Guy Boucher doesn't see himself as a hockey coach as much as he does a teacher. He thinks his role as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs is to help young players learn to be better while teaching them how to win at the same time. Turns out, it's not just the young guys who think Boucher knows his stuff.
After last night's game, I listened to Mathieu Darche talk about Boucher and I was so impressed with what he had to say, I can't wait for Boucher to be the Canadiens coach some day. When asked how the Hamilton system compares with Montreal's, Darche said the two are completely different. He describes how Boucher emphasizes hard work from every player above Xs and Os.
"It's very new-age and I think it works. It's five men everywhere. It's not one or two guys here and there," says Darche.
Darche has a history with Boucher. Back in the days when the coach was a player, Boucher came down with a bizarre virus that blurred his vision, weakened his right side and gave him vertigo. Boucher says he went from thinking about nothing but hockey to wondering whether he'd even live. During the five years it took him to recover fully, it became clear he wouldn't play hockey again. Boucher thought about what he wanted to do in life, and he decided he wanted to teach other guys to be better hockey players. He joined the McGill Redmen as an assistant coach, and that's where he first crossed paths with Darche.
"He was there my sophomore year (in 1997) and I went from zero goals to 21 goals in 26 games," said Darche. "Guy was one of the big reasons why. He would stay after practice and work on my shot."
Darche isn't the only guy singing Boucher's praises. Philippe Lefebvre, who played for Boucher with the junior Drummondville Voltigeurs says Boucher helped him improve enough to land a rookie-camp invite from the Habs.
“Guy is the best coach I’ve ever had," says Lefebvre. "On one hand, he brings that psychology that can really help motivate you to be your best. He’s also a great strategist; he’s got a great system, which is sometimes a little complex, but it works,”
Sidney Crosby, who had Boucher as an assistant coach in Rimouski, loves him. (Boucher returns the feeling, using Crosby video to underline the importance of going to the net for goals to his current troops.) Ryan White and Tom Pyatt both gave props to the Bulldogs coach for preparing them for what they'd face in Montreal. Mathieu Carle said he'd learned more in a month under Boucher than he had in two previous years in Hamilton. PK Subban is having an outstanding rookie campaign with the 'Dogs, crediting the coach and his assistants for a lot of it. One of those assistants, Daniel Lacroix, says Boucher's secret to success is that he treats the players like people, not like parts of a machine.
“His philosophy is pretty clear, that we have to coach to get to know the players first,” says Lacroix. “As a philosophy from a head coach, not only does he say it, but he lives it on a day-to-day basis.”
Boucher confirms that approach. He says it's important to see each player as an individual and develop a relationship with him on a personal level. He believes a player will only respect and listen to a coach if he feels the coach is doing the same for him. At the same time, he rewards hard work above anything else. He insists players never take the easy way out and lets them know it if they try to do that.
So far, nobody can deny the success of Boucher's methods. The coach has a master's degree in sports psychology, as well as undergrad degrees in history, which he says teaches lessons about learning from the past, and engineering, which he thinks gives him an adavantage in analysing players' on-ice performances.
“All the movements that hockey players do — the torques that they do with shooting and their transfer of weight — basically, they are vectors,” Boucher said. “It has really helped me segment and break down movements of players.”
It all translates into a winning record that has pundits and analysts calling Boucher a coaching phenom. Last season he took Drummondville to first place and a Memorial Cup berth, with a remarkable 400% improvement in the team's record over the previous year. This year, he's got the Bulldogs, not the AHL's most talented team, sitting in first place in their conference and second in the league.
Boucher is getting lots of credit for saving Sergei Kostitsyn. He turned what looked to be a sure ticket out of Montreal into a renewed start for the kid, complete with improved attitude and better work habits. Now the coach will have to save Max Pacioretty.
Pacioretty is raw potential in a big frame. He can skate well, he's not afraid to be hit and he's willing to do what he's told. He just needs someone who can guide him and show him how to put his skills to their best use. He needs to be taught. That wasn't happening for him in Montreal.
After a promising start to the year, Pacioretty has looked more lost every month. He seems unsure about his role and where he should be on the ice. Red Berenson, his college coach at Michigan, said he wasn't sure Pacioretty was ready for professional hockey when he left school early last year. Berenson, another great teaching coach, knows what he's talking about. Pacioretty has the potential to be a really good NHL player and redeem the Habs' dismal first-round drafting record somewhat. But he needs someone to teach him how.
Lucky for him, and for the Habs, he couldn't have a better teacher than Guy Boucher. If the Habs win a Cup in the next decade, I think this guy could be behind the bench for it. And hopefully, Max Pacioretty will be one of the key contributors if that glorious day ever comes. With Boucher helping him, at least he's got a chance, which is something a lot of Habs prospects haven't had. Until now.