Battle was all they did

by Lindsay Kramer | Syracuse Post-Standard

Twenty-four years have softened the sharpness of Bruce Boudreau‘s elbow and the ache in Ross Yates‘ mouth.

yates_200.jpgBoudreau wants Yates to know that it was an accident back in 1982-83, when, while playing for St. Catharines, he popped Binghamton Whalers star Yates in the mouth. The elbow, which loosened several of Yates’ teeth, was merely thrown in self-defense.

"He was going to run me. I was a small player, I had protect myself," said Boudreau, now head coach of the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears.

"I would have done the same thing if I was him," said Yates, now a first-year head coach of the Syracuse Crunch.

Such mellowing between the men – whose teams meet tonight in the Onondaga County War Memorial – belies the sparks that flew between them as rivals in the greatest scoring race in AHL history. In that 1982-83 season, Yates yanked the crown away from Boudreau by a points total of 125-122, with both players surpassing the AHL season record at the time.

Yates clinched the honor when, nursing a rib injury on the last day of the season, he admittedly cherry-picked his way to three assists on the power play. It was one final twist between two combative centers who, at the time, readily showed their disdain for each other on the ice.

"I didn’t like him. I’m sure he didn’t like me," said Yates, 47.

"We weren’t friendly on the ice. It was a matter of pride," said Boudreau, 51. "We had quite a rivalry. The bugger beat me in the scoring race."

To understand the heat between the pair, you had to go beyond their skills and start with their mouths. Boudreau was so chirpy that his nickname was "Gabby." Yates, too, had a biting tongue, one that he wielded like a stick.

"Oh, he loved to chirp, yeah. He certainly is a confident individual, and as far back as I can remember has always been," said Binghamton Whalers linemate Dan Fridgen. "He could get into a one-liner battle with the best of them."

And the barbs didn’t even need to pertain to hockey. Whalers teammate Ken Holland, now general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, remembers he and Yates pouring money into the Pac-Man machine in the Holiday Inn across from Binghamton’s arena.

"My recollection is I was a little better. He probably has a different recollection," Holland said. "He was never at a loss for words. That’s what’s fun about Ross. He was a great competitor. He always had a gift for taunting."

Yates and Boudreau were skill players who usually left the animosity at that, but they went at each other so hard that sometimes the tension overflowed. Boudreau remembered the elbow in question as a response to Yates getting up a head of steam and taking a cross-ice run at him.

"Then he jumped me, and he got five and a gamer. I was thinking, all right, he’s out of the game," Boudreau said. "But I stunk that game. He obviously rattled me, because I was horrible the rest of the game."

Sitting in his office in the Onondaga County War Memorial, Yates joked that the injury to his mouth was a reflection of how fast he was skating toward his target. Then the competitiveness flared up when asked about the ensuing fight.

"I went crazy on him," Yates said. "He turtled. Put that in the paper."

Yates and Boudreau counter-punched in the points column for most of the season. On Dec. 26, Boudreau led Yates 58-37. But in eight games from Dec. 28 to Jan. 13, Yates ran off seven goals and 20 assists to draw within 70-64.

"I thought the game well, and I knew where my teammates were," Yates said. "I had a really good second half that year."

boudreau_200.jpgBoudreau said he remembers getting up in the morning, seeing that Yates had another two- or three-point night, and just shaking his head.

"Every day I’m looking, he’s getting closer and closer," Boudreau said. "I’m getting nervous, grabbing the stick a little tighter. It was something that was on my mind. I’m a pretty stat-freaky guy."

On March 29, Yates played in the 76th game of his team’s 80-game season. He posted a goal and three assists against Hershey to push his total to 122 points, five ahead of Boudreau.

Yates had a painful rib injury and sat out games 77, 78 and 79. Boudreau came up with one goal and one assist total in games 78 and 79 to pull within three points heading into the final contest of the year.

Yates said he was prepared to sit out that game against Springfield. He said his coach at the time, Rick Ley, persuaded him to just take power-play shifts, and Yates converted that into the three helpers to put his final total at 125.

"I could barely shoot," Yates recalled. "I just passed to the side and got lucky."

Boudreau played later that evening, posting a hat trick against Rochester. It wasn’t enough. The final tally was 41 goals and 84 assists for Yates and 50-72 for Boudreau. Yates won the MVP that season, and the points totals of the two players still stand as the fifth- and seventh-highest in AHL history.

The careers of the two players veered wildly after that. Boudreau went on to play 141 games in the NHL. Yates, who never was drafted, tried to use his season for the ages as a springboard to do the same.

He went to parent club Hartford’s training camp in 1983-84 and was thrown into a tumult when doctors thought a spot on his chest X-ray was a sign of Hodgkins Disease. It wasn’t – it was just an enlarged lymph node – but while Yates was in the hospital, the coldness of the business cross-checked him when he picked up the paper to see Hartford had acquired center Greg Malone to take his spot.

Yates still squeezed out seven games with Hartford that season, the full extent of his NHL career. But he spent most of that season with Binghamton again, posting 108 points in 68 games.

By his own admission, Yates was a step slow for the NHL. There was little interest in him after 1984, so he headed to Europe, where he began a long career as a player and a head coach.

"Ah, bitter? I don’t know," Yates said. "The odd time you think, if you tried with another organization, I might have got a break. I ended up going to Europe, saw an enormous amount of the world doing it. I’m happy with the way things turned out. I’m looking forward, not back."

Boudreau won the 1987-88 AHL scoring title with Springfield and ranks 11th all-time in AHL scoring with 799 points. He’s been the head coach of three AHL teams and directed Hershey to the title last season.

Yates was an assistant for Syracuse the last six seasons, but apart from coaching against Boudreau has run into him only once, at an NHL draft. The two are diplomatic when asked about each other, but never had the chance to develop a relationship beyond mutual respect.

"Hey, he’s the Calder Cup champion, eh?" Yates said of Boudreau. "He’s done a good job."

Boudreau was asked what he might say to Yates if he got a quiet moment with him on Saturday.

"The first thing I’d do is congratulate him on getting a head coach job," Boudreau said. "If players had hard feelings when they played against each other, boy, nobody would talk to each other and you wouldn’t have any friends in hockey. He’s probably a great guy."

This story appeared in Thursday’s editions of the Syracuse Post-Standard