Boudreau being himself and leading Caps back into playoff hunt

Which team will be this season's surprise story? ESPN.com is picking the Washington Capitals, and Scott Burnside is chronicling the team's travels throughout the season. In Part III, we look at the team's turnaround under new coach Bruce Boudreau.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On the day Bruce Boudreau finally became an NHL coach, he wondered if that was what it was like to win the lottery.

After coaching for more than 15 years in places like Muskegon, Miss., Fort Wayne and Lowell, Boudreau's numbers finally came in at 6:45 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.

"He kept saying, 'Oh my God! Oh my God!' But he was smiling," Boudreau's wife, Crystal, said.

Within 30 minutes, Boudreau was out the door and headed toward Washington.

Within the first 48 hours, Boudreau received more than 100 calls and notes of congratulations. Some calls were expected, from teammates he had played with during his long, mostly minor league career; some were from players he had coached. Bruce Landon, the president and general manager of the AHL's Springfield Falcons, a close friend who once upon a time had acquired Boudreau as a player, phoned in. Andy Murray, who had coached the Los Angeles Kings during much of Boudreau's time as coach of the team's AHL affiliate in Manchester, also called.

Other calls came from out of the blue.

One was from the ex-wife of a close friend who had remarried. Another was from a former classmate in Toronto whom Boudreau hadn't heard from in almost 30 years. He wanted to wish Boudreau well and, if the coach happened to come up with any extra tickets when the Caps were in Ottawa, he would love to come to a game.

Don Cherry called, and it was Cherry's message that struck a chord with Boudreau. "Be yourself," the Canadian hockey icon said.

It was good advice, but hardly a message Boudreau needed to be reminded of.

After all, he made a career of being himself, holding tight to his convictions through a coaching career that always stopped just short of where he wanted to go. And one of Boudreau's first messages to his Washington Capitals players was that this was his first and maybe only kick at the NHL coaching can, and he was going to do things his way. If they didn't like that, well, too bad.

So far, so good.

The Caps have rebounded from a 6-14-1 start that cost coach Glen Hanlon his job and clawed their way back into playoff contention.

"I knew we were going to get this thing turned around. I knew we were going to start winning," said Capitals rookie center David Steckel, who played for Boudreau in Manchester and Hershey. "One of the guys said it was pretty embarrassing before. You didn't want to look at the paper, the standings. Now it's exciting. It's a great feeling."

The game runs through Boudreau's veins, permeates his being. It cost him a marriage because he didn't know any better. Not that he necessarily knows any better now, but he has found someone with whom to share his hockey devotion.

Boudreau, 53, can remember things legendary coach Roger Neilson told him 25 years ago. And things Murray mentioned to him in passing at training camp. He remembers his first coaching game with Muskegon of the old Colonial Hockey League.

The Boudreau Effect

Here's a look at the Capitals' progress since coach Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon on Nov. 23, 2007.

Change is benefiting players, as well. Listed below are goals, assists, points and plus-minus before and after Boudreau's arrival.

"I think we lost 8-3," he said.

That was in 1992.

But if Crystal asks him to bring something home for dinner after work?

"Forget it," he said.

Boudreau still has to ask Crystal what their address in Hershey is whenever he is asked for such details. As for local points of interest? Restaurants? Museums?

"I didn't have a clue [about other stuff]," Boudreau said.

He knows how to get from the rink to the house and vice versa.

Steckel remembers seeing Boudreau for the first time at training camp in Manchester, wearing an old sweater tucked into old jeans.

"I think there was a mustard stain," Steckel said, laughing. "I was like, 'Oh, so that's the coach.'"

But when they got on the ice and in the dressing room, Steckel said there never was any question about whether the man could coach.

Another player not surprised by Boudreau's new post is young Los Angeles Kings star forward Michael Cammalleri, who blossomed under the coach in the AHL.

"He had a huge impact on me," Cammalleri told ESPN.com. "For me, at that time in my career, it was incredible to have a guy like that. He has a great passion and feel for the game and feel for his players."

The most important thing Boudreau taught Cammalleri, who has evolved into a top-flight NHL scorer, was to be himself. "He really let me work on my game and improve my game," he said.

Both Steckel and Cammalleri laughed when it was suggested players might not take seriously a guy who has bounced around the minors. "He says things that make sense. You don't really question him that way," Cammalleri said.

Landon believes Boudreau was the best coach outside the NHL "and better than some in the NHL."

