After winning the Cup in 2004, the Lightning sank into a deep funk. New ownership, a new G.M. and, above all, an innovative, cerebral new coach have made the franchise the surprise of the postseason
This is an article from the May 16, 2011 issue
Guy Boucher prefers not to share the story behind the L-shaped scar on the right side of his face. Unfortunately for the first-year coach of the Lightning—a Quebec native whose name is pronounced GEE Boo-SHAY—the word is out in cyberspace. One Bolts fan has it on good authority that many summers ago the coach was hit in the face with a brick while working construction.
Check that. A different account has Boucher cutting himself with his father's hunting knife on a long-ago camping trip. In point of fact, claims a dissenting blogger, Boucher was scratched by a cat; the cut became infected. Wrong animal, ripostes another denizen of the Interwebs, who reports that the poor fellow was mauled by a dog.
Boucher and his wife, Marsha, have an eight-year-old son, Vincent, and seven-year-old twins, Mila and Naomi. To avoid frightening them, he explains, he would prefer not to reveal how he cut his face until his kids are a few years older. With so many bogus stories swirling around, the issue is now hopelessly clouded. In other words, Boucher wins.
He and Tampa Bay have done nothing but win since April 20. They lost that night to the Penguins, who must have felt pretty good about their chances of getting to the next round of the playoffs, having just taken a 3--1 lead in that Eastern Conference quarterfinal. What followed has been the most stunning run of this NHL postseason. After beating the Pens in three straight games—outscoring them 13--4 in the process—the fifth-seeded Lightning moved on to a more daunting foe, the swift-skating, newly disciplined Capitals, the East's top team and a Stanley Cup favorite.
Yes, Tampa boasts an All-Star trio of forwards in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. But after the Big Three (and the sparkling play of wiry 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson), the drop-off in talent is, well, rather abrupt. Not that Boucher's players noticed against Washington. Executing to near perfection his futuristic 1-3-1 scheme, a kind of neutral zone trap on steroids (page 51), the less talented but more cohesive Lightning dispatched the top-seeded Caps in four games. One vignette summed up the series. With just a little more than seven minutes to play in Game 4—the home fans chanting "Sweep!"—Tampa winger Sean Bergenheim pounced on a turnover, then ripped a wrist shot at Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth, who made the save. As Bergenheim hovered, hoping for a rebound, he was cross-checked by Alex Ovechkin, whose face was a mask of frustration. After the whistle the pair stood glowering at one another: the captain of the NHL's most disappointing team in a stare-down with the most surprising player on its most surprising team.
Having selected Bergenheim in the first round of the 2002 entry draft, the Islanders officially gave up on him last July. A month later Tampa announced, to minimal fanfare, that it had signed him to a one-year deal. First-year general manager Steve Yzerman wanted Bergenheim, now 27, to grind on the third line, to annoy on the forecheck and to kill penalties. Yzerman harbored no illusions that he was importing a sniper.
Tell that to Neuvirth. Bergenheim beat the Caps rookie four times in the series. After scoring 54 goals in 326 games over six NHL seasons, the soft-spoken Finn has now scored seven times in 11 games this postseason. His emergence is no less surprising than the improbable resurgence of the Lightning. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004, but its decline under the 20-month stewardship of co-owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules was steep and spectacular. (The Lightning won an NHL-low 24 games in 2008--09.) In early 2010 they sold the team to Jeff Vinik, a Massachusetts hedge fund manager—and a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox—who restored a large measure of the franchise's dignity by bringing in Yzerman, the classy ex--Detroit Red Wing and Hall of Famer who has made a series of unerring decisions. None was more spot-on, it seems, than his conclusion that despite Boucher's youth (at 39, he's the league's youngest head coach) and lack of NHL experience, the engaging extrovert with the arresting scar and XXL intellect would make a terrific coach at this level.
Right after I got here," Roloson was saying last week, after having handcuffed the Capitals for the fourth game in a row, "I would close my eyes when Guy was talking, and I would hear Jacques Lemaire." Roloson was acquired by Yzerman in a January trade. He played for the since retired Lemaire—an X's-and-O's innovator who popularized the neutral zone trap while leading the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 1994--95—when they were both with the Minnesota Wild from 2001 to '06. "The way Guy sees the game, thinks the game, he's not afraid to do something that nobody's ever done before, and Jacques was the same way."
"The NHL is a little bit of an old-boys' network," says a veteran scout. "A lot of coaches recycle the same old ideas. But [Boucher] isn't afraid to think for himself. He doesn't care what people think."
Boucher grew up in a household where risk-taking was encouraged and expected. His father, Wilfrid, was a highly educated man, an actuary who insisted that his three children "follow their passion," says Guy. Hanging in his office is a dreamy, whimsical oil painting of a Lighting player sitting on the ice, his back against the boards, left arm draped around the Stanley Cup. It is the work of his younger sister Marie-Claude Boucher, whose art has been exhibited throughout Europe and who is regarded as one of Canada's top painters. Her twin, Lucie, a teacher, is also a gifted artist.
Wilfrid succumbed to bone cancer in 1989, when his son was 17. Six months later his mother, Solange, told him that she, too, had cancer. She beat it. "My mom's extremely tough," says Guy. "We took a lot from our parents. We're fighters."
Boucher earned an academic scholarship to prestigious McGill University in Montreal. While working toward degrees in history and biosystems engineering, he played center for the Redmen from 1991 to '95. In his final season he was coached by Martin Raymond, now one of his assistants in Tampa. Raymond remembers his former charge as "a small, fast, shifty skater who played with a lot of creativity offensively."
