SPOTLIGHT: BATTLE OF THE BOURQUES

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

When Bruce Boudreau was fired as Washington Capitals coach on Monday, it didn’t affect the coaching staff of the Hershey Bears, the team’s AHL affiliate.

But the departure of the man promoted from Hershey to replace Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving 2007 did have an effect on several Bears players who had played for him during his two-plus seasons in Chocolatetown, and faced off against the Connecticut Whale on Tuesday night.

Former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing and Bears captain Boyd Kane, alternate captain Chris Bourque, older brother of Whale rookie left wing Ryan Bourque, and Graham Mink played for Boudreau on Hershey’s 2006 Calder Cup championship team. Boudreau, the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 2008 after being promoted by the Capitals, was replaced by Dale Hunter, coach and co-owner of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights the past 11 seasons.

Chris Bourque played his first 21/2 years as a pro under Boudreau, an AHL Hall of Famer.

“You feel bad for someone who was a good friend,” Bourque said before the Bears’ morning skate at the XL Center. “He was really nice to me, and I learned a lot from him. It’s sad that he got fired, but I think they definitely needed a change up there, and unfortunately he’s the one who had to go. He’s such a good coach that he’ll eventually end up back in the NHL.”

When Boudreau left Hershey for the Nation’s Capital, Bob Woods was elevated from assistant coach to head coach of the Bears, and Mark French was eventually hired as assistant coach. Woods, who led the Bears to the 2009 Calder Cup, was retained as a Capitals assistant coach, along with former Hartford Whalers center Dean Evason.

Boudreau’s contract runs through next season, but he was dismissed after the Caps lost eight of 11 games to fall to 12-9-1, capped by a 5-1 thumping on Saturday night from the Buffalo Sabres, who were without nine regulars. In his four-plus seasons with the Caps, Boudreau was 201-88-40 and recently became the fastest coach to record 200 regular-season victories. But the team’s recent struggles, the decline in superstar/captain Alex Ovechkin’s play, and repeated postseason failures led to Boudreau’s firing.

“He definitely let you know if you were playing good or bad,” Chris Bourque said. “Coming out college (Boston University), the first few years were definitely an adjustment having him as a coach. He wasn’t easy on me, and that was probably good for my development. If I made a mistake, I’d know it, and I’d be watching from the stands the next night.

“But he definitely treated me fair, and I learned a lot from him. He was definitely one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for, and I definitely wish him all the best and know he’ll end up somewhere in the NHL.”

Kane was unavailable for comment because he didn’t make the trip to his former hometown city. The Bears have too many “veterans” (260 or more games in the NHL, AHL, IHL or European elite leagues), and it was his turn to sit out. Kane usually plays on the Bears’ No. 1 line with Chris Bourque and All-Star center Keith Aucoin, who shared the AHL scoring lead (28 points, including league-high 24 assists) with Peoria’s T.J. Hensick, though Aucoin had played three fewer games before facing the Whale. Chris Bourque was third in the league with 26 points.

In an “imagine what they’re thinking?” moment, Ryan Bourque made eye contact and smiled as he watched his brother Chris for part of the Bears morning skate before playing against him for the first time Tuesday night. Ryan sat with fellow rookie and roommate Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and wing Francois Bouchard, traded from the Bears to the Whale for defenseman Tomas Kundratek on Nov. 8. Ryan cooked a Mexican dinner Monday night for his brother, Audy-Marchessault, Bouchard and Aucoin.

While that was going on in Hartford, the 51-year-old Hunter, who played 12 of his 21 pro seasons with the Capitals, was preparing for being behind a NHL bench for the first time Tuesday night, when the St. Louis Blues visited the Verizon Center in Washington. The feisty Hunter, one of three brothers to play in the NHL, appeared in 872 games for the Capitals from 1987 to 1999 and is one of four players to have his number retired by the team, but the only one to be presented an old Capital Centre penalty box as symbol of all the time he spent there. The only NHL player with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes was Caps captain from 1999 until he retired, which he said helped him learn how to get through to players.

“I’m a player’s coach, but also the players will know when I’m mad at them,” Hunter said. “I’m stern on them because that’s the way you have to be to win games.”

Hunter is the fastest head coach in OHL history to record 300 and 400 career wins, but he has no experience in the AHL, let alone the NHL. But people who know Hunter believe he will command respect from his new team.

“The reason for the change was we weren’t winning,” said Capitals general manager George McPhee, who called Hunter about the job Sunday. “This wasn’t a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that, you have to make a change.

“I didn’t like some of the things that I saw in training camp and some of the preseason games. I don’t want to put too much into that, but I was worried then. Then, we had a great start and then we started to slip up. You have an injury here or there that you think is part of it, but ultimately, we have too many players that aren’t playing well and that’s what it comes down to. They can play better. You have to find out how to make them play better and we think this is the solution.”

Kirk Muller, who replaced former Hartford Whalers coach Paul Maurice as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, made his NHL coaching debut Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers and first-year coach Kevin Dineen, the former Whalers standout right wing and captain who is the leading candidate for NHL Coach of the Year so far this season.

The Hurricanes claimed right wing Andreas Nodl off waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers. Nodl, who had one assist in 12 games, brought a salary cap hit of $845,000.

RANGERS FANS VOTING

Fans can vote at www.Blueshirtsunited.com for the starting lineup for the Rangers team in the Rangers-Flyers outdoor alumni game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Dec. 31, as part of the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. By casting a vote, fans will be entered to win a host of prizes, including Winter Classic jerseys and tickets to the alumni game and Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

Rangers players scheduled to compete include Hall of Famers Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, Glenn Anderson and Mike Gartner, former Hartford Wolf Pack players Dale Purinton, Dan Blackburn and Darius Kasparaitis, former Whalers Nick Fotiu, Darren Turcotte and Nick Kypreos, along with Adam Graves, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Mullen, Ron Duguay and commentator Dave Maloney, whose son Dave Jr. now works for the Whale. Hall of Famer Mark Messier isn’t on the roster because of scheduled surgery in December, but hopes to recover in time to play in the game.

Coaches will be Mike Keenan, Colin Campbell and former Whalers general manager Emile Francis. The Rangers’ off-ice ambassadors will be Rod Gilbert, Ed Giacomin and Harry Howell, all of whom have had their numbers retired. For ticket information on the alumni game, call 212-465-6080.

The Rangers are offering special one-day and three-day NHL Winter Classic Road Trip packages, presented by Amtrak. Packages include round-trip transportation to Philadelphia, game tickets, access to a pregame tailgate party with Rangers alumni, passes to watch practice and much more. For more information, visit www.newyorkrangers.com.

BRACELETS TO BENEFIT LOKMOTIV FAMILIES

Whale wives and girlfriends will be selling bracelets to benefit the families of those lost in the tragic plane crash on Sept. 7 involving the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. “Love for Lokomotiv” bracelets will be available for purchase at Whale home games on Dec. 9 against Hershey and Dec. 10 against Providence.

In a united effort to show support for the grieving families for those lost in the Lokomotiv tragedy, hockey wives and girlfriends around the world are raising money for their dear friends. Show your support on Dec. 9 and 10 with the comfortable red silicone bracelet, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the foundation set up in honor of the lost team.

You can learn more about “Love for Lokomotiv” and find out how you can help at loveforlokomotiv.com.

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