Bruce Boudreau is where he always is at this time of the year, waiting for the kids to show up.
Not necessarily his own kids, his three sons and daughter are all grown, although they will be on hand, as always. But the other kids. Kids from South Africa, Australia, all over the United States and Canada who descend every August for Boudreau’s annual summer hockey camp.
He checked with his son Ben and confirmed this was the 37th year of the Golden Horseshoe Hockey School.
And in those years it went from a vital part of putting food on the table for Boudreau to a kind of institution, one that allows Boudreau to play a little summer Santa Claus for campers as he bestows literally hundreds of signed jerseys, sticks and paraphernalia gathered during the hockey season all with the express purpose of making the camp more than just learning edges and crossovers, but a celebration of summer and the game.
The hockey school, now run almost entirely by his sons Ben and Andy, with a strong helping hand from youngest son Brady, remains a touchstone for Boudreau.
It is also a reminder of Boudreau’s own journey from longtime mostly minor pro player to longtime mostly minor pro coach to one of the most successful regular season coaches in the NHL. Boudreau ranks second in winning percentage among coaches with at least 200 games coached. He is 10th among all active coaches with 503 wins and is poised to reach the 1,000-games coached plateau late in the coming season, although no coach ever presumes anything.
The idea to work up a hockey school came in the early 1980s, long before multi-million dollar contracts were the norm, when many pro players held camps as a way of staying on the ice and putting some more money in their pockets.
Boudreau, a Toronto draft pick in 1975, and Maple Leaf forward Rocky Saganiuk were with the Leafs organization when the team moved its top farm team to St. Catharines, Ontario. So the two decided it would be a good idea to run a summer school in the town between Toronto and Buffalo.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” Boudreau said.
A week before the first camp, Boudreau realized they had one counselor for 160 kids. That coach was Brian Papineau, who would go on to become the longtime equipment manager for the Maple Leafs.
Papineau, known universally as “Pappy,” found some buddies to help out and in the end there were eight counselors for the four groups of kids.
Now there are some 50 counselors or five per group for the 240 or so campers who hit the ice at the Seymour-Hannah Sports and Entertainment Center.
Early on Boudreau was billeting four or five campers at his own home to ensure that the campers had a place to stay and, more importantly, to ensure that paying campers were in town to attend the school.
About a decade into the life of the camp, Boudreau took a job with the San Francisco Spiders of the now-defunct International Hockey League. The day after marrying his wife Crystal, they drove 36 straight hours to get to San Francisco in time for a player draft.
Jean Perron, who coached Montreal to a Stanley Cup in 1986, was coach and GM. The expectation was Boudreau would start as an assistant and then take over as head coach. But the whole San Francisco experience didn’t last long, just three games.
Boudreau recalls Perron telling him one morning at about 7 a.m. that he should stop coming to work.
The reason given? Boudreau didn’t like the trap, according to the Wild coach.
Boudreau ultimately took the team to court to recover payments but the team went into bankruptcy.
Crystal took a job in a bank immediately after Boudreau was fired and then the couple drove back to St. Catharines.
“We didn’t know where we were going to stay,” he recalled. “We ended up in St. Catharines only so we could promote the hockey school in February. We were hoping we had enough money to pay the bills to the end of the year.”
The down payments made by camper’s families kept them afloat.
“That’s what we lived on until we went to Mississippi (the next season),” Boudreau added.
In recent years, Boudreau hasn’t had to worry about making ends meet, but it hasn’t lessened his enthusiasm for the summer gathering of old friends and new campers.
He has done less and less of the on-ice instructing and operation of the camp, handing over those duties to Ben and Andy.
“I’m there pushing the juice boxes all over the place,” Boudreau said of his current role, which also includes the job of guest referee for some of the afternoon games that are one of the highlights of the camp.
The camp continues to bind the extended Boudreau family together – there are now three grandchildren in the fold –and those bonds extended to the campers themselves. There are children of former campers and grandchildren of old friends who make their way to the multi-pad complex not far from downtown.
Over time – and certainly since Boudreau made the jump from minor pro head coach to NHL head coach back in 2007 – people have asked, why keep doing the camp?
