VANCOUVER—It was Bruce Boudreau’s face that got you. He has always been one of the good guys in the National Hockey League, a wisecracking underdog who became a lifer. He played a little in the NHL and a lot in the minors and was an extra in “Slap Shot” — his real-world apartment was Paul Newman’s movie apartment. He got into minor-league coaching, narrowly avoided dying on 9/11, and has carved out a nice NHL coaching life, if one short on playoff glory. Everyone likes Bruce.
And there he was on the bench Saturday night, on “Hockey Night in Canada,” and his wry Charlie Brown-moon face was straining at the seams, trying to keep it all inside. His eyes were full; his mouth was pulling down at the edges and he covered it with his hand, and then let his hand drop. The crowd chanted “Bruce, there it is,” the appreciative sound of Vancouver’s starving fan base, and Boudreau clapped a little and pointed at them and clapped again, just a little, because he was trying to hold himself together.
Then he put his hands in his pockets and walked down the tunnel. The end didn’t last long, after it lasted for an unreasonably long time. People have known for weeks that the 68-year-old Boudreau would be fired. The Canucks let it last, and made it worse.
“You never know if it’s the end,” Boudreau told reporters after the game, in the surreal space before the axe officially fell. “So when you’ve been in it for almost 50 years — I mean, the majority of your life — and if it’s the end, it’s just … I had to stay out there and just look at the crowd and just try to say, ‘OK, remember this moment.’
“It’s going to be something that stays with me for my whole life. I mean, I’ve had a couple people like me in the past, but not the way the fans have treated me. It’s just … the city’s amazing.”
Boudreau was asked how he had kept his wisecracking nature while being left to twist for weeks on end. “I’d like to say alcohol, but I don’t drink any more. No, just being me,” he said.
He talked about how nobody loved the game more than him, and how he never wanted to be out of it, never, to the point where he might have to fire his son, who coaches the junior team he owns, so he could be behind a bench the rest of the season. He said he wanted to keep coaching or do TV like it was a job interview in a post-game presser. He choked up talking about the supportive texts and calls he had gotten, a ton of them, “more than I ever thought.”
In my personal experience, some journalists who get hired or fired often know that feeling. It was like Boudreau was a man attending his own funeral, and he found the church was full. He’ll get another job.
Then there was the team, which created that moment by dragging the much-liked Boudreau behind the team bus over the last month or so, maybe more. Look, coaches get fired; it’s part of the job. Often, they know it’s coming. It’s a brutal, pressure-packed business, no matter the sport, and some of those firings are handled better than others. In 1979, Leafs owner Harold Ballard fired Roger Neilson without telling him and without a replacement. The players revolted, the media howled, and Ballard tried to get Neilson to come back the next game, but with a paper bag over his head to make it all look like a gag. He was to remove the paper bag on the bench. Neilson refused, kept coaching, and was fired at the end of the season.
And you can defend firing Boudreau on a hockey basis, sure. Rick Tocchet doesn’t have an uncomplicated resumé, but maybe he can teach defence without suppressing offence. Maybe he can even make J.T. Miller, signed by management to a seven-year, $56-million (U.S.) contract, to pretend to care there are two ends to the ice. Tocchet wondered aloud if Miller was pacing himself.
But the treatment of Boudreau became cruelty through incompetence and arrogance, and the team can’t seem to see it. You can fire a coach without putting them through this kind of weeks-long living death, without leaving your players in tears after the game, and in fact almost every team does so. Team president Jim Rutherford came out and said the speculation was the problem and it wasn’t management’s fault, just one week after Rutherford said in public that he had made calls to potential replacing coaches dating back months, and on the same day he apologized to Boudreau for being too direct and too honest in public throughout the season. Hell of a strategy.
Beyond that, Rutherford said Boudreau’s status had been overplayed, and that he didn’t pay too much attention to the hothouse fan base. He said, I know a lot more than you do. That always flies when your team’s this lost.
It tells you the front office is not connected to its market or to wider perception. Listening too much to your fan base is doom, especially in Canada, but being tin-eared isn’t the answer, either. This is the franchise that dropped a newsmaking press conference into the news cycle the day after local franchise hero Gino Odjick died; this is the team that keeps trying to graft a win-now approach to a young core that isn’t ready for that, and muddled the process badly enough that they landed here. The gap between gooey team marketing — a thank you to Boudreau on on social media — and the cold reality is a chasm, and the fan base in Vancouver is knowledgable to recognize that. And it’s angry as hell.
And again, it’s fine if Rutherford doesn’t care what the fans think. But if you’re going to lean into arrogance this hard you’d better be sharp as hell at the job, because otherwise the pressure builds and the temperature ticks up, and maybe some of the seats even go unfilled, eventually. Boudreau deserved better from the Vancouver Canucks. He wasn’t the only one.
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