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Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher deserves credit he doesn't want

In his first season as a coach in the NHL, Guy Boucher has the Lightning in the playoffs for the first time in four years.


In his first season as a coach in the NHL, Guy Boucher has the Lightning in the playoffs for the first time in four years.

He changed the culture. He stopped the bleeding. He turned around a franchise.

He stopped the free fall. He re-established high expectations. He restored sanity.

By now, you are probably fairly impressed with the coaching job of Guy Boucher. Boucher, on the other hand, is not.

In an impressive season, the most impressive thing about the Lightning's Boucher is that he doesn't seem particularly impressed by himself at all. His chest, as they say, remains unbeaten. His back is unpatted.

"To me, the credit belongs to the guy in the arena,'' said Boucher, 39. "It's the guy who takes the shot. It's the guy who stands in front of the goal and takes the crosschecks and bleeds. He's the one who should get the credit. It's like a boxer. Yeah, he needs a coach, but in the end, he's the one who is taking the blows.''

Other coaches talk like this, but with most of them, you never quite believe they believe what they are saying. Who doesn't want approval? Who doesn't want acknowledgement? Who doesn't want to be — ta-da — Coach of the Year.

Listen to Boucher, however, and it's easy to believe he really does think his fingerprints are very small on the success of this season. The Lightning, formerly lost, often dysfunctional, has rediscovered success. For the first time in four years it is back in the playoffs. For the second time in its history it has recorded 100 points.

And, yeah, Boucher is going to hate this paragraph, but he's done a terrific job. All in all he has just completed the finest rookie season in Lightning history. Along with new owner Jeff Vinik (quiet) and general manager Steve Yzerman (calm), he has helped to make hockey matter again.

Do you want to know who Boucher is? Break out a chessboard and line the pieces up. Hint: Be prepared to earn a checkmate or to hit his king with a hammer.

"I like to play chess,'' Boucher said. "Because sometimes, you just look like you're dead. There is no way out. But there is a way out. If you think long enough and hard enough, you'll figure it out.

"The thing is, I'm never going to put my own king down. I'm going to keep playing until it makes no sense. No way I'm folding.''

In some ways, Boucher had a similar challenge when he signed on last summer with the Lightning, a franchise that has spent the last few seasons being a couple of castles short itself.

"What we needed to do as an organization was to change the culture,'' Boucher said. "We wanted to make the playoffs. We wanted 100 points. We wanted to win at least that first playoff series.

"We didn't know how long it would take. It could have taken a year and a half to change the culture, maybe two to make the playoffs, maybe three to win a series. All that accelerated because we have good people.''

It is a demanding job, that of an NHL coach. It isn't like football, where a coach stops the play to devise strategy while the analysts call him a general, or baseball, where the cameras focus on managers as if they invented second base. It is a ad-lib job of dealing with changes and momentum and circumstance and injuries and communication and motivation and pushing the right button during the right shift.

Turns out, the Lightning hired the right guy. Oh, others had the same idea. There were other teams that thought of Boucher as a bright young coach with a knack for knowing his team.

"It wasn't that I was looking for an NHL job,'' Boucher said. "I was looking for the right NHL job.''

Five other times teams had talked to Boucher about their coaching jobs, and five times he had said he wasn't interested. The philosophy wasn't right. The fit wasn't right. And if the right job never came along, Boucher said, he would have led a perfectly happy life without the NHL.

"I don't mean that the wrong way,'' Boucher said. "But for things to work, they have to be a certain way. You have to have enthusiasm at every level. With Mr. Vinik and Mr. Yzerman, we have that.''

Also, they have Boucher.

"I could tell during our first week of training camp that he was going to coach for a long time,'' said captain Vinny Lecavalier. "He's that good.''

"He knows how to make everyone believe,'' is the way Ryan Malone puts it.

Given his first choice, Boucher would just now be wrapping up a playing career. He was fairly talented, and he was really stubborn, and he was going to knock on the league's door until it made him go away. When he was 25, however, life had other plans. Boucher remembers the day the right side of his body stopped working. His right eye wouldn't focus, and his arm was numb, and his leg had no strength.

"I thought I was dying,'' Boucher said.

For a year and a half, the doctors probed and prodded and tested to see what was wrong. For a while they thought it was multiple sclerosis. For a while, some form of cancer. For a while, something neurological. Eventually, they decided it was a virus that affected the membrane around his nerves. He wasn't going to die, but he wouldn't be the same hockey player for five years.

"I thought, 'Hah. I'm an athlete,' " Boucher said, shaking his head. "But two, three years later, I got it. It still wasn't back."

So Boucher became a coach. No, he is not one of those cookie-cutter coaches trying to impersonate the old coaches who came before him. There is a bit of a difference to Boucher.

Consider the way he attacked the season. A new owner plus a new general manager plus a new coach plus many new players plus a new system is the recipe for a slow start.

So Boucher met with his players beforehand, going to Montreal to talk to Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, to Toronto to talk to Steven Stamkos, and so forth, to make sure the Lightning started fast. And it did, winning seven of its first 10.

Consider, too, the way Boucher finished. Most coaches would have reacted to the Lightning's four-game losing streak in March by yelling louder and practicing harder. Boucher? After Loss 3, he gave his players two days off. After that, they won seven of their last nine.

Somehow or other, it has worked. It has turned a season into a fresh start. From here, this front office gives the Lightning a chance to grow into something special once again.

Poor Guy. For Boucher, the credit is just now beginning. In the years to come, deflecting it is going to take up so much of his time.

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher deserves credit he doesn't want 04/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 10:01am]
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