But regardless of his change in status, cementing his position as an NHL coach only served to heighten Boudreau’s desire to keep on with the summer program.
No matter what happened in the previous season, a trip to the playoffs, missing the playoffs or even those summers when he was fired, the camp remained a constant, a touchstone, a chance to bore down to the game’s most elemental qualities.
“It’s more an act of love,” Boudreau said. “Everybody from my ex(-wife)’s side of the family comes in, Crystal comes in, it’s like a whole family affair.”
And of course the boys.
“They grew up with it. They did every job there could be,” Boudreau said.
From students to junior counselors to instructors to lunch maids.
“When they took over, they knew what they had to do. They knew the work that they had to put into it and the love they needed to have for it,” Boudreau said.
Next season, all four Boudreau men will be standing behind benches. Brady, a former goaltender, is an assistant coach with the Blue Ox, a junior team owned by Crystal and Bruce in Coon Rapids, Minn., that Brady played for in the past.
Andy is the head coach at the Banff Hockey Academy in Banff, Alberta. And Ben is the head coach of the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL, working for the same owners who ran the team when Boudreau was first a player and then a coach.
So, while Boudreau prepares to hand out some of the dozens of jerseys, sticks and other odds and ends he’s collected over the months to his happy campers, what are his peers doing?
The men who create the game plans in 31 different NHL cities have to find that balance of refreshing and staying on top of their hockey game.
Barry Trotz, New York Islanders
A year ago, Trotz was transitioning from coaching the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to coaching the Islanders. He would lead his Isles to the best defensive record in the NHL and a berth in the second round of the playoffs, while walking away with his second Jack Adams Trophy.
Trotz has been an NHL head coach continuously since 1998 when he took the expansion Nashville coaching job.
“I found that when I was younger, I used to coach and then you get knocked out or whatever and I would just stop and take a couple of weeks off,” Trotz explained. “But I had trouble getting ramped up because you crash. I would have an adrenaline crash because you’re on adrenaline the whole time, the whole season, you’re just going, going and then you just crash. And I felt like had mono all the time.”
So Trotz learned the fine art of pacing himself when it comes to the summer, going from office time every day to fewer and fewer hours before letting go completely.
“What I’ve done is I’ve done training camp, I do everything that I need to do. Like we could start training camp tomorrow. I’m ready,” he said. “I will have every player that’s in practice, every group. Everything’ll be done. It’s done. I just have to walk in and here’s, you want the first day? These are the guys that are in each group, these are the lines, I’ve got it all done. When I get there I want to re-invest my time to getting to know the players again. Rather than doing work.”
In terms of his time away from routine, Trotz and his family always head back to Western Canada and that usually means running into a few colleagues from the coaching fraternity, including longtime pal and mentor Ken Hitchcock. In what has become a summer tradition, Trotz, Hitchcock and whoever else is in the area gather for coffee to kick around trends in the game, what works, what doesn’t and basically share experiences.
Hitchcock, who is protective of the anonymity of the group and their meeting places, which have to be convenient for all who participate, said they haven’t decided on this summer’s location but added there are more and more coaches who seem to end up in the area in the summer.
Trotz recalled making a bit of a stir in a small mountain town a few years back.
“One time we were sitting there just chatting and we had our computers out and just going over little things in the game that are happening, I think this whole bus came in and all these people, there were some bikers, older bikers, coming in a group of about 40 and we’re in this little town and maybe 200 in the town and they’re walking by us to go to breakfast and they’re, ‘hey, is that Barry Trotz? What are you guys doing here?” Trotz said with a laugh.
The gathering is a reminder that, while it’s good to decompress, it’s also important to have people who understand what you’ve gone through and how to navigate some of the issues that confront them – no different than players who gather in the offseason.
“It is important to have friends in this business because you learn. You learn from each other. You learn from experiences. You just do,” Trotz explained. “Everybody in this game has different twists and turns. We all get to those different twists and turns at different times. So when I go through it, I can maybe help a guy out or vise versa.
