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A thousand games, a million memories

by John Walton || AHL On The Beat Archive

On Wednesday night, Hershey Bears head coach Bruce Boudreau will coach his 1,000th professional game when the Portland Pirates come to Giant Center. For the Toronto native, it’s been a journey filled with success since his playing days came to a close.

Boudreau has coached in the old Colonial Hockey League, the now defunct International Hockey League and the ECHL, and is currently the victories leader among active coaches in the American Hockey League with 311.

The wins, the championships and the bus rides are all part of the big dream for Boudreau. A player with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks, Boudreau would love the chance to return to the NHL as a head coach.

“I’ll always have that dream (of coaching in the NHL). Whether it happens or not, the dream is always there, but sometimes you don’t have control over it. When I was a player at 38 years old, I thought I could still play in the National Hockey League because I still had the dream. The dream of being back there is the carrot out in front of you that keeps you going.”

Boudreau’s resume is one of championships and wins by the truckload:

Forty-one wins and an ECHL Kelly Cup championship with Mississippi in 1999.

Fifty-one wins in a single season with Manchester in 2004-05.

Forty-four more wins and a Calder Cup championship in Hershey in 2006.

Only one season since 1996 has a team coached by Boudreau even finished under .500.

He has averaged over 40 wins a season since becoming an American Hockey League head coach in 1999.

While the wins have been great, Boudreau says it’s the championships that are especially sweet.

“Any championship you win is fabulous, and the higher the level you go and the more important part you played in winning, I think that makes it all the more special,” Boudreau said. “Winning in the East Coast League (with Mississippi in 1999) was great, but winning at the next level last season was even better. Now, the next step would be to win at the NHL level, and if you’re lucky to be a part of something like that and winning the Stanley Cup, I think that would be even greater still.”

Does each championship have it’s own special feel, or is it different every time? For Boudreau, winning is winning.

“All of them have been fabulous experiences, but it sure makes you want to win all the time.”

A terrific amateur player who once put up 165 points in a single season in the Ontario Hockey League, Boudreau has certainly met his share of hockey people in his long career both as a player and coach. An outgoing personality who comes by the nickname “Gabby” rather easily, he has certainly had no problem making and keeping friends along the way.

“From a coaching standpoint, Andy Murray (former Los Angeles Kings head coach) has had the biggest influence on me, my coaching style and how I handle things. A few years ago, there were so many good people in the L.A. organization, like Bill O’Flaherty and Andy Nowicki. Both of them and many others meant a great deal to me. John Anderson (Chicago Wolves head coach) has been a terrific friend; he and I talk all the time about all kinds of things. We talk about coaching issues and we’re a great sounding board for each other.”

During a stay in the American Hockey League that saw him pile up nearly 800 points, Boudreau played with the old Nova Scotia Oilers, Springfield Indians, Newmarket Saints and Baltimore Skipjacks among others. He certainly has kept up his ties with the friends he’s met in that time. For instance, he came across current Springfield Falcons president/GM Bruce Landon during his time with the Indians.

“Bruce helped me get my first job in the ECHL; he’s always been in my corner. Now that I’ve been in Hershey, Doug (Yingst, Hershey’s President/GM) and everyone else here has been terrific to me and my family, and have been great to work with. It’s easy when you work with good people who understand where your mindset is, and it becomes an easy working situation.”

With a coaching resume at the AHL level that includes Lowell, Manchester and now Hershey, it’s been many more ups than downs for the former third round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“If you can be proud of anything, sometimes it’s longevity. Right now, it’s my 32nd year in the business, and I’ve been involved in over 2,500 games as a player or coach. I think it’s a pretty cool thing.”

With the wins and championships come world-class players, although the biggest and most rewarding part for Boudreau has been getting in on the ground floor and watching “his boys” become stars of tomorrow.

“I’ve been very lucky to have been around some great hockey players during my coaching career,” Boudreau said. “We had Roberto Luongo and Eric Brewer with us when I was in Lowell first starting out in the AHL, and both were very exciting players. I had Mike Cammalleri, Dustin Brown, Tim Gleason, Mike Weaver and Tom Kostopoulos in Manchester, and they were so great to be around.

“When you start naming guys, you’re always going to leave a bunch of guys out, but those are some of the guys I remember in the AHL in years past. Andreas Lilja, and Joe Corvo are two others. When you see these guys blossom into NHL stars from where they started, it makes you feel pretty proud inside.”

A couple of players that Boudreau singled out were Jerred Smithson, now with the Nashville Predators, and Dave Steckel, who helped Hershey win last year’s Calder Cup.

Jerred Smithson wasn’t given a ghost of a chance of making it. I coached him for three years, and to watch him develop and become a real energy player for the Predators makes you proud. It’s good to see good people become good players.

“Stecks is a special guy; I’ve coached him for three seasons now. He’s on the verge of being a checking center, or a stopper as I like to call him, that scores 30 goals in a season. To watch his growth from his rookie year in Manchester to now has been great to see.”

Moving from town to town is something that Boudreau knows a lot about. A playing career that had him crossing the North American continent through the 1980’s and 1990’s, he knows the hard times of picking up and moving on when the time comes. In typical Boudreau fashion, however, he takes it in stride.

“It’s all attitude,” Boudreau says. “I loved it in Manchester. It’s the longest time that I lived in one place in my career, and in five years, you make some tremendous friends both in and outside of hockey. You don’t know what it’s going to be like moving somewhere new, but in coming to Hershey, you find new friends and people you wouldn’t have known otherwise.

“I’ve found that people are great everywhere. Now that I’m with the Bears, I wouldn’t trade this for anything. Even previous to that (Manchester), when I was with Mississippi and living in Biloxi, I have nothing but great memories of my time there and we still have friends we visit. It is what you make of it, but I’ve been very lucky with the cities I’ve called home over the years.”

The Bears won the 2006 Calder Cup, and did so with a stable full of top draft picks provided by the Washington Capitals. The Bears are in contention again this season with a new crop of talent, but Boudreau keeps close tabs on the guys playing this season in Washington D.C.

“Guys who were here last year, like Eric Fehr and Mike Green. Watching the minutes they log for Washington and seeing the success they are having is terrific. These are the things that make coaches want to coach, to watch guys coming up through the system and go on to bigger and better things.”

As for Boudreau, the NHL still looms in his thoughts, and he hopes that one day he has a chance to stand on the bench in the greatest league in the world and coach for a chance at the Stanley Cup. Just like all his players that have won so many games playing for him over the years, he too has high hopes for the future. His track record has been one of winning, and one of championships. For Boudreau, it’s all about getting that one chance to prove it at the next level.

“I’ll always have the dream,” he says. “I hope I have the opportunity.”