician. I usually just say what comes to my mouth. I’ve told them twice this year, ‘I don’t know what’s coming out right now, I’m just going to start talking.’ I go blank, sort of. My team in Mississippi, I’m pulling them in there and I’m saying the cliche, ‘You’ve got to take the bull by the horns.’ Instead I said, ‘You’ve got to take the cow by the head.’ Guys all start laughing. I’m going, ‘What the f---? Oh, I’m an idiot.’ I think they appreciate the fact that it’s from the heart.

AP: It can be humanizing when passion results in comedy like that, I guess.

BB: We were at one place and I was getting wound up and going, and I had to sneeze. So I go, hold on a minute, I had

 to look at a light and sneeze. That sort of broke the ice. It’s what a normal guy would do. You don’t picture that sometimes.

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AP: What did you like about collecting comics?

BB: I just liked being the best at everything. That’s the one thing I’ll say before we end this thing. Everything I’ve ever wanted to do, I wanted to be the best at. And so the kids in the neighborhood started collecting comics in about ‘66, ‘67. And Marvel had just started coming out in the early’ 60s with Spiderman. And then we’d collect them all, and who’d get the best collection? I had every Marvel going from 1970 and up. Fantastic Four, Avengers, even the initial X-Men. I had all of them. Then Giant-Man and Ant-Man and Iron Man were in different magazines. They didn’t really have their own until 1970. That’s when Peter Parker came in. I could get talking nerdy comics all the time. 

The other thing I collected was Sports Illustrated. I had every Sports Illustrated from 1960 until 1995. And when I lived in Mississippi, we had Hurricane Georges [in 1998], and all of them were in boxes in the garage. The bottoms got wet, so I was on the road, and my wife threw them out because they were all wet. Wasn’t a happy moment in the Boudreau household.

AP: How’d you go about collecting all these? Were you just saving up your money?

BB: They were 10 cents, and then you’d trade. I remember having Thor’s Journey Into Mystery No. 83, and somebody offered me 20 Daredevils for it. So I went, ‘That’s awesome, I’m getting 20,’ so you trade 20 Daredevils for the Thor not realizing how much money that one was going to be worth in the future. It’s like American Pickers. I remember getting Thor No. 1 because someone knew I collected comics and we went up into their attic, a grandmother, I got a ton of them. She said, ‘Oh we have all these old ones, do you want them?’ I took them all, and then Thor No. 1 was in there.

AP: So you were hustling.

BB: Oh yeah, we hustled, we traded, we did all those things. If you got a buck, you could buy seven comics. So we’d all go on our bikes every Saturday, down in the middle of Toronto, and it was about a seven-mile bike ride. They all had the new comics out every week, because they were all staggered. They wouldn’t have all the Marvels come out on the first of the month. Some would come the first week, second week, third week. We’d go up there, take our money. We played cards all the time for everything. It was just a competitive group of kids I grew up with.

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AP: And you just had to win.

BB: Had to win. Had to. Ask my wife. If we’re playing Scrabble, if I’m losing, I’m cheating. When she turns her back, if I need a tile, I’m grabbing it. She always beats me, but I cheat to win. That’s why she doesn’t let me keep score. But I just think, I was really lucky. Before 20, I never lost anything. Our baseball teams won all the Canadian championships, I had two Canadian hockey championships, everything came so easy to me. That’s probably why I thought the NHL was an easy thing and I should be there and I didn’t work at it and had too much fun.