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From everyman to extra to overnight celebrity

The world is about to discover Bruce. The Washington Capitals' coach will be one of the stories the networks and national media will focus on as a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers begins tonight at Verizon Center. It will be Alex Ovechkin, the superstar, and Bruce Boudreau, the "Slap Shot" extra, Mr. Everyman or, as the Philadelphia Daily News already described him, "the man who looks more like a high school principal than an NHL coach." Is Boudreau ready to be an international folk hero? "I don't know," he said. "I just stay in the house. I turn off the TV because if I see myself, like most people, [they] wish they were 30 pounds lighter." The packed houses at Verizon Center love seeing him on the video screen, chanting, "Bruce, Bruce." He seems like he just as easily could be the guy sitting next to them in the stands as the guy behind the bench for the resurgent Caps. "The fans were as starved as the players to win, and you get happy for the people that have paid so much good money and supported you over the years," Boudreau said after his team's 3-1 win over Florida on Saturday night that gave the Caps the Southeast Division title and a playoff spot. "I was happy for them." What is ironic is that the qualities that make the 53-year-old Boudreau such a fan and media favorite likely are the same qualities that kept him in the minor leagues for 16 years as a coach until he was promoted from Hershey on Thanksgiving Day to take over the struggling Caps. Beneath the rumple and rough edges is a pretty good hockey coach. When I asked general manager George McPhee whether people underestimate Boudreau, he said, "I think that was probably the case because if people knew how good he was, he would have been in the NHL a long time ago. People underestimate him, but once you work with him, you understand in a hurry that he is an outstanding hockey man. Michael Nylander said after one week with him that he was the best coach he ever had in this league. "He is a lot like Dale Hunter: They talk hockey 24 hours a day. Bruce probably couldn't tell you who the president of the United States is, but he sure knows hockey. The way he played the game demonstrated great instincts for the game, and it shows behind the bench." Boudreau leads the league in self-deprecation but not when it comes to hockey and coaching. He is confident in his abilities and is the voice that is heard in the locker room. Boudreau came here faced with a difficult situation: reducing the role of a longtime star in goalie Olie Kolzig, particularly after the Caps acquired goalie Cristobal Huet in a trade. "He handled it as well as a coach could handle it," McPhee said. "One of the many things that makes Bruce a good coach is that he is fair. He gives everybody opportunities. "When Cristobal came in, he platooned Cristobal and Olie. He played them both. Then when Cristobal got hot, he went with him - not an easy thing to do, but the results are there. It was the right thing to do." Sergei Fedorov knew little about his new coach when he arrived in a trade here in late February. One of the game's all-time greats, Fedorov played for Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman in Detroit on three Stanley Cup squads, so he has seen the best in the game and is not easily impressed. "The first meeting we had, when I walked into the coach's office, his first words were, 'Hi. Nice to meet you. So are you ready to play 25 minutes?' " Fedorov said. "We broke up laughing, both of us. I said yes, but I hadn't done it in a while. It will take a few games. He said, no problem. We will get to that point. From that moment on, we had a complete understanding of what we were trying to accomplish as individuals and as a group. "Bruce brought back to me a lot of freshness and hockey sense. It has been rejuvenating talking to him every day about something about our club." Perhaps most importantly, Ovechkin, the franchise player, seems to love Boudreau. "He always finds the words that we need," Ovechkin said. "Before a game, he says the right things, and it helps us concentrate on what we have to do. It is good when you have a coach who can say the right things." Those "right things" are not rehearsed. They are the instincts that make Bruce Boudreau a good coach - and an unlikely media star. One fear about all the attention: You don't want Boudreau to start wearing Armani shirts or Brooks Brothers suits. You don't want to see him doing Nutri-System commercials. You want to keep the guy who opens the biggest postgame news conference of his career with the following: "Okie dokie, fire away." McPhee is not worried about his coach going Hollywood. "I don't think we have to worry about that," he said. "If we start seeing that, I think everyone would get a kick out of it because they would know it is not him. "Besides, he could wear Brooks Brothers suits and still find a way to get ketchup stains on it.”

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