“And usually, I live in an area where there’s myself, Billy Peters I think is living on my lake this year, Hitch, Ryan Huska, (a member of Peters’ staff in Calgary). … We talk about the game, not necessarily asking about each other’s teams or players. It’s about ideas or where the game’s going. And getting better.”
Trotz grew up as a coach learning from the late Wayne Fleming, Dave King and George Kingston.
“Now it’s Babs (Toronto head coach Mike Babcock) and the next group of guys. We’re now the older guys and guys are coming to us, the players that we’ve coached are now coaching and they’re now asking different things. We’re the next group of mentors, guys like Hitch who’s so good at talking the game to young guys and encouraging them and keeping them on track and giving them ideas in terms of approaches. Because we all get stuck in our own way and when you’re young what I found is you thought you know the game and you held everything, everything was a secret. What you’re finding out is it’s not a secret.
“Everybody has the same game it’s how you are able to communicate that game or navigate through situations out of the game. And they’re not always on the ice, they’re dressing room, they’re all over, social, they’re wives, they’re everything. Social media. Whatever. Contract status all that stuff. And navigating through that a little bit so you can have success. All us older guys are preaching it’s OK to help each other.”
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes
Brind’Amour, fresh from his first season as head coach in Carolina, couldn’t understand when he was a player why coaches talked about needing to get away after the season.
What do they need to get away from? They’re not playing. Not taking shots in the shins or elbows to the face.
Now Brind’Amour gets it, even if he has struggled to find the right rhythm. As of recently, he’d been to his office at PNC Arena every day since the Canes were swept out of the Eastern Conference final.
He did a masterful job as the Hurricanes made the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The challenge for Brind’Amour is how he follows that up.
“I got to figure that out. What’s the strategy?” Brind’Amour said. “Because I had a good one coming in (the first season) I felt. The message and everything. And now this is what coaching really is I think, how do you say the same thing but different, make it better, make it stick. That’s what I’m struggling with right now, but hopefully it’ll come together.”
Brind’Amour is refreshingly candid. He doesn’t have a summer home. Raleigh is his home. Has been for years. His in-laws have a place at the beach a few hours away, but he is rooted in Raleigh and he now understands why veteran coaches have said for years that it’s important to take time away. Part of his summer plans involved schlepping family around, like his son Skyler, who will be playing hockey at Quinnipiac College in the fall. His son Reece will be attending college in the New York area, so there was more moving on tap there.
“The big guys get it,” Brind’Amour said of veteran NHL coaches. “They take their months at their cottages and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how.’ But I get why they do it. And I’ve got to figure that out.”
One thing he won’t have to figure out is how to listen to his own heartbeat when it comes to coaching. That, he said, was the top lesson he learned in what was a breakout year.
“Just trust your instincts. I get around all these guys sometimes (other coaches) and I hear how they talk the game and I’m like, ‘oh man, that’s not me.’ And you get a little worried. But you’ve got to pull yourself back and trust what you feel and what you know and then go with it. And that’s kind of what I learned. And thankfully I kind of think I did it that way. At least now I know we had some success so I know that that works, it can work. If it didn’t I’d be really questioning right now, like holy shit, I better get on their page. But I think it can work this way.”
Jim Montgomery, Dallas Stars
Montgomery is another coach coming off a stellar rookie NHL campaign.
In his first year in Dallas, Montgomery brought the Stars within a goal of advancing to the Western Conference final, dropping Game 7 to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in double overtime.
Montgomery admitted he needed a week at the end of the season to get back into a groove.
“I was just emotionally drained,” Montgomery said.
After exit meetings he spent time at home in Dallas with his family and indulged one of his passions. He went through the books “Good to Great” by James Collins and “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle.
“My mind wanted to get away,” Montgomery said.
The family also planned a getaway to the Florida Panhandle.
In terms of hockey, Montgomery gave his coaching staff summer projects that they will put together into a cohesive game plan when they reconvene in advance of training camp later in August.
He paused when asked the biggest lesson he learned.
