Of all the things Bruce Boudreau expected to be in life, celebrity was never one of them.
Although he is quick to deny he is any kind of celebrity after his starring, X-rated &^%$# role in the HBO hockey series 24/7. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I know so. I’m not a celebrity.”
Then he told a story about being recognized, just like a celebrity would.
“When you go to an American city and (somebody recognizes you), they usually throw an F-bomb at me,” he says. “They never used to swear in front of me. They do now, thinking everything’s cool.”
It’s like they’re talking his language, but the truth is, all of us speak his language. He is one of us and we are one of him. He doesn’t look like the kid that once lit up rinks all over Toronto. He doesn’t look like the young prospect who was supposed to be a Maple Leafs star and didn’t quite get there. He is round and bald and red-faced and he looks and sounds — without the televised swearing — like the uncle all of us once had.
Boudreau, known now for wearing golf shifts none of us should ever wear and those gawd-awful bright red Washington Capitals track pants, is coaching one of the glamour teams in the National Hockey League, this waffling season notwithstanding. But he is still the same guy who kicked around in the IHL and the ECHL and the AHL and any HL he could find, before emerging surprisingly with the high-flying Capitals. That hasn’t left him. He just has a better job now and flies on charters and has an expense account that allows him to order something other than late-night pizza.
“I never lose sight of that, ever,” he said of his past. “I think about that on a daily routine. Every time I’m feeling down, I think about what I could be doing.
“The first three years (with Washington) other than playoffs, have been a pretty good honeymoon. This year, people expect us to win every game, win every game by five goals.
“I still take a step back sometimes. We’re doing okay. This is a great life. I’m a pretty lucky guy.”
The trips to Toronto are always different than the rest of his NHL stops because this is both home and hockey central. The buddies he used to play cards with are still his buddies. The old friends are still the old friends. The phone calls usually start before he gets to Toronto, a few days before.
“A couple dozen before I get there,” he said, and then he doesn’t know who he’ll run into,” he says. “It’s the people. You don’t know who’s going to show up. Guys I went to school with. School teachers. Old friends. Relatives you haven’t seen in God knows how long.”
And then there’s the people around the rink.
“The ex-teammates, the Leafs alumni,” he says. “A lot of people come down to say hi.”
Saying hi to the kid who’s not a kid anymore. Boudreau turned 55 earlier this month. Not a lot of people who knew him back in the day would have figured he would ever coach. He just didn’t seem the type.
Some who played with him thought he was lazy. But here he is, 61 games over .500 as a coach, 167 wins in 273 games, the kind of numbers most coaches would kill for.
And this has been an unsettling season. Not because of the TV cameras that surrounded a large portion of the Capitals season, but because this team of great expectations hasn’t found its legs. Alexander Ovechkin isn’t doing the Ovechkin thing this season: The high-flying Capitals aren’t high flying. And as the HBO 24/7 series documented, the team went from despair and a slump of monumental proportions to the great victor on New Year’s night, playing in the slush of the Winter Classic.
Maybe through all of this, the Capitals have learned to play the kind of hockey that can help them win when it matters. That, more than newfound celebrity, is Boudreau’s greatest challenge.
Never has a hockey season meant more and meant less — all of it to be quantified, including Boudreau’s future, come playoff time.