All Wayne Gretzky wanted to do was have a drink with one of his childhood heroes, yet Bruce Boudreau was wary to leave his hotel room despite being beckoned by the greatest scorer in NHL history.
“I mean Bruce would get three, four, five points a game,” Gretzky said, explaining how the Wild coach became one his favorite players as kid. “He was always on the puck, he was always around the puck. He was the captain of the best team in the country, won the Memorial Cup that year, and you know, he was as good as any junior hockey player I’d ever seen in my life. ¶ “He was so much smarter than most of the other players out there.”
It was 1974, and Boudreau’s Toronto Marlboros were one of the tenants at Maple Leaf Gardens. There weren’t enough open dates, so they played half their games in Gretzky’s hometown of Brantford, Ontario.
At 13 — six years younger than Boudreau — Gretzky was dominating youth rinks and well on his way to becoming the “Great One.”
But at that point, he dreamed of being a “Marlie.’’
“Because when you’re a kid at all of 12 and 13 or 14, as much as you’re dreaming of the NHL, the first step is to get to junior hockey,” Gretzky said. “I went to every game. They were a fun team to watch. They were actually a lot like the Edmonton Oilers of the mid-80s — a lot of 9-6, 8-7 games.”
So four years ago, Gretzky was across the street from the Ducks’ hotel. He wanted to reminisce, so he called Anaheim’s coach.
“I was shocked. It was about 8 o’clock at night. And I said, ‘Let me call you back in five minutes,’ ” Boudreau said. “I had to think about this — it was the night before a game. I don’t go out the night before a game!”
Boudreau nervously called his wife, Crystal, who told him to “get your butt out there.”
Boudreau had one of the coolest nights of his life.
“I think he was surprised when I could tell him the guys that were on his team and the line he played with,” Gretzky said.
Boudreau’s eyes were wide as he retold the story: “Wayne said he started taping his stick the way I taped it. And would put the powder on because I put powder on. Like, he was blowing me away with this. And, then telling me all my numbers and stats and everything. When you hear things like that, from him, you’re really taken aback.”
That season, Boudreau scored 68 goals and set a Canadian Hockey scoring record of 165 points. Three years later, Gretzky broke his idol’s mark with 70 goals and 182 points.
The morning after the outing with Gretzky, Boudreau bragged to all his Ducks players how he met up with the Great One. After the game, Boudreau got on the Ducks’ plane and received a text: “Bruce — Wayne Gretzky. Had a great time last night. Matter of fact, it was such a great time we’re flying to Edmonton. Do you want to go out tonight or something? — Wayne.”
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Like this is Wayne Gretzky saying he wants to go out again?’
“All of a sudden the phone texts again: ‘Oh, by the way, Bruce, as a matter of fact, I enjoyed it so much, I’ve decided to come back on the plane with you guys.’ I’m losing my mind!
“I turn around and there’s Teemu [Selanne] texting all of this stuff. All of the guys were around him laughing their heads off.”
Life’s ups and downs
Boudreau, 61, is an encyclopedia of stories. His passion for hockey and the people in the game oozes with his every breath.
“If you ever sat down with [the late] Gordie Howe, he’s a lot like Bruce. They just love the game,” Gretzky said.
As a teenager, the Marlies’ trainer dubbed Boudreau “Gabby,” a nickname he has to this day and that is the title of his 2009 biography.
“I’d be talking, wouldn’t be paying attention, … and [the trainer, Pat Riley] said, ‘You’re a gabby fella,’ ” Boudreau said.
As a child growing up near Toronto, it was “sports, sports, sports” with Boudreau, 5-foot-10 and now a bit above his playing weight of 175 pounds. He jokes, “you wouldn’t know it now,” but he was a 100-meter sprinter and especially good at the pole vault and long jump.
“I jumped 21-3 in long jump, … in pole vault 13 feet or something like that. My mom [Theresa is 82] has all the stuff,” Boudreau said. “You know, 1973, that wasn’t bad.”
He played for three or four baseball teams every summer, golfed all the time and started teams in ball hockey leagues. He even once kicked Rick Vaive, the first 50-goal scorer in Maple Leafs history, off a team.
“He jumped into the bench [during a huge fight],” Boudreau said. “He was the captain of the Leafs! I said, ‘Rick, you can’t do that! You’re way too high profile!’ ”
A Garth Brooks fanatic who loves “Everybody Loves Raymond” and reciting lines from any “Seinfeld” episode (Kramer asking, “Is that a Titleist?” still gets him howling), Boudreau can get your belly aching from laughter.
He was arrested for streaking. Paul Newman’s character, Reggie Dunlop, in “Slap Shot’’ lived in Boudreau’s actual Johnstown, Pa., apartment because it was the dirtiest on his team. Boudreau had a bit part in the movie.
He’s candid, talking frankly about trying to save his first marriage by nearly quitting coaching in 1988.
He’s a character, like blowing a chance at a three-year, $240,000 contract with the Minnesota Fighting Saints because he was on a 17-day survival canoe trip and couldn’t be reached.
He’ll make you cry detailing how he was supposed to be on one of the hijacked 9/11 planes and lost a close friend during the attack.
And he’s all about family. He has four children; Brady, the youngest, graduated high school at 16 and is about to graduate college at 18 with a degree in sports management while a goalie for the Junior A New Ulm Steel.
“He has Aspergers [syndrome], which makes him really focused,” Boudreau said. “When he does schoolwork, he really does schoolwork. You know what he is? He’s almost a hockey historian, not ’90s, ’‘80s and now. But he’ll tell you all about ’40s, ’50s and ’60s hockey. There’s nothing he doesn’t know.”