“I had a lot of lessons that reaffirmed my beliefs, my core values,” Montgomery said. “But I guess the biggest lesson was, especially the first 20 games, was time management. Making sure you’re getting sleep. You’re not trying to do too much. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. That’s something I learned. You have great assistants for a reason.
“I think I have a clearer vision of what’s important, didn’t know that for sure last year. You kind of guess at it and you hope that you’re right and you find out a lot of the things you did were kind of needless. I think I have a better idea of how training camp needs to go and what we’re going to do in the exhibition season, and things that we’ll do as team bonding events that we can do and we have the time to do now before the season starts. And then the season, I’m looking forward to doing a lot of stuff with more pace because now we should have 85 percent of our team back so the language and getting to know each other and how we want to play should be kind of seamless, so we’re going to be able to do more.”
Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings coach would rather not be available to coach at the world championships, but such is life when your NHL squad is in the midst of a reboot that has seen them miss the postseason three straight years.
Blashill is coming off a third straight gig as head coach of Team USA at the worlds, and he has used that experience to try and add to his own bank of knowledge about how different coaches coach and players play. He’s also never been afraid to look outside his own comfort zone to talk to people who might help him in that pursuit.
“I also think it’s a discovery process in you can do some research projects on other teams. Teams that play similar to you. What do they do a little different? Where maybe we can steal some ideas,” Blashill said. “The other thing that I try to spend those months doing is talking to other coaches. Other coaches in the NHL, other coaches in different levels. I’ve done a thing with a small coaching development group where we have a good sharing of ideas. I’ve brought coaches into Detroit and had one- or two-day sessions with them, what they’re good at. If I see something in college, maybe someone’s got a great power play, I want to bring them in and learn from them. I try to go and spend time with professional coaches in other sports when I can, specifically I’ve done that a little bit with the Lions. And it’s that discovery process.”
It might seem strange for coaches to share information given the need to maintain a competitive edge in the business but Blashill said that as long as there is give and take it’s a good way to get better.
“I think there’s a balance to it. Certainly I think there’s always a worry sharing ideas with other coaches having success, especially with direct competitors. But some of its relationship-based, and some of it’s where each team’s at,” Blashill said. “I’ve been somebody I haven’t been afraid to share ideas. As long as I’m getting ideas shared back. I’m a huge believer in never copying and paste. You don’t take what somebody else does and say it’s got to work for us. You take what they do … and now I say, OK, now can I apply some of that to my own style?”
He also learned from his old boss and longtime mentor, Mike Babcock, that there is a time to put the coaching stuff away.
“When development camp’s over I try to get away for a bit,” Blashill said. “Mike Babcock said to me a long time ago and Scotty Bowman said to him the same thing, you have to get away. You have to get away. You have to get refreshed. The grind is the grind. And it’s a great grind, but it’s a hard grind. So you have to be refreshed.”
Todd Reirden, Washington Capitals
A season that saw lots of ups and downs but ultimately a Metropolitan Division crown followed by an excruciating seven-game first-round series loss to Carolina left Reirden with a different approach to this offseason.
“Being able to have a chance to step away after a disappointing loss in the first round that I’ve been able to re-look at things and come up with a pretty decent plan where there are some adjustments we want to make,” Reirden said.
He’s given each member of his staff an area to examine, areas that appeal to their expertise or special interest, whether it’s neutral zone play, breakouts or special teams.
“It’s something that last year we didn’t do it and I can tell you we didn’t do it because we were using the same exact stuff that we had done,” Reirden said. “I was going through a phase of the summer of just teaching the new members of my staff and new members in Hershey how Washington Capitals hockey looks and how we had success and how we won the Stanley Cup. I still think we’ll keep to many of those things but there are things that we want to get better at and we need to improve on and so those are things.”
On a personal level, Reirden was planning to return to a summer home on Lake Michigan. His son Travis has battled health problems related to immune deficiency issues and the offseason is a chance for Reirden to reconnect with family given the travel and commitments during the season.
“So this summer’s been a lot slower and it’s allowed me to take a step away and I think it’s going to make me a better coach down the road,” Reirden said.
(Top photo of Boudreau: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports)