Bruce Boudreau visits Fort Wayne Komets practice

Former Komets player and coach Bruce Boudreau, left, is in his second season as coach of the Minnesota Wild. Former Komets player John Anderson, right, is his top assistant. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Wild)

Sitting midway up the second deck at Wednesday’s practice, he was easy to overlook. He wasn’t hiding, but he was sitting by himself in the middle of the rink, concentrating on the Fort Wayne Komets’ practice down on the ice in front of him.

“It is really weird right now. I feel so guilty that I’m not working,” Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “One thing about coaches, you can watch a practice from somebody else and learn from everybody, new drills, new techniques. The ECHL is much better than it was 20 years ago when I was in here. These guys can all skate, they are all big and they can all shoot the puck with these composite sticks.

“Athletes nowadays take care of their body, where in my day it wasn’t so much. They all look like they could play well enough that they could get games in anywhere. If you put everybody in the same jersey, initially, you wouldn’t know an NHL player from an ECHL player unless it’s the skating right off the bat.”

The Komets earned Boudreau’s approval after Wednesday’s 90-minute workout. Preparing for three games this weekend, the spirited Komets worked hard after having four days off for the ECHL All-Star Break. The Wild have five days off so it was a good time for Boudreau, 63, and his wife Crystal to come to Fort Wayne and meet their new grandson Cooper, the son of Komets assistant coach Ben Boudreau.

“We were really excited to see him,” Boudreau said. “It’s just a different feeling when it’s a grandson and you wonder when he gets a stick in his hands. It’s fun when you get in here and you recognize all the old roads, so it was cool.”

The Boudreaus arrived Monday and are leaving for Minnesota in the morning so he can go straight to the rink. Fort Wayne is part of their history of hometowns. Crystal grew up in LaGrange and met Bruce when he played for the Komets in 1990-91 and 1991-92. He also served as the Komets’ assistant coach during the 1993 International Hockey League title run and became head coach in 1993-94. Boudreau led Fort Wayne back to the 1994 IHL Finals and was named IHL Coach of the Year but was fired early the next season after a 15-21-3 start.

“You know what, you learn from every mistake you make,” Boudreau said. “I probably for years and years didn’t blame me. I blamed the lockout, I blamed that we had no players and everything else. You know where you make mistakes, probably because I’ve learned so much about coaching every year since then… We had the lockout and (General Manager David Franke) was sick all summer. We didn’t have a chance to get any players that weren’t already in here. We were really struggling at the beginning, and I probably could have dealt with it better, but I quite frankly wasn’t used to not winning, either.

“It’s crazy that sometimes you get fired and you never want to talk to or see that person again, but over the years me and Michael and David have stayed pretty good because we knew there were reasons for it. We probably both would do things a little differently now.

Boudreau credited the Frankes with allowing and paying him to scout around hockey the rest of that season. It kept him visible in front of others, and he still had a pretty good reputation and name recognition. When Jean Perron called to interview him and offer an assistant coach job with the expansion San Francisco Spiders, he jumped at it. That didn’t work out either, as Boudreau was reassigned to the front office early during the first season.

But his coaching career jump-started from there, winning an ECHL title with Mississippi in 1999 before jumping up to the American Hockey League where he won a cup in Hershey in 2006. Then he took over the NHL’s Washington Capitals early in the 2007-08 season, and since then he’s coached in the NHL with Anaheim before going to Minnesota in 2016 where he works with former Komet and best friend John Anderson.

All along the way, Boudreau has continued to keep in touch with the Komets. His relationship with the Frankes was ultimately revitalized in 2010 when he came back to Fort Wayne to watch his son Ben play in the Turner Cup Finals with Flint against the Komets. Boudreau and the Franke brothers went to lunch earlier this week, and he has reached out to them over the years to ask for advice.

“It was never to the point where we ended the relationship and we hated each other,” Boudreau said. “It was never a divorce. I never had trouble getting a job so there was never any animosity.”

Proof of that this fall he encouraged Ben to take the assistant coach job with the Komets. Now that there’s a grandson, the Boudreaus will likely visit more often.

“It’s a cool-looking kid, too,” he said.

That could be because he looks just like his grandfather.

As for the Wild, they are fifth in the NHL’s Central Division with 53 points. All seven teams have between 50 and 59 points.

“We had the third-best record in the league since the beginning of November, but we’re not gaining too much,” Boudreau said. “Every team in the Central Division is winning. We’re 2-0-2 in our last four games and I think we lost a point to every team in the division. It’s going to be a battle right to the end. I’ve told people I think it’s going to be harder to make the playoffs than it is to win the Stanley Cup. To make the playoffs, we have to beat out at this time probably 11 other teams. To win the Stanley Cup, we only have to beat four teams.

“Every day, since Day 10, it’s been a battle. You’re scoreboard watching. I remember when you didn’t really watch the scoreboard until February, and now we’re doing it in October.”