'It's about the players': new coach Boudreau a welcome refresh for Vancouver Canucks

VANCOUVER — Bruce Boudreau was less than 24 hours into his tenure as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks when the chants began.

The Canucks were up big against the L.A. Kings and fans inside Rogers Arena expressed their appreciation for the new bench boss by yelling "Bruce, there it is!" to the tune of Tag Team's legendary 1993 rap song "Whoomp! (There It Is)."

Vancouver blanked L.A. 4-0 that night, kicking off a 8-0-1 streak for a team that sputtered and stalled through the first third the season.

The chants have continued not only in the stands, but when Boudreau is out and about in Vancouver, too.

“The thing about "Bruce, there it is!" is that they make it about me. And I don’t want it to be about me," the veteran NHL coach said recently, noting that the reception is unlike anything he's ever experienced before.

"It’s about the players. They’re the ones who are doing the work, they’re the ones who are committing themselves to doing things the right way.”

The Canucks lingered in the basement of the Pacific Division at the beginning of December. An ugly 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 4 was the final straw — the next day, the team made sweeping changes, firing head coach Travis Green, general manager Jim Benning and several other front office and coaching staff. Boudreau was named head coach, signing on through the 2022-23 season.

Hailing from Toronto, Boudreau's hockey roots run deep. The former centre played 134 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1976 to 1982 and seven for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1985-86 season.

He went on to work behind benches in the minors for several years before being named head coach of the Washington Capitals in November 2007. That season, he won the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach after guiding the floundering Caps through a bounce back campaign.

Head coaching jobs with the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild followed his time in Washington, and Boudreau was named to Hockey Canada's coaching staff for the Spengler Cup just days before he was hired by the Canucks.

The 67-year-old said his first month on the job has been "outstanding."

“It’s pretty hard to say it’s been anything other than incredibly good," he said. "We haven’t lost a game (in regulation) yet. I know that eventually that’s not going to happen but I always say ‘Why not?’”

After a dismal start to the year, the Canucks currently sit just four points out of a playoff spot with a 16-15-3 record.

Under Boudreau, players who slumped to start the season have flourished and parts of Vancouver's game that were liabilities have become strengths.

The team boasted the worst penalty kill in the league (64.6 per cent) and had capitalized on just 17.4 per cent of its power plays when the club cleaned house.

In the last nine games, the Canucks have killed off 17-of-19 penalties and the power play has improved to 20.6 per cent on the season.

With Boudreau at the helm, Vancouver has transformed into an offensively aggressive team that refuses to quit.

It's a style that players enjoy, said the Canucks' newest assistant coach, Scott Walker.

"Obviously you have to be dedicated to your craft defensively, but he really wants you to go out there and be offensive," he said. "I think the players enjoy that part of it because, who doesn’t? … It’s nice for them to have that guy behind the bench who’s pushing for that.”

Walker came to Vancouver with Boudreau, but the their relationship stretches back to 2010, when the Capitals acquired Walker — then a veteran right-winger — from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Walker remembers how Boudreau treated him with respect and spoke candidly about things like ice time.

"To be honest with you, he’s a very honest person and a very upfront guy," Walker said. "He doesn’t mind having those conversations with people that are sometime uncomfortable about guys playing or not playing. And he handles a lot of that too, he doesn’t put it off on assistants. And I think guys appreciate that.”

Boudreau's hiring represented a "fresh start" for the Canucks, said forward J.T. Miller, who leads Vancouver in scoring with 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists).

"I think any time that happens, you’re going to have a little life and we’ve been playing pretty darn well since he’s been here," he said.

"There’s not much grey area with (Boudreau)," added Miller, who is on a nine-game point streak (three goals, 10 assists) under the new coach. "He expects you to play the right way, play hard, don’t turn the puck over, have good practice habits — pretty simple stuff. I think when we get back to basics, play the way we know how and just find a way to compete for 60 minutes like we’ve been showing, we’re pretty hard to beat.”

The players have been receptive and easy to work with, making it easy to coach, Boudreau said.

"I’ve asked them to work hard, they’ve worked really hard," he said. "I’ve asked them to do certain things that are a little bit out of their comfort zone, they’ve done that. I’ve asked them to use more men on the penalty kill and different units on the power play, they’ve never complained. Nobody’s complained about the linemates they have if we’ve switched it.”

While Boudreau's first month in charge has been smooth, a gruelling five-game road trip could present speed bumps. The swing begins Tuesday in Florida against the league-leading Panthers before pitting Vancouver against other tough Eastern Conference opponents, including the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes.

It will be a tough test for a Canucks team that hasn't played since beating the Kraken 5-2 in Seattle back on Jan. 1.

Vancouver's success under Boudreau could provide some much-needed momentum heading into the stretch.

The coach said he's seen wins used as motivation before.

“I knew when I played or when I had success, it was usually because I believed it was going to happen," Boudreau said. "And when we failed, it was usually because I said ‘Uh oh, I can feel it coming. A goal’s going to get scored against us.’ And when you have that kind of attitude, you’re usually scored against us.

"I do believe the guys believe in themselves and believe they can win. … I do think winning begets winning.”

— Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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