Over the last 24 hours, a flood of emotion has occasionally overwhelmed embattled Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau.
The 68-year-old bench boss has coached more than 1,000 NHL games, has won the Jack Adams and is one of the winningest regular season coaches in hockey history. At some point in the next few days, however, Boudreau will most likely be fired and he knows it.
His replacement will apparently be Rick Tocchet, which is just about the worst-kept secret in hockey — maybe ever.
Surely Boudreau must be upset about how this has transpired. Despite the placid public commentary, how could he not be mad at how he’s been treated, and hurt that this ugly process has played out so publicly and been so drawn out?
Meanwhile, he’s working through the emotions attached to the possibility that a pair of back-to-back games this weekend coaching an overmatched team for a Canucks organization in shambles could be his final games behind NHL bench.
Tomorrow is guaranteed to nobody in the NHL, after all.
As an embarrassing situation lurches toward its predictable conclusion, Boudreau is managing these elemental emotions in the public eye. He’s occasionally been able to laugh through it — his exit from his postgame availability on Friday night was an all-timer — but the emotional stakes are high. For Boudreau, there’s great feelings building suddenly and forcefully, surprising him when they hit.
Like during his pregame availability on Friday, when Boudreau was asked if he might take Vancouver’s next two games and savor them. The veteran bench boss struggled to finish his answer.
When that evident emotion was picked at in a follow-up question, Boudreau simply noted that he’d “talk about it later” and tearfully, politely and sympathetically ended the availability.
— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) January 20, 2023
Boudreau is a career coach who just genuinely loves the job. He worked for 16 years in minor hockey before he got a crack at the NHL. That’s the resume of a man who lives for this game, for being behind the bench. His purpose in life is winning games and working with players.
Those players love him. This market loves him, too.
And when he first arrived in Vancouver some 13 and a half months ago, Boudreau was a breath of fresh air. He singlehandedly restored a sense of optimism to a beleaguered, chaotic, perpetually middling and consistently disappointing NHL franchise.
Boudreau rapidly developed a particularly special relationship with Canucks fans. He is, without question or competition, the most popular head coach in Canuck’s history since Pat Quinn.
So on Friday, given all that’s swirling around Boudreau, the fans chanted his name, “Bruce There It Is!” even though the Canucks were trailing to the defending Stanley Cup champions at Rogers Arena.
And those big emotions welled up for Boudreau, surprising him again as he stood on the Canucks bench and tapped his heart — as one of his former players Alexander Ovechkin did in his direction during a warmup skate in early December — a signal of how much the gesture meant to him.
“I was just saying to myself, ‘Keep it under control, keep it under control’ so…” Boudreau said of his reaction to the chants, his voice trailing off.
— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) January 21, 2023
“It’s unbelievable,” Boudreau said, reflecting on his relationship with the fans. “I’ve only been here a year, but it’ll go down in my memory books out of the 48 years I’ve played and coached as the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced on a personal level — other than winning championships . It’s very touching.”
Boudreau is a genuine person and his record as a hockey coach at this level speaks for himself. The Canucks aren’t very good this year, however, and don’t look particularly organized in any phase of the game either.
Which is sort of the rub here. No one would begrudge the club — considering the expectations that the team entered this season with, and how it’s all gone — for replacing their head coach given both the form and the results.
How this situation has played out, however, has captured the attention of the hockey world.
Boudreau hasn’t just been criticized publicly repeatedly by club leadership, but he’s now been left hanging for weeks, even as his replacement appears to have been identified. Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford even took the unprecedented step of confirming that he’d been speaking with potential Boudreau replacements dating back “months” earlier this week.
Through it all, Boudreau has resisted the temptation to fire back. He’s taken the high road. He’s been genuine and likeable and sympathetic. He’s been Boudreau.
“We don’t quit and we don’t quit on Bruce either,” Canuck’s star centre Elias Pettersson said.
“The city loves him, I know I like him,” Pettersson continued. “He’s been awesome for me personally.”
Asked multiple times to comment on how the uncertainty around Boudreau is being interpreted by Canucks players, or how it’s impacting them, Pettersson declined.
“It kind of seems like the mindset and the mood got to us tonight,” admitted veteran defender Tyler Myers. “You can tell guys are down. It’s not easy times right now, a lot going on right now…
“It’s the most noise I’ve experienced in my career,” Myers added.
In the other locker room, meanwhile, Boudreau’s longtime former player Andrew Cogliano was effusive in his praise for the Canucks bench boss. He was even comfortable joining the chorus of people in the hockey world criticizing the Canucks organization for how they’ve treated Boudreau.
Andrew Cogliano on Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau, who coached him in Anaheim: pic.twitter.com/5gaTGMuTgy
— Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) January 21, 2023
We’ve now reached the point in this saga where the question of whether Boudreau deserves to be replaced or not is entirely beside the point. Whether you think this club is well coached or not, Boudreau deserves better than this.
Not because he’s likeable or a hockey lifer or a good person. Not even because he’s earned respect in this industry, although he has. But because the way an organization treats people matters.
This is where the Canucks’ longstanding instability issue, one that reaches well beyond Boudreau, hath to be deeply concerning for fans of this club. The litany of people — executives, coaches and players — who have come through this organization and left on bad terms, with their humanity challenged and their reputation diminished, has become extensive. You can start at Dave Nonis, go through to Mike Gillis, add Trevor Linden and then go through the likes of Jim Benning, Travis Green, Jeff Stipec and Trent Carroll for good measure.
Meanwhile, the seeds of this season’s dysfunction were planted in December 2021, when Canuck’s ownership dragged out the firing of Benning and Green until they’d been roundly and publicly rejected by fans during a home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Scrambling to change course, the club hired Boudreau before hiring a top hockey operations executive. They presented Stan Smyl as an interim general manager and promised fans a lengthy search for a new head of hockey operations. Breaking that promise within 72 hours, the club promptly hired Rutherford, who didn’t even know that the organization had given Boudreau a contract with a mutual option for a second season.
Now this dysfunction has engulfed the Canucks’ season, poisoning the atmosphere around this team and causing the club to come under intense — and justified — public scrutiny for their mistreatment of yet another quality person, who couldn’t possibly have contributed more during his 13 -and-a-half month tenure as head coach.
It’s hard for anyone to have confidence in this franchise’s ability to nail the many pressing big-picture items facing the club when they can’t even get the the routine items right — like replacing their head coach with a shred of human decency.
(Photo: Bob Frid / USA Today)