Bruce Boudreau is ubiquitous in hockey circles.
He was an extra in “Slap Shot.” In fact, he even taught Paul Newman how to take one. Wayne Gretzky once cited Boudreau — who averaged more than 100 points a season for the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey Association — one his favorite players as kid. Over four-plus decades, Boudreau has played for or coached 27 teams, including 763 career games behind the bench for the Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild. In April, the Associated Press published an article analyzing “The Sixteen Degrees of Bruce Boudreau,” connecting the 62-year-old to each of the 16 2017 Stanley Cup playoff teams.
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Boudreau often tells friends he was put on Earth to promote hockey. This summer, he backed that up. “I kind of just said, ‘What the heck,’ ” Boudreau said. “And I bought a friggin’ hockey team.”
One year after taking over the reins of the Wild, Boudreau and his wife, Crystal, have become minority owners in a junior hockey team: the Blue Ox, an United States Premier Hockey League expansion team in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. If it sounds like a whim purchase, well, only sort of. If it feels like an uncommon extracurricular activity for a current NHL bench boss, that’s definitely true. More than anything, though, it’s a story of hockey vagabonds finally finding a home — and yes, of Boudreau promoting the sport with which he’s already so entrenched.
So how did this all unfold?
“It wasn’t planned, that’s for sure,” said Jay Witta, who is a minority owner, GM and coach of the Blue Ox. “Actually, the whole thing happened after one lunch meeting.”
Witta coached Boudreau’s son, Brady, last season for the New Ulm Steel of the North American Tier III Hockey League. Witta resigned after the season, looking for a new challenge. Boudreau loved Witta’s coaching style, so they met for a bite in April to chat. Witta suggested they should start a new team together.
“If you find a team,” Boudreau told Witta, “I’m in.”
A week later, Witta called. “Sooo,” he said. “I think I found us a team.”
Wayne Gretzky frequently watched Bruce Boudreau play for the Toronto Marlboros and has called Boudreau one of his childhood heroes. Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images
Boudreau brought the idea to Crystal. “We asked: Is it financially viable? Yes. Can we have control? Yes,” Crystal says. “And that was important because it’s our reputation on the line.” They closed the deal to buy the team by the end of May.
With 61 teams, including nine in Minnesota, the USPHL is the largest amateur league in the country. It is for 16- to 20-year-olds pursuing the next level of hockey, in some ways equivalent to the junior leagues in Canada, the primary source of players for the NHL. “We do have some NHL placements,” commissioner Richard Gallant said. “But our No. 1 goal is college placements.”
Brady Boudreau will be one of of the Blue Ox goaltenders this season. “At first [Brady] didn’t want to play for them. He said, ‘They’re just going to think I made the team because of you,’” Crystal said. “Finally, he said, ‘You know what, people are going to think that no matter what. I want to play for you.’ And now he gets to live at home, which he hasn’t done for two years.”
After last season, more than 300 USPHL players advanced to play in college — either Division I, II, III or club hockey. “There’s a void sometimes between high school hockey and college hockey,” Boudreau said. “What happens to the guys who don’t go right to D-I? This league is great, because we can keep kids playing as long as possible.”
Said Witta: “It’s funny, when you think of Bruce, you think of the gruff NHL coach. But you should see him anytime he’s around kids. He loves helping them out. At the hockey school he runs with his family, there are kids flocking around him like he’s the Pied Piper.”
Recently, the USPHL has been expanding by five to 10 teams. “Quite frankly,” Gallant said, “we’re often approached by existing NHL players or big names [who] want to lend their name and start a team, but it’s not their passion. With Bruce’s group, they laid out a very serious plan. That was the difference in allowing them to go forward.”
Witta, who has owned a marketing company for 20 years, included an 18-page outline of a business plan in the pitch.
“We all have our roles,” Witta said. “I am hockey ops. Bruce, even though a lot of it is his philosophy, is the face. He’ll get on a call with a kid for a recruiting pitch, and that has already worked. It got a guy to join our team last week. When the NHL season comes, [Boudreau] may pop in every once in awhile, but that’s his primary job. And Crystal is the busy bee. Together, it really works.”
Twenty-seven years ago, when Bruce Boudreau was playing for the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets, as he was leaving the arena one day he bumped into a woman who worked in the souvenir shop. He stared at her and asked her how old she was. “Twenty-one,” she responded. He then asked her on a date.
Bruce and Crystal Boudreau have now been married 22 years.
“He told me he wouldn’t have asked me out if I was younger than that,” recalled Crystal, a Fort Wayne native. “I told him it was a good thing he didn’t meet me a week earlier than that.”
Crystal and Bruce Boudreau have moved 12 times in their 22 years together, every time because of hockey. They’ve built three houses. “We’ve learned our lesson, trust me,” Crystal says. “No more building. We’ll only buy new homes.” Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images
Before meeting her future husband, Crystal didn’t know who Wayne Gretzky was. “And now I’ve had dinner with him,” she says. (The Marlboros, Boudreau’s junior team, played half of their games in Gretzky’s hometown of Brantford, Ontario, one season — leading the Great One to call him “as good as any junior hockey player I’d ever seen” — and later request that dinner himself.) “I never thought it would be this way, but hockey is now my life, too,” Crystal said.
The couple has moved 12 times, every time because of hockey. They’ve built three houses. “We’ve learned our lesson, trust me,” Crystal said. “No more building. We’ll only buy new homes.”
For years, Crystal worked in accounting, then became a teller manager at a bank but gave that up when she gave birth to Brady. When Boudreau coached the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL, Crystal worked for the team in immigration — helping secure players’ visas.
Every time Bruce was promoted, or fired, Crystal was the one who closed the bank accounts and packed boxes and set up in the new city. Eventually, she became such a veteran of the routine, that every time she signed Brady up for a hockey camp, she would get it in writing that the family would get the deposit back if her husband got a new job. “Bruce gets a new phone number every time he works for a new team, but my number has always been the same,” Crystal said. “So I’ve always been the secretary. I’m everyone’s contact for us.”
In many ways, that prepared her for her current role with the Blue Ox, which is … well, it’s hard to describe. Crystal does everything from conducting background checks on billet families to cutting deals with equipment manufacturers to buying ice time. Even though she has a part-time job as a pastry chef, Crystal estimates she has been putting in 40-hour weeks for the Blue Ox.
“Every time Bruce has been fired, he’s not resentful,” Crystal said. “He’s never been blindsided. Usually he knows it’s coming. And I try to take the attitude that it’s a new adventure. I’m grateful for everything we have, but it is hard. For the coaches, OK, they go to a new team and they have built-in friendships. Guys sitting next to them in the office. We, the wives, have to meet new people, get established.”
The Boudreaus are hoping, maybe, that streak ends. “We’d like to be Minnesotans,” Boudreau said. “I don’t want to move much more. And I like Minnesota. It’s very similar to growing up in Ontario, and for Crystal, she’s from the Midwest. The people are friendly, they all know hockey. My deal is pretty long here [a reported four years], so we feel like we can make friendships.”
Added Crystal: “This wasn’t a one-year deal, it was a longer contract. In the first few weeks we met all of our neighbors, and that’s never happened before. And so with this hockey team, maybe this is something we can do for a while, and maybe pass along to our kids.”