WASHINGTON (May 3) – It isn’t often you hear a coach ensconced in the Stanley Cup playoffs talking about his favorite other team in the National Hockey League – especially when that team hasn’t been to the post-season in half-a-decade. But, that wasn’t a problem on Sunday for for Bruce Boudreau, coach of the Washington Capitals, and defending recipient of the Jack Adams Trophy as top man in his profession. Boudreau, you see, is a native of Toronto; a Memorial Cup winner with the old Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League, and a third-round draft choice of the Maple Leafs in 1975 who went on to play 124 regular-season games with the Blue & White.
When I introduced myself to Boudreau during a Leafs’ trip here after Christmas – figuring I’d get a polite “How ya doin’?” – he replied “Oh, it’s nice to put a face to the name, Howard.” I found that both pleasant and intriguing. “I keep track of the Leafs more than any team in the league except for ours here in Washington,” he explained. “Toronto is still home.”
As such, I spent a few moments on Sunday with Boudreau at the Capitals’ practice facility in nearby Arlington, Va. He has grown rather portly, and has lost most of his hair, but the man they call “Gabby” still has the engaging personality and boyish gleam that Toronto hockey fans became familiar with more than a generation ago. His Capitals are a length up on Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals, after a scintillating 3-2 triumph in the opener Saturday afternoon; Game 2 is Monday night at the Verizon Center. Bruce coaches arguably the most talented hockey player on earth in Alexander Ovechkin, and he has his hands full trying to form strategy that will keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. off the score sheet.
There are, however, few things more important to him, professionally, than his hockey roots in Toronto. And, he never seems to grow weary of talking about the Maple Leafs.
“On the Internet, I’ve got two sites among my favorites – the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star,” Boudreau, 54, smiled. “That allows me to follow the Leafs really closely during the season. If you are born and raised in Toronto, and remember being a fan of the Leafs from back in the 1960s, it’s pretty hard to lose the tattoo just because you live and work someplace else.”
That isn’t difficult to understand when considering how Boudreau initially made it to the NHL. As did many future pros in the ‘60s, he came up through the Marlboros minor-league chain and developed into one of the most prolific scorers in Toronto junior hockey history. During the 1974-75 season, in which the Marlies [coached by George Armstrong] would ultimately defeat New Westminster to win the Memorial Cup, Boudreau erupted for 68 goals, 97 assists and 165 points – a Canadian Hockey League record that was broken three years later by Wayne Gretzky. At a time when physical play and violence ruled the NHL – the Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, were two-time defending Stanley Cup champions – Boudreau’s size [liberally listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds] was considered a drawback. Hence, he survived until the 42nd pick of the ’75 draft, when GM Jim Gregory selected him.
The Leafs of that era were developing into a decent team, with a good nucleus built around front-line players Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming. But, they didn’t have enough depth to preclude a junior sensation such as Boudreau from cracking the line-up. Still, he was never able to stick with the club on a full-time basis. Instead of anchoring a second scoring unit, Boudreau became a minor-league spark-plug. Whenever the Leafs needed either a boost of energy or an injury replacement, he was summoned from the Dallas [later New Brunswick] Hawks of the AHL and he often came through with timely goals for the big club.
The reason he never stuck with the Leafs is a mystery to everyone but him.
“More people tell me I didn’t get a chance in Toronto than I tell others,” Boudreau said. “As a coach now, I look back at those days and get mad at myself. I knew I was good enough to play, full-time, in the NHL, but I should have worked harder and not taken things as easy as I did. I wish I could go back and do it all over again… I’d sure approach my career differently. So, I blame myself rather than Leaf management for not making it the way I could have. Still, when I go back home, people always tell me I got ripped off by the Leafs. I wind up defending the team.”
Boudreau’s on-and-off tenure with the Leafs spanned seven seasons, from 1976-77 to 1982-83. He played for four coaches – Red Kelly, Roger Neilson, Joe Crozier and Mike Nykoluk. In ’77-78, under Neilson, he skated in a career high 40 games, recording 11 goals and 18 assists, also career bests in the NHL. Included was a two-goal effort on a Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden he fondly remembers. “I still have a film of that game,” Boudreau said. “We won, 3-2, and I got the winner. [Goalie] Mike Palmateer didn’t play that night, and I remember Roger leaning over to him and saying ‘I might have to play that kid more often.’ It’s a memory that stands out to this day.
“That same year, I got a hat-trick in Minnesota, which was really cool. It was the game in which [teammates] Trevor Johansen and John Anderson scored their first NHL goals.
“Whenever I got called up by the Leafs, I knew I had to do something special. In the end, though, it always seemed they had someone better than me, though not in my mind.
“One year , in training camp, they picked up Walt McKechnie [from the old Cleveland Barons]. Another year, it was [two-time Leaf] Garry Monahan. Then, they drafted [Quebec junior star] Normand Aubin. Their attitude back then was, ‘Hey, we always have Boudreau here, he doesn’t want to get traded, so we can bring him up whenever we need him.’ I felt I was a security blanket for them. If it was today’s day and age, I probably would have asked for a trade after two or three years. But, at that time, when you grew up as a Marlie and were playing even part-time for the Maple Leafs, you didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
One of Boudreau’s most vivid recollections as a Leaf involves a famous playoff encounter he didn’t dress for – Game 7 of the 1978 Stanley Cup quarterfinals against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, remembered for McDonald’s series-winning goal in overtime. “I was in the stands that night,” said Boudreau. “And, I was taking stats for Roger, because if you didn’t play, you were doing something. When Lanny scored the winning goal, I jumped over the first rail [by the bench], not realizing it was about a 12-foot drop. I got up and ran onto the ice, and jumped right on the pile of guys that were celebrating. I thought that was so cool. More than a thousand people greeted us at Toronto airport when we got home later that night, and we partied at Darryl [Sittler’s] house ‘til the wee hours of the morning.”
A number of Boudreau’s pals from his Marlies and Leafs playing days similarly went into coaching, including current Toronto bench boss Ron Wilson and John Anderson, who guides the Atlanta Thrashers. When the Leafs were here at the end of December, they skated at the Capitals’ Arlington practice facility, allowing Boudreau and Wilson to have a lengthy chat along the boards. “I think back to other guys… like Mike Kitchen and Mark Napier,” said Boudreau. “I talked to [former Marlies teammate] Glenn Goldup the other day [Goldup is now a sales executive at THE FAN-590]. We have fond memories of our playing days in junior. Mike Palmateer and I grew up together.
“I never really drifted apart from any of these people; it’s just that we don’t see each other very often anymore. Each time I talk to one of them, we always say, ‘Hey we’ve got to get together’, but it never works out. It’ll probably go on forever that way.”
The Leafs, of course, are no longer Boudreau’s concern, but he understands the angst that exists among hockey’s most loyal fans. “I know Ron Wilson very well – our apartments were beside each other in Dallas when he first came to the organization, and we were linemates in Moncton [of the AHL]. And, I think when the Leafs finally do win the Cup – or even get close – you will never see a bigger party in all the world than in the city of Toronto. It’s one thing that would really be cool to see, though I hope it doesn’t happen while I’m in the NHL coaching against them. I just think the people of that city will go bananas.”
Boudreau and Anderson will co-host a charity golf tournament at Lionhead in Brampton this summer – Bruce’s brainchild. “It’s on July 27 and we’re going to raise money to pay the tuition of inner-city kids for hockey,” Bruce said. “Kids that can’t afford to play the game. THE FAN-590 is involved and CCM will donate equipment to the players we raise enough money for. So, I’m really excited about it.”
Almost as exited as he is about trying to win the Stanley Cup this spring.
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