Raymond's co--head coach was Jamie Kompon, now an assistant with the Kings. Kompon recalls Boucher's focus and intensity. "Sometimes we had to remind him, 'Guy, this is your release. It's O.K. to have fun.'"
After college Boucher played a season in France. A mysterious virus made him ill for a year and a half, putting an end to his playing career. Boucher turned to coaching, joining Raymond's staff at McGill in 1997, then went back to school—this time to the Université de Montréal, where he began studying sports psychology in 2000. "It was an amazing feeling to be in class," he recalls, "and thinking, 'So that's why that didn't work [when I was coaching]', or 'That's why that worked.' It clarified a lot of things. It gave me a lot of tools."
He put those tools to excellent use. In 2008--09, in his third season as coach of the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he took the Volts from worst to first in the standings, improving 79 points over the previous season and coaching the club to the first league championship in its history. He duplicated that success in his first season in pro hockey, as head coach of the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs in 2009--10. Despite making do without many of his best players—who were often called up to the parent club, the Montreal Canadiens—Boucher coached Hamilton to a 115-point season and the third round of the playoffs.
"It's not just that he won a lot," notes Julien BriseBois, the Bulldogs' general manager who hired Boucher in 2009. (BriseBois is now an assistant G.M. with the Lightning.) "It was how much our players progressed throughout that season." That held true, says BriseBois, for everyone from star-of-the-future P.K. Subban, now in Montreal, to journeyman, stay-at-home defenseman Alex Henry. "[Henry's] skating got better, his puckhandling got better," says BriseBois.
"A lot of people talk about the 1-3-1," says Raymond, "but I think Guy's people skills are his biggest asset." One of those skills, says Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer, is that Boucher knows when to stop talking. "I noticed—actually my wife noticed it first—" he says, "that Guy is a great listener."
"I don't coach systems; I coach people," says Boucher, who does a deep dive into the lives of each of his players in an attempt to find out what makes them tick, how best to motivate them. And, all those years after his college coaches told him it was O.K. to have some fun in the sport, he's taken that message to heart. After playoff wins over the Manitoba Moose, recalls Andlauer, Boucher invited players to take a sledgehammer to miniature ceramic moose figurines.
J. Edgar Hoover passed away in 1972, so this keg-shaped man boarding the elevator to the press box at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa must be ... Scotty Bowman! And so it is. The winningest coach in NHL history has a house in nearby Sarasota and is a frequent guest of the Lightning. Yzerman, of course, won a Cup under Bowman in 2002. Bowman retired from coaching immediately thereafter and these days is looking more tanned and relaxed than he did during his years behind the bench. Renowned as an innovator in his own right—remember the left-wing lock?—Bowman has taken a special interest in Boucher. They've had some long conversations, Bowman said before Game 3 against the Capitals. "And I've been impressed. Just from the kinds of questions he asked me, I could tell he's ... different."
The main difference between them, other than the nine Cups won by Bowman as a coach, is generational. Whereas Bowman was not interested in a dialogue, recalls Yzerman, "[Guy] wants the player to know what he's thinking, and to know what that player is thinking."
Going into Game 3 against the Lightning, Washington was 31-0-3 when taking a lead into the third period. Coming out of it, they were 31-1-3. Stamkos and Ryan Malone scored 24 seconds apart to wipe out a 3--2 Capitals lead. In a press conference paean to Stamkos, Boucher veered into a testimonial to the grit of a fourth-line winger named Blair Jones, who had gone pointless in a club-low 5:59 of ice time but whose play was "outstanding" and "instrumental."
This is typical. Asked about his propensity to give props to the team's lesser lights—to sing the praises of a No-Name du Jour—Boucher allowed himself a thin smile. "This time of year especially, everyone's important. We need everyone."
Tampa Bay is in the NHL's final four because it's getting big contributions from everyone. This time of year, points out Kompon, the L.A. assistant, the systems teams are running are less important than how crisply they're running them. More impressive than the Lightning's 1-3-1, he says, "is how well they execute it. I mean, Guy has everyone on board. And that's a tribute to him."
Making a similar point was Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who paid Tampa this compliment: "They have a system, and you don't see one guy doing anything different, anytime." No freelancing, in other words—no "river hockey," to borrow the phrase used by Washington coach Bruce Boudreau to describe his team's far less disciplined play in its 4--2, come-from-ahead Game 1 loss. The Capitals had entered the playoffs trumpeting their more defensive, trapping style. They exited early in large part because when the going got tough, their players abandoned it.
"Right now, in my eyes, [the Lightning has] got a really good shot at winning everything," Alzner added. "Teams are going to have to outwork 'em, and when they do, Roloson's waiting for them."
Up next for Boucher's band of overachievers: the big, bad Bruins. For Tampa Bay, trips to Beantown have tended to be the hockey equivalent of checking into the Bates Motel. In its 18-year history the club has played in Boston 35 times, winning just four of those games. The Lightning is on the small side, as NHL teams go—their leading playoff scorer, pint-sized winger Martin St. Louis, stands 5'8". Boston's corps of defensemen, meanwhile, led by 6'9" Zdeno Chara, is huge, physical and ill-tempered. Only one team allowed fewer goals this season.
Count on Boucher, the sports psychologist, to accentuate the positive: The Lightning hold a decided edge in special teams, having killed penalties more efficiently and outscored the Bruins in power-play goals during the postseason 12--2.
Postsweep, Boucher stood at the entrance to the locker room, watching his players' somewhat muted celebration. "It's a revival," he declared. "The revival of an organization." If he was feeling overjoyed or euphoric to find himself in the Eastern Conference final as a rookie head coach, he hid it well. "My job is to stay levelheaded," he said.
If Boucher stays levelheaded, there's an excellent chance that hockey fans in Tampa will get another Cup before they find out how he got that scar.