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'Slap Shot' extra finally gets his NHL coaching chance with Capitals

ARLINGTON, Va. - A few decades ago, Bruce Boudreau was in the right place at the right time and wound up as a hockey-playing extra in the movie "Slap Shot."

Who knew so much time would pass before his next moment in the spotlight?

After years of shuttling between the NHL and minor leagues as a player, followed by years of climbing the rungs of the minors as a successful coach, Boudreau finally is getting a chance he long thought he deserved.

Sure, when Boudreau was brought up from the minors to take over as the Washington Capitals' coach a week ago, it was only on an interim basis. He has no idea how long it will last. And let's not forget, he is in charge of the team with the league's worst record.

Still, what matters is this: Bruce Boudreau, the unassuming guy everybody calls "Gabby" because he's quite a talker, is back in the NHL - as a head coach, no less.

"When you think about what it's going to be like, you never actually think of what it's going to be like," Boudreau said this week during an interview in his office at the Capitals' practice facility. "You think about the Cinderella story of what it's like, you know? ... You think, 'Oh, man, the NHL."'

That final handful of words was spoken in hushed tones, the sort of reverence that lets you know just how much this all means to a 52-year-old Canadian who grew up loving hockey and playing it, then decided in his early 20s he would be a coach someday.

While Boudreau never had so much as a day of work as an NHL assistant, the Capitals promoted him from their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., when they fired Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day after their worst 21-game start since 1981.

Heading into Friday's game at Carolina, the Capitals are 2-1-1 under Boudreau, giving them the same number of points from those four games as they earned in the previous 13.

"That's what Bruce is trying to preach: Expect to win every night," goalie Olie Kolzig said.

Boudreau will have to wait until next week, when the Capitals have five days off in a row, to fully implement his system. It calls for aggressive, attacking play, including asking defencemen to press forward, and it was responsible for an AHL championship in 2005-06, his first season with Hershey.

"When it comes to the game, he knows it as well as anyone," Washington general manager George McPhee said after watching Boudreau run a practice. "He carries himself very well on the bench. He never panics."

That steadiness was challenged when McPhee telephoned to deliver the news Boudreau waited for years to hear. What should have been about a two-hour drive from Hershey took nearly three, because Boudreau got lost on the streets of downtown Washington. It was merely the start of what has been a dizzying adjustment.

He no longer needs to keep stacks of yellow legal pads filled with notes the way he did in the minors, because the Capitals outfitted him with a laptop. He talks frankly about trying to figure out what toll NHL travel takes, because he traded bus rides for airplane flights. Before Wednesday's game, he sat alone eating dinner at a table in the media room, somewhere coaches and players generally do not tread.

At his Capitals debut, a 4-3 overtime victory at Philadelphia, Boudreau could not quite believe his eyes and ears.

"I was looking around, going, 'Wow. There's 20,000 people here.' It's pretty cool," he said.

As defenceman Brian Pothier put it: "He's excited. That rubs off on us."

Don't misunderstand Boudreau, though.

For all of his folksy charm, and easygoing demeanour off the ice, he's demanding on it. And he lets everyone know what he's thinking. Boudreau earned his nickname as a chatty teen in Toronto and it stuck. After one response to a reporter's post-practice question, he noted: "Long answer. Sorry."

"Oh, yeah, he's always talking. You know if you're doing something wrong - you can hear him on the ice," captain Chris Clark said. "He's taking charge and making it his team."

In addition to trying to spark an Alex Ovechkin-led offence that has been having trouble scoring, Boudreau is working to restore confidence.

"If you think you're good, you're going to be good. It's not a cockiness, it's a mind-set. It's a culture change," Boudreau said between bites from an apple. "If you believe in yourself, usually a positive thing happens."

That applies to his career.

In his third season of junior hockey with the Toronto Marlboros, Boudreau compiled 68 goals and 97 assists in 69 games - a "Did I read that right?" total of 165 points that stood as a record until broken by Wayne Gretzky. Not bad company, eh?

Boudreau played in 141 NHL games over eight seasons with the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks, logging many more games in the minors. Then came more than 1,000 games as a coach, including a stint in the Colonial Hockey League, which Boudreau acknowledged is "not conducive to coaching in the NHL."

"You bounce around and learn your craft," he said, adding: "I never gave up hope about this."

His odyssey included one season playing for the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League, the team that was the model for the Charlestown Chiefs led by Paul Newman's player-coach in the 1977 film "Slap Shot."

Boudreau didn't have a speaking part but managed to make it into the final version.

"I was just a hot dog enough to hang out where the cameras hung out," he said. "Talk about your 15 minutes of fame being a lot longer than that."

Once again, all these years later, the cameras are focusing on Bruce Boudreau.


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