"My wife and I almost had tears in our eyes, we were so happy for him," Landon said.

Boudreau grew up in Northern Toronto, the oldest of three brothers. He has a summer home in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he established a hockey school 26 years ago with then-Leafs teammate Rocky Saganiuk. Saganiuk lasted three years, but Boudreau has kept at it. You never know when your real hockey job might run out, when you might need something else to fall back on.

"I never wanted to be a frigging anything," Boudreau said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "I can't think of anything I imagined I would be other than a hockey player."

At age 20, Boudreau was the 42nd overall pick of the 1975 NHL draft. He played until he was 37 years old and appeared in just 141 NHL games, an average of less than 10 NHL games for every year of his professional career.

One of the reasons Boudreau decided to become a coach was job security. Imagine that. Even though he registered 84 points in 77 games for the IHL's Fort Wayne Komets during the 1991-92 IHL season (down from the 120 points he scored the year before when he was a player/coach), Boudreau accepted a three-year deal to coach the Muskegon Fury because he figured the time was right.

After making the 17-hour drive from Muskegon to Thunder Bay, Ontario, he said, "I didn't realize Michigan was so big."

Boudreau and his first wife moved about 28 times over 12 years, hitting cultural hot spots like Moncton, New Brunswick, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Springfield. At one point, Boudreau and his family lived in a trailer in Moncton. They took on boarders, usually other hockey players, to help make ends meet.

Boudreau's story is about timing and patience, and maybe more than a little fate, a constant theme in his life.

A few months after he split up with his first wife, Boudreau met a woman at a Fort Wayne game.

"He just got right in my face and asked me how old I was, and then walked away. Three weeks later, he asked me out," Crystal said.

Boudreau had decided he wasn't going to date anyone under the age of 21. Only later did Boudreau, 15 years older than Crystal, discover his future bride had turned 21 just days before. "It was that close to us not dating -- ever," Crystal said, laughing.

They have been together ever since. They have a 9-year-old son, Brady, who happens to be the only netminder on his Hershey minor hockey team. Crystal makes trips back and forth from Washington so he doesn't miss any games, his own or his father's.

She seemed a bit incredulous when asked if she wonders when it will be over, this living with perpetual uncertainty. She asked: Do doctors' wives wonder when their husbands will stop being doctors? No. She is no different.

"This is our life," she said. "You go into this situation [being the wife of a coach] knowing you could move any time."

Over the years, Boudreau wondered if he would get a shot at the NHL and if would he be able to do the job if he did.

Even when he got fired in Manchester after being knocked out of the first round of the 2005 playoffs, he never thought about packing it in. He thought about finding a job as quickly as possible to show those who let him go that they were wrong.

It was only weeks before Boudreau became coach of the Hershey Bears. He won a Calder Cup in 2006 before running into red-hot Carey Price and losing to Hamilton the following season.

At this season's training camp, Washington general manager George McPhee told Boudreau he would be an NHL coach, that he just needed to stay the course. Those words meant a lot to Boudreau, even though McPhee didn't imagine it would come with his own Caps.

Crystal helped Boudreau pack that morning in late November and fixed the GPS so he wouldn't get lost, and he was on his way to the NHL.

"It was really strange," Boudreau said.

He met with McPhee, then the players. He walked into the dressing room for the first time and wondered what he was going to say. "I was numb on what to do and say," Boudreau said.

Then, he recalled Cherry's words of advice.

Players sometimes say their instincts take over in high-pressure situations. Boudreau felt the same when he coached his first NHL game at the Philadelphia Flyers.

"You wonder about it, and then, all of a sudden, you're doing it," Boudreau said. "I didn't notice the crowd. This is what I do, and I've got to make it look like I know what I'm doing."

Although one might expect any new NHL coach to be a little conservative, that hasn't been the case with Boudreau. He has introduced a wide-open, aggressive style, yanked veteran Olaf Kolzig when he hasn't been happy with the goalie's play and flipped around his lines.

"That's the only thing we were concerned about," McPhee said recently. Would Boudreau be intimidated by the players? Would he change his style because he was in the NHL?

"And be something that you're not," McPhee said. "We liked everything about Bruce Boudreau. And we hoped he would be the same person here. And he has been."

Not that Boudreau is sitting smugly in his new office with his feet on the desk. "Because you are always on trial," he said.

Like winning the lottery, you never know if you'll get another chance.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.