Boudreau putting down roots in Hershey

Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

📝 by Patrick Williams

With a few days off during the National Hockey League’s All-Star break, where else would Bruce Boudreau be but Hershey?

And what else would Boudreau be doing but watching hockey and holding court talking hockey?

The 67-year-old Boudreau coached his 1,000th NHL game Jan. 23 and is now 581-308-119 in stints with the Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild, and now the Vancouver Canucks. Hired by Vancouver on Dec. 5, his bench work has pulled the Canucks back into contention for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Vancouver took a critical 3-2 win against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night behind 51 saves from AHL graduate Thatcher Demko.

“I love it,” Boudreau said of his start in Vancouver. “The players and the management, they’re treating me great, and it’s just really great to be back behind the bench. It’s my 30th year coaching, and you really miss being in the battle, no matter when you retire. Or you’re not working when you’ve been in hockey all your life, being in the battle with the group.

“That’s the thing you miss most, and so it’s really good to be back there and doing that.”

Back in his first NHL campaign that began that road to 1,000 games, Boudreau won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach following his promotion from Hershey to an interim head-coaching post in Washington on Nov. 22, 2007. Washington held a 6-14-1 mark when Boudreau stepped behind the bench; the Capitals went on to win the Southeast Division title and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

Even in a career that goes far enough back to include time with the original Toronto Marlboros in 1972, a spot in the World Hockey Association, and a movie cameo in Slap Shot, that Jan. 23 game moved Boudreau.

“That was a pretty special time, special night that they did,” Boudreau said of coaching his 1,000th NHL game. “You know, when you’re 53 years old and you’re coaching in the American League, to just get to the NHL is a dream. ‘Just let me coach one game,’ I thought, and then to now you realize you’ve coached 1,000 games there, that’s, ‘Wow.’

“It was quite overwhelming what they did in Vancouver, and to have most of my family to watch it was pretty cool.”

But the journey to 1,000 games behind an NHL bench began long before he took that Washington job. For all of Boudreau’s NHL success in the past 14-plus years, his ties to Hershey – and the AHL – remain strong. From the time he arrived in the AHL as a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect in 1978-79 to closing out his playing career with a Calder Cup championship in 1992 to stepping behind an AHL bench in 1999, many of his most pivotal career moments have been in the AHL.

Boudreau played or coached 22 seasons in the AHL. Behind the bench, he worked for parts of nine AHL seasons between 1999 and 2007 and won 340 regular-season games, 12th in league history. As a player, he ranks 12th all-time in points with 799 (316 goals, 483 assists) in 634 regular-season games. In 2009 he entered the American Hockey League Hall of Fame.

He came to Hershey for the 2005-06 season and the start of a Washington-Hershey affiliation. While the Capitals’ move to Chocolatetown had brought plenty of enthusiasm in the AHL’s flagship market, 2005 began a run of three Calder Cup championships in five seasons that surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. The Bears won the Calder Cup that first season, going 44-21-5-10 before defeating the Milwaukee Admirals in the Finals. The following season, Hershey’s 51-17-6-6 record league-high 114 points concluded with the Bears as a Calder Cup runner-up.

Bruce Boudreau won a Calder Cup with Hershey in 2006 and led the Bears back to the Finals in 2007. (JustSports Photography)

After Boudreau’s tenure with Minnesota ended Feb. 14, 2020, he and his wife, Crystal, had some significant decisions to make.

“I thought after my last job [with Minnesota], that might be it,” Boudreau acknowledged.

“We had a lot of choices [of where] to live, and we chose [Hershey] because we loved it here. We made great friends here, everlasting friends, and when we talked about where do we want our forever house, me and my wife were both unanimous when we said we wanted to go back to Hershey.

“So that’s where it is. I mean, they could call this the friendliest town in the USA as well. And for a small town, it’s a big-time feel, and we’re so happy to be here.”

But the Boudreau family did more than buy a home. They joined an ownership group and bought a hockey team. The Hershey Cubs of the United States Premier Hockey League junior circuit are in their first season and play out of the 85-year-old Hersheypark Arena. Coaching is a family business, too, with son Brady serving as the club’s associate coach.

“The people in Hershey have been fabulous, both as sponsorship and fan support,” Boudreau said of the Cubs’ first season. “So we’re hoping to be here for as long as we’re alive. We think it’s something that was a niche that could grow into something.

“It’ll never be the Hershey Bears. That’s their own thing. But we could have the Hershey Cubs being one great junior organization.”

When he went to Vancouver, he applied many of his lessons learned in the AHL and places like Hersheypark Arena through a life in hockey. The Canucks responded, too, going 8-0-1 to start his tenure there.

“My approach is to make people believe that they can do it,” Boudreau explained. “I mean, when you’ve been sort of an underdog your whole life, whether up and down playing in the NHL or coaching in the minors hoping to get to the NHL… I’ve always believed that it could be done, and I was going to do it.

“I always try that same approach when I get there. I mean, if you don’t believe it can happen, it never happens. And if you get lucky, and you start off winning, and you keep that approach, they keep believing more and more and more until they’ve got a belief. And that’s what we’ve got.

“Now we’ve got a little bit of a belief.”