Right place, right time for Guy Boucher

BOSTON -- You don't have to sit with Guy Boucher long to feel the kind of vibration only the true believers give off.

Five minutes give way to 20 minutes, and his kind of clear-eyed passion and single-mindedness is intoxicating.

But the question asked quietly among hockey writers this postseason has been whether the Tampa Bay Lightning rookie head coach will lose that vibration and passion, not just for the game of hockey itself, but also the desire to discuss it, debate it, live it.

Somehow we doubt it.

Because maybe this is how one is when dreams are turned to dust -- finding out what one can build from dust.

Maybe this is how one is when life is marked by tragedy -- finding out what one can build from pain and loss.

Maybe this is why Guy Boucher is who he is after losing his father to cancer when he was 17 and being close to death himself a few years later.

Maybe this is why he speaks about the game like it's not a job.

"In hockey, life, it's always about building for me," Boucher said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "If I can build something and be part of it, I will build it myself, and that's the way I approach it. I need to be part of something that we can build."

The youngest coach in the NHL, Boucher, 39, will lead his Tampa Bay Lightning into the Eastern Conference finals Saturday just four wins from an improbable Stanley Cup finals berth and eight wins from what would be a shocking finale to his rookie NHL coaching season.

Boucher grew up in Notre-Dame-Du-Lac, about a six-hour drive northeast of Montreal.

He was 17 when his life and the rest of his family's lives changed dramatically, as his father was taken suddenly by bone cancer.

"It was the shock of my life," Boucher said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "I had to kind of reinvent life at that point. Grew up real quick."

But one of his father's guiding principles has stuck with him since: Don't rush into things.

"Don't jump into things, because a lot of things look good but sometimes the things that don't look so good might be the best because it fits better and you build things," Boucher said. "It might take more time, but you build something."

So, Boucher turned to the sport he loved. And that is when the hockey gods struck again.

As his first season with Quebec approached, Boucher fell ill.

"Just before the camp and during the camp, I started to feel major health problems," Boucher said. "At first, I thought, you know, just a major illness like flu, but it was really bad. I started to have problems with my right side, my eye, my arm, my leg. I could barely see with my eye. I started vomiting, I started shaking, so I thought, 'Well, I've got to go to the hospital.'"

The doctors were perplexed.

"At first, they thought I had multiple sclerosis," he said. "They thought after that I had cancer of some kind that affected my muscles."

For the next 18 months, Boucher went from the hospital to being housebound. He lost 33 pounds in the first four months of his illness.

"Then, I wasn't thinking hockey anymore. I was thinking, 'I just might go here,'" he said. "For about the first six months, I was basically scared for my life at that point."

Finally, after months of testing and wondering, the doctors concluded Boucher suffered from a virus that attacked part of his nerves.

His hockey playing career was done.

"After two years, I figured out the doctors were right and I have to start doing something else," he recalled. "It wasn't me deciding [it was the end of hockey]. If you know me, I'm a little annoying because things are never over. I just continue until something just tells me, 'That's it.' I'll never quit anything. It's hard for me to decide to stop something.

"At that point, I was still not feeling good at all, but I could live," he said. "I couldn't even read for more than 10 minutes with my head bent down. It was quite a tough time in my life."

After deciding to return to McGill University to pursue a second degree, Boucher reconnected with one of his former teammates there, Marty Raymond.

Their relationship dates back to their teens. Boucher knew Raymond's dad, and Raymond knew Boucher's younger sisters. When Raymond was a senior at McGill, Boucher was a freshman.

"I was able to convince the head coach to put him on my line," Raymond said. "We always enjoyed each other's company."

By the time Boucher returned to Montreal after his illness, Raymond was an assistant coach. When Jean Pronovost left McGill to coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Raymond and Jamie Kompon became co-coaches and asked Boucher whether he wanted to work as an assistant.

The team was struggling, but, by the end of the season, it had gone from last place to a playoff berth. "Guy was a great part of the success that year," Raymond said.

Did he see the path that might open to Boucher back then? Raymond laughed.

"In those days, I never thought of him as an NHL coach. I would lying if I told you I thought about that," he said. "That seems so long and far ago."

But what looked like something to fill the void of not playing suddenly turned into a great vista for Boucher. Pronovost asked Boucher to join him as an assistant coach with the QMJHL's Rouyn-Noranda. After three years, he returned to McGill for his master's degree and coached a Triple-A midget team, something friends warned him against because it would be hard to improve his profile there.

"I remember in midget AAA, everyone told me don't go there because they are a team that doesn't have a strong place where kids study or practice as much," Boucher said. "It was a real tough time for them."

By the end of his two-year tenure there, Boucher's squad was beating the top teams in the league.

From there, he spent three years as an assistant with Rimouski, coaching a kid named Sidney Crosby for two of them. Then, rather than waiting for the head job to open in Rimouski, Boucher took his first big-time job in Drummondville as a head coach.

"That was another place everybody told me, 'Don't go there,'" Boucher said. "It was the Siberia of the Q back then. There was nobody in the stands. They had never won in their existence in 30 years."

But it was yet another opportunity for Boucher to build something from nothing.

"It was the perfect moment," he said. "Everybody's telling me not to go, while I think it was a great opportunity. I believed in the GM; I believed in the same things he did. We clicked there."

Boucher's team set club records and advanced to the Memorial Cup championship in 2009. That led to an offer for a head-coaching job with the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs, the Montreal Canadiens' top farm club. Boucher also was on Pat Quinn's Hockey Canada coaching staff at the 2008 Under-18 and 2009 Under-20 world championships, both of which ended with gold-medal wins.

"He's got that passion that just seems to bounce from your eyes," Quinn said. "He showed real creativity and an ability to express himself simply and effectively. I think he has that innate sort of ability to excite people. ... He's got that humility that good leaders have. He's got a great sense of self. He's not a big shot."

By the time Steve Yzerman was settling into his first-time NHL GM post with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was looking for a new coach. After several calls, including one to Quinn, Yzerman was pretty confident Boucher was a guy he could seriously consider for the position.

"I came away very impressed with his attention to detail," Yzerman told ESPN.com.

The two meshed on what style they wanted the Lightning to play and the kinds of players they wanted to use. And although some might suggest taking a chance on a relatively untested coach for his first hire was a risky move, Yzerman doesn't see it that way at all.

"I'm a first-time GM, but I've been in the NHL since 1983. I like to think I've seen it all," Yzerman said. "I've been around a long time and learned a lot. I was comfortable that Guy was the right fit."

The Hall of Fame center was right.

The Lightning not only made the playoffs as the fifth seed, but they also rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to oust Pittsburgh in the first round and swept favored Washington in the East semifinals. A seminal moment for Boucher came in Game 2 of that short second-round series. The Lightning were under siege by the Caps. By the time the third period rolled around, Boucher switched up his line combinations, and the team rallied to win in overtime.

"We came out with a much different look and a much different attack," Yzerman said. "I've been very pleased with all the adjustments he's made."

Boucher occasionally thinks about the paths he has traveled to arrive at this point.

Had his father not died when he was so young, what would that have meant to his life? What if he hadn't gotten sick? He knows the answers are that nothing would be the same. He met his wife when he returned to McGill after getting sick. He is the father of an 8-year-old and twin daughters, a year younger.

"Exactly, exactly, like my family," Boucher said, shaking his head. "Yeah, it's a bit weird."

And he is now an NHL coach on the cusp of something perhaps magical.

"It's never been about the opportunity to get it all right away; it's never been about the money to me," Boucher said. "It's always been about being at the right place with the right people for the right reasons."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.