All about hockey
As good a junior player as Boudreau was, he never became a full-time NHL player. One of the top-scoring American Hockey League players in history (12th with 799 points and 16th with 316 goals), he played only 141 NHL games, mostly for the Maple Leafs.
That still infuriates one of his closest friends, Wild assistant coach John Anderson.
“It was simple why: He was a great call-up,” Anderson snarled. “There was no free agency, so they owned you. What could you do? They could bury you just for selfish reasons. That’s exactly what happened. He always scored points wherever he was, and I think given the chance in the NHL, he probably would have, too.”
Boudreau’s career made him a vagabond. In the past 44 years, he played for 17 teams and coached 10, some multiple times. That caused the end to his first marriage.
“With all these moves, in ’88, [Mary] said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Boudreau said. “So I interviewed for the director of personnel for the City of St. Catharines. I’d have to deal with unions and needed negotiating experience … and finally I said, ‘Listen, I can’t do this. I tried.’ She said, ‘Well, I can’t move anymore.’
“So that was that.”
Six months later, Boudreau met Crystal.
Probably the most gut-wrenching days of Boudreau’s life was Sept. 11, 2001, when one his best friends, Garnet “Ace” Bailey, the director of pro scouting for the Los Angeles Kings, and scout Mark Bavis died aboard United Flight 175 when it was flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Boudreau was ticketed to fly with Bailey that morning out of Boston’s Logan Airport. By fate, Boudreau, the coach of the Kings’ affiliate Manchester Monarchs, changed his ticket to the day before because Kings coach Andy Murray wanted to reschedule the date of the coaches meeting.
Four days before 9/11, Bailey and Boudreau drove together to Lake Placid, N.Y., to attend Kings director of player personnel Bill O’Flaherty’s daughter’s wedding. They shared a hotel room, spent every second of the weekend together.
On Sunday, “I said, ‘Ace, just come on and get on my flight,’ ” Boudreau recalled. “He tried. He called to change, and it was $800. He said that was too much, that he’d just go on our [original] flight Tuesday.
“The last thing I said was, ‘See ya Tuesday.’ ”
“The part that gets me all the time,” said Boudreau, his eyes welling. “My kids [Ben, Andy and Kasey] didn’t know I changed my flight, and when they saw [the attack] on TV at school, they ran all the way home — like a mile — and didn’t stop, hysterical. Crystal had to calm them down, telling them I was already in L.A.
“The other thing was [Kings General Manager] Dave Taylor announcing to us that Ace was gone and how he couldn’t get through it.”
Asked if the close call made him live life differently, Boudreau said, “It makes me think it wasn’t my time. I guess somebody was looking after me.”
Close your eyes
The streaking story is “as stupid as stupid can be,” Boudreau said.
He had just won the Memorial Cup, and it was the height of the popular Ray Stevens’ song, “The Streak.”
At a bar, Boudreau grabbed Mark Napier and Mike Kitchen, and they went into the bathroom and removed their clothes.
“We put our underwears over our head, and ran through the bar, and an idiot like me tripped over the stage and put my head through the drum,” Boudreau said. “By the time I pulled it out, and I ran to the other bathroom — we couldn’t stop laughing, we get the knock on the door, two plainclothes cops were in there. We had to go to the station.”
Boudreau was charged with indecent exposure, although the charges eventually were dropped.
“The most embarrassing thing was, I got a phone call about 8:30 in the morning and my dad [Norm] says ‘What the heck did you do last night?’ ” Boudreau said. “It was all over the radio, and it was in red letters on the front page of the Toronto Star. My mum didn’t work for a week.”
Boudreau thinks the publicity damaged his draft status. Two weeks later, instead of being a first-round pick, he fell to 42nd.
A hockey guy
Last season, Boudreau, who has coached teams to eight division titles in nine years, became the fastest coach in NHL history to reach the 400-win milestone (663 games). He’s the seventh head coach in NHL history to win 200-plus games with multiple teams (Washington and Anaheim). His .659 points percentage is tops in NHL history by any coach with more than 208 games.
“Whatever Minnesota has to give, Bruce will get it out of him,” said George McPhee, the former Capitals GM who’s now GM of the expansion Las Vegas franchise. “He’s a very easy person to play for, to work with. Very good hockey instincts, doesn’t get lost on the bench.
“It’s amazing how many times a game I’d think, ‘This guy isn’t going tonight, this combination or line isn’t working,’ and right about the same time Bruce was changing it. He’s a real likable guy, he lights up a room, he’s authentic. There’s no filter. He’s an honest as they come.”
That’s why Gretzky says, “The people in Minnesota are going to grow to love him as their coach.”
Boudreau’s experience could go a long way with the Wild, which has made the playoffs four consecutive seasons but desperately wants to take the next step.
“I honestly believe that I’ve been or seen every situation,” he said. “If it’s a new situation then I’m lost. But that’s one of the reasons I think I can handle most things that come up. Because I’ve seen it, been involved in it, or had it before.”
The coaching smarts are there, no question. But there’s also a bit of Boudreau that’s almost like a cartoon character.
“Him and I are playing together in Toronto and we were both kind of on the bubble,” Anderson said. “Against Boston, a close game, 2-on-1, I fake a shot and give it to Bruce and he kind of fumbles it and the puck went in the corner.
“I get to the bench, and he yells, ‘Well thanks a lot, you just got me sent down!’ Sure enough, he got sent down the next day. Never give a great player a bad pass, I guess.”