WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – The Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau four days after Thanksgiving in 2011 even though Washington was three games over .500 and even though his .655 winning percentage in just over four full seasons is the highest of the 16 men who have coached the team over its 39 years.
But the 58-year-old Boudreau, who returns to Verizon Center tomorrow night for the first time as coach of the powerful Anaheim Ducks – he was hired just three days after being dismissed by the Caps — isn’t bitter about his ouster by general manager George McPhee.
Just the opposite, in fact.
“I don’t think anybody in the world who loves the job they’re doing wants to lose it, but if it wasn’t for George and [Caps owner Ted Leonsis] having faith in a guy who had spent pretty well 30 years in the minors, I would never have gotten the opportunity to do what I did,” Boudreau said in an exclusive interview with 106.7 The Fan. “And I wouldn’t have gotten the job I have now if George had something bad about me to other GMs after he let me go. To be mad at him didn’t even cross my mind. I was thanking him for the four years he had given me to be in the NHL again.”
Boudreau also said he knew he could be fired any day as Washington’s 7-0 start spiraled down into a 5-9-1 slump by the time he was axed.
“I didn’t have a good feeling about it and it probably hurt the way I was coaching,” he said. “I didn’t do the normal things I would normally do because I knew something was going to happen if we kept losing.”
Boudreau, who was summoned from Washington’s farm club in Hershey to take over a last-place team when Glen Hanlon was dismissed in November 2007, had never previously coached in the NHL and had only played in 141 games in the league over eight seasons.
However, young players such as Mike Green and Brooks Laich had skated for Boudreau in Hershey and rookie Nicklas Backstrom was ready to join them as fine complements to Alex Ovechkin, already the team’s focal point at 22. After the coaching change, Washington went 37-17-7 including an 11-1 closing spurt that won the Southeast Division title. Boudreau was voted the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach, only the second time a mid-season hire had been so honored.
“When I got there, we were dead-last in the league and averaging about 6,000 people in the building,” Boudreau said. “I’m pretty proud of how we turned things around that season and won a President’s Cup [best record], two [regular season] conference titles and four division titles. The players were ready to burst out when I got there. When we beat Carolina to clinch a playoff spot, everyone was so excited. When we made it the next three years, it was kind of taken for granted.”
As much success as the Caps had on the scoreboard, Boudreau was also gratified by what happened off the ice.
“Hockey became really relevant in Washington,” he said. “It wasn’t just Redskins jerseys around town anymore. When visiting teams come in there and see all the red jerseys in the building, they’re pretty awed. I was really lucky to be part of the growth in hockey in Washington which I could see when my son [Brady] was playing youth hockey there.”
Of course, Boudreau’s downfall, as was also true for such accomplished predecessors as Bryan Murray and Terry Murray, came during playoff time. Washington lost Game 7s at home in each of Boudreau’s first three springs before getting swept by underdog Tampa Bay in 2011. The Caps were just 2-4 in postseason series under Boudreau despite owning home ice advantage in each one.
Boudreau said he’s going to be “pretty nervous” tomorrow night and not just because he wants to make a good impression on old pals.
“I’ve been really looking forward to coming back, not to play against the Caps, but because I made so many friends there,” Boudreau said. “I’ve had an awful lot of calls from people wanting to see me, but you just don’t have the time. You wish you were staying there a week.”
That way Boudreau could also spend more than a couple of minutes with the likes of Green, Laich, Backstrom and Ovechkin.
“It’s going to be weird to have guys I know so well on the other bench,” said Boudreau, who’s enjoying coaching the Ducks. “I have a special bond with those guys. I never enjoyed my time anywhere I’ve been more than my time in Washington. I’d like to see the Caps go as far as they can, but I want them to lose one game in the next week.”
Gee, wonder